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Middle East: A Land of Stones

9 minute read
Bruce W. Nelan

Across the rugged mountains and valleys of northern Iraq, the rubble is coming to life. Almost 2,000 Kurdish villages that Saddam Hussein’s forces systematically dynamited and bulldozed are inhabited again. Tents and lean-tos dot the snowy slopes, shattered walls support makeshift plastic roofs, and open-air bazaars are conducting a brisk business in food, fuel and clothing. Many of the villages’ new residents are doing their best to rebuild amid desperate hardship and the harshest winter in 40 years.

Tenuous and temporary as their grip may be, the Kurds of Iraq have come tantalizingly close to something like their centuries-old dream: a state of their own. Sheltering behind a security guarantee from the U.S.-led coalition, cut off from the south by a military blockade, the long-suffering Kurds have taken control of a 15,000-sq.-mi. slice of the country.

Yet for the 3.8 million people in this de facto Kurdistan between Turkey and Iraq, their painful success contains more irony than victory. A year after they fled in panic from their traditional homes into the snowy mountain passes, they are still living in hunger and cold, their survival dependent on aid from abroad. They are safe from attack only because the victors of the gulf war have warned the Iraqi military to keep its distance. U.S. and British jets regularly roar low over the region to remind Iraqi soldiers that they are being watched. “When I don’t hear the sound of the planes,” says a Kurdish refugee, “I can’t sleep at night.”

Even that fragile safety could turn out to be fleeting. The last team of allied military observers plans to leave its base in Zakhu in June. Aid workers from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, who have kept the Kurds from starving, may be pulling out in April.

In the past, Saddam repeatedly turned his guns on the Kurds. In 1975 he began forcing them out of their border villages. In 1988, to punish them for providing aid and comfort to Iran during the eight-year war, he stepped up the campaign. All told, he had his army obliterate 4,200 Kurdish villages. At least 180,000 people disappeared, purportedly into camps in the south. Most never returned, and some Western experts believe they were killed. When Kurds — encouraged then abandoned by Washington — rebelled after the Iraqi defeat in Kuwait last year, Saddam battered them again, sending 1.2 million fleeing to the frontiers.

Forced to the rescue, a coalition of more than 20,000 allied troops carved out a security zone for the Kurds near the Turkish border. They also ordered Saddam to stop flying his planes in airspace north of the 36th parallel. The refugees came down from the mountains and tried to put their lives back together. But after most of the allied security forces left last summer, the Iraqis rushed into action to subdue the Kurds and their armed guerrilla units, the peshmerga.

To Saddam’s discomfort, the rebels not only stood their ground but launched a furious counteroffensive in October, expanding their control far south of the 36th parallel and seizing the Kurdish city of Sulaymaniyah (pop. 1.2 million). Iraqi troops retreated in disorder, leaving behind long lines of tanks.

Saddam then tried imposing a military and economic cordon sanitaire. His army has dug in tanks and artillery behind minefields and fortifications along the southern edge of Kurdistan, carefully including all of Iraq’s major oil fields. Soldiers have set up checkpoints on the roads, and while they allow local traffic in and out, they confiscate all but the smallest quantities of food and fuel. At the town of Kifri, 96 miles north of Baghdad, in outposts separated by a tense 500 yards., Iraqi troops confront bearded peshmerga guerrillas in balloon trousers and tightly wrapped turbans. “We have been suffering from two blockades,” says Jalal Talabani, leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, one of the two leading political groups. “First the U.N. embargo directed at all of Iraq, and second the blockade Saddam is directing just against Kurdistan.”

The far northwest and northeast serve as the Kurds’ lifelines. In spite of the international embargo, cross-border trade with Turkey is booming. Hundreds of trucks arrive daily, carrying everything from food and medical supplies to machine tools. On their return trips, the rigs ferry thousands of gallons of illicit Iraqi gasoline and oil to Turkey that are sold at 10 times the purchase price.

Panjwin and Qala Diza, villages on the Iranian frontier, are smuggling centers where a vibrant and imaginative black market has sprung up. Though the area is under heavy snow, fast-buck gangs transport tools, machinery, even construction equipment to sell in Iran, returning with food and spare parts for cars and trucks. Almost all the eggs in Kurdistan come from Iran, painstakingly brought in by foot.

