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Stopping the Horror

The U.S. government has confirmed what many had feared--Iraq is using poison gas to crush the Kurdish rebellion in its northern territories. The State Department in strong, clear language condemned Iraq’s use of chemical weapons as “abhorrent and unjustifiable.” Since the recent Iraqi offensive began, 100,000 Kurdish refugees have fled Iraq to Turkey, taking with them vivid stories of poison-gas attacks.

In Iraq, 2.5 million Kurds--about 20% of Iraq’s population--have been struggling for 40 years for autonomy and independence. The Iraqis view the fierce Kurds as traitors for continuing their rebellion during the Iran-Iraq War and for relying on the Iranians for aid. On Aug. 20, the day on which the U.N. cease-fire with Iran went into effect, the Iraqis launched their effort to punish the Kurdish people.

The Kurds are one of the largest ethnic minorities in the Middle East, with more than 10 million people scattered over northern Iraq, northwestern Iran and southeastern Turkey. Although divided by clans, they have their own language, a distinct cultural identity and a yearning for their own nation--Kurdistan.

Protracted struggles between ethnic groups wanting greater autonomy and central governments trying to preserve national unity are common in today’s world. The Basque people of Spain and France are a good example. But being an ethnic group does not make a nation. In the era of the large nation-state, it is impossible for every distinct ethnic group or region to achieve its own independence. The Civil War, America’s bloodiest, was fought precisely over the issue of secession.

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Whether or not the struggle by the Kurdish people for independence and autonomy is legitimate is difficult to judge. But the use of chemical weapons against Kurdish rebels and civilians is inexcusable, clearly an atrocity. The Kurds are fearful that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein is embarking on a genocide campaign against them. Earlier this year Iraq used both mustard gas and nerve gas against the Kurdish town of Halabja. At least 4,000 civilians--mostly woman, children and old men--were found in postures indicating terrible, agonizing deaths. This outrageous act lends credibility to the Kurds’ fears.

After the ghastly experience of World War I, when poison gas killed about 90,000 men and disabled 1.2 million others, there was a 1925 international agreement to ban chemical weapons. This ban appears to have been observed until the time of the Iran-Iraq War, when both sides began to use poison gas. The dreadful weapon became known as the poor man’s nuclear bomb.

Angry members of the U.S. Senate voted Friday to punish Iraq with tough sanctions that would remain in effect until that nation stops using poison gas and ends its “campaign of genocide” against the Kurdish people. The legislation would cut off U.S. credits to Iraq, require the United States to vote against loans to Iraq by international financial institutions, and ban the importing of Iraqi oil. More important than the action of a single nation, however, will be the international response as a new global effort is organized to ban once and for all the use of these evil weapons.


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