post-gazette.com Sunday, June 23, 2002

Kurds afraid to get too close

They may oppose Iraqi ruler in Baghdad, but they don't want to be a U.S. proxy

By Joshua Kucera, Special to the Post-Gazette

ERBIL, Iraq -- Internet cafes, satellite television, opposition political parties, even ersatz McDonald's restaurants. This is Iraq, but it's not Saddam Hussein's.

People here call it Kurdistan, an autonomous semi-state that broke free from Baghdad's control 10 years ago and since then has provided its mostly Kurdish population with a relatively normal life free of the hardships and restrictions most Iraqis face.

Mohammed Osman's family now live in the Benaslawa refugee camp after Iraq evicted them and other non-Arabs from the strategic city of Kirkuk. (Joshua Kucera)

Now, with a seemingly inevitable U.S. attack on Iraq looming, Kurdistan is being watched closely as a possible ally and staging ground. But despite pro-Western leanings and a deep hatred for Saddam Hussein -- in the 1980s his forces destroyed 4,500 Kurdish villages and attacked several with chemical weapons -- people here say they are not going to be merely foot soldiers for the United States.

"We are not going to be the initiator of any military action," said Sami Abdul-Rahman, a deputy prime minister of the Kurdistan Regional Government. "But if a military conflict takes place, we'll behave in the best interests of the Kurdish people and Iraqi people."

Specifically, Kurds want to make sure that Saddam's successors preserve Kurdistan's autonomy. "The status quo is the best thing our people have had in their recent history and it would be good if it continued," Abdul-Rahman said. "We hope that such a successful experiment will not be strangled for no reason."

After the 1991 Gulf War, an uprising by Kurds in northern Iraq was brutally repressed by Saddam, leading the United States and Britain to impose a "no-fly zone" protecting three Kurdish provinces. (Two other provinces, Mosul and Kirkuk, are still under Baghdad's control but are considered by the Kurds to be part of Kurdistan.)

In that vacuum, Kurds established a parliament and government structures. Infighting among rival Kurdish factions -- the Kurdistan Democratic Party and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan -- left about 1,000 dead during the 1990s. But the two agreed to share power in 1998, with the KDP controlling two provinces and the PUK the other.

Kurdistan has its own police, army and tax administration. It has no postal system but in major cities Internet access is easy and cheap and several mobile phone operators compete. The currency is the old Iraqi dinar -- the one without Saddam's face.

Kurdistan is subject to the same international embargo as the rest of Iraq, and its industry has been crippled as a result. The state-owned bottled-water factory was closed for two years because of a lack of proper filters, which were eventually procured by smugglers, said the PUK's Director of Incomes Osman Shwani. The cigarette company can only produce low-quality cigarettes because only one kind of tobacco grows in the region. A proper blend requires varieties unavailable here.

But Kurdistan gets more than its share from the U.N. oil-for-food program. Iraq's best smuggling routes to Turkey pass through here, and Kurdistan has Iraq's best agricultural land. So salaries are much better than in the rest of Iraq -- $50 a month for an ordinary worker, compared to about $3 in Baghdad.

"In 1991, when we started our administration, [Kurdistan] was completely destroyed," Shwani said. "We had two sanctions -- from the U.N. and Iraq. And all of the neighboring countries wanted our democratic experiment to fail. The only thing supporting us was the no-fly zone. But since the oil-for-food program was implemented, our people have been able to improve their situation."

Wasfi Barzanjy, who owns a computer shop in the capital Erbil, is expanding because business is getting better. "In a year and a half, everyone will be able to buy a PC," he predicts. The talk of war worries him, though. "People are afraid of the news about the U.S. and Iraq; people are afraid of what will happen in the future," he said. "If Saddam Hussein is gone, we don't know if anyone better will come."

Comparisons have been drawn between the Kurds and the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan -- with the idea that they could provide the ground forces needed to oust Saddam much as the Northern Alliance did in overthrowing the Taliban -- but both Kurds and U.S. officials say there are only superficial similarities.

Kurdish troops, called peshmerga, are ill-equipped and Iraqi forces are much stronger than those of the Taliban. Kurdish units also are not under a single command; they are loyal to the rival factions. "Until [the KDP and PUK] reconcile their differences they can't be an effective partner in any action," said Salahaddin Bahauddin, general secretary of the moderate Party of Islamic Unity.

Kurdistan may be more useful as a staging ground. Locals report that U.S. and British troops have already started installing communications equipment and radar in a U.N. facility in Sulaimaniya province.

U.S. military officials in Turkey, where the planes patrolling the no-fly zone are based, say Iraqi sniping against the patrols has increased, but in general the Iraqis seem more interested in simply defending themselves if there's war, Kurdish officials say.

At the village of Kalak, Iraqi troops are visible just across the river. Peshmerga posted there say the Iraqis have been sending more troops and tanks in recent weeks. The Iraqis and their heavy artillery could easily overwhelm the peshmerga and their small arms, but the border is quiet -- thanks to the no-fly zone, government officials say.

The United States is not entirely trusted by Iraqi Kurds because it encouraged and then abandoned their uprising against Saddam in 1991. It also failed to back another revolt in 1996. "Broken promises cannot be forgotten," Deputy Prime Minister Abdul-Rahman said. "Still, this situation we're in is largely thanks to the United States."

Ordinary people echo the sentiment.

"If nothing like in '91 or '96 happens then we'll help [a U.S. attack]," said Jamal, a retired bazaar salesman in Erbil. "But if it's like then, we don't want to have the U.S. anywhere near here."

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