Much of the material sold by the Kurds is stolen property. Some is simply hauled away from building sites and dams, and some is taken from Kurds by Kurds at gunpoint. Law and order are in short supply in the region, where militias have seized control of many of the hills and valleys. Widespread corruption and factional rivalry cast a shadow over the Kurds’ future.

Because there is no formal government, decisions are made by the Kurdistan Front, which consists of eight major groups. To create something closer to civil administration, Kurdistan will hold elections on April 3 for its national assembly, which Saddam originally set up just for show. The vote “is also to end the rule of the militias,” says Massoud Barzani, head of the Democratic Party of Kurdistan, the other leading political movement. “When the militia rules, the law does not.” But a U.S. analyst fears that instead of burying dissension, the vote may actually accentuate it.

For most Kurds, simple survival is the issue. Residents of the mountain town of Sayid Sadiq, where U.N. aid workers have set up a camp, are barely coping. With international help, they have rebuilt some walls and put up tents. In the biting cold, children play among the broken stones. On the main road, a thriving market offers dresses, cigarettes and eggs. Says Rejau Faraj, 25, who fled with her children from the village of Chamchamal: “We don’t know how long we will stay here or where we will go next.”

Most of the Kurdish political and tribal leaders assume that Saddam will attack them as soon as the allies and the U.N. depart. They are training their eager but poorly equipped peshmerga accordingly. But they disagree — as they do on so many issues — about whether there is any sense in trying to negotiate an autonomy agreement with the Baghdad dictator. Such accords were reached in 1966, 1970 and 1984, and Iraqi governments broke them all; Kurds ask why they should trust Saddam now.

Barzani has met with the Iraqi President, and though the talks broke off when the blockade was imposed, the Kurdish leader has not given up on a political settlement. He realizes most of the countries involved do not want to see a complete breakup of Iraq, with the creation of an independent Kurdistan in the north and a Shi’ite state in the south friendly to fundamentalist Iran.

Turkey is already fighting a counterinsurgency war in its eastern provinces against the Workers’ Party of Kurdistan, a Marxist, terrorist splinter group. Both the Turkish and Iranian governments would view an independent Kurdistan as a magnet for separatists in their countries and a potentially powerful destabilizing force.

The Bush Administration takes a similar view. Even though it hates Saddam, it does not want to depose him if that means the Kurds will break Iraq apart and threaten Turkey’s stability. Having abandoned the Kurds once, the Administration does not want to find itself permanently enmeshed in byzantine Kurdish politics or see more Kurdish blood spilled if another rebellion were to go poorly. “We draw the line at acquiring commitments that would keep us involved over the long term — or that we would end up having to break,” says a U.S. official.

The U.S. is willing to continue humanitarian aid, but leaders like Barzani are fed up with Kurdistan’s being treated as an assignment for relief agencies. “We need the world to see our problem as political,” he says, “and not as a refugee or humanitarian problem. All our problems result from politics.”

No negotiations are under way to settle the fate of Kurdistan peacefully. Saddam is playing a waiting game, watching the suffering while sticking the U.N. and the allies with the cost of supplying the Kurds. “It has become clear,” says U.S. Army Colonel Richard Naab, who heads the allied observer team in Zakhu, “that he is trying to negotiate with a gun at their heads. He thinks time is in his favor, and he is waiting for revenge.”

Saddam’s route to revenge is not guaranteed, even if the allies and the U.N. withdraw on schedule. If the Iraqi army storms north, there will be a repeat of what local officials call “the CNN winter” — the spectacle on worldwide television of more than a million Kurds in flight through the mountains. A “CNN summer” would put pressure on the West for another intervention, and possibly a fatal blow against the Iraqi dictator.

Saddam’s fear, says Talabani, is that an attack on the Kurds “will set a spark to the Shi’ites and push them toward a new uprising.” A second round of rebellion on two fronts could finally topple Iraq’s President from power. These considerations should make even as imprudent a leader as Saddam ponder carefully before he orders a strike into Kurdistan. Meanwhile the Kurds try desperately to survive in their land of stones.

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