Rebuffing a desperate plea from embattled Kurdish rebels, the White House said Friday that the United States will not intervene in Iraq’s civil war because it has no obligation to assist the forces fighting to oust Saddam Hussein.
“Our mandate was to get Iraq out of Kuwait,” Deputy White House Press Secretary Roman Popadiuk said. “We fulfilled that mandate. The issue of internal unrest in Iraq is an issue that has to be settled between the government and the people of Iraq.”
But as the remnants of the Iraqi army that appeared vanquished a month ago prepared to crush separate ethnic and sectarian insurgencies in the north and south of the country, President Bush is facing a moral and political dilemma that threatens to tarnish his flawless handling of earlier phases of the Persian Gulf crisis.
In a written statement issued from their headquarters in northern Iraq, Kurdish rebel leaders Massoud Barzani and Jalal Talabani appealed to Bush to use American military force to prevent the Iraqi army from employing its tanks, artillery and aircraft to put down the rebellion.
“You personally called upon the Iraqi people to rise up against Saddam Hussein’s brutal dictatorship,” the Kurds said. “They have now risen and are confronting the might of Saddam’s tyranny.”
Although the comparison is inexact, Administration critics have begun to equate the Iraqi insurgency with the 1956 Hungarian uprising, when the U.S. government encouraged the rebels but did nothing to prevent Soviet forces from destroying them.
Asked if Bush was concerned about the comparison, Popadiuk said: “Absolutely not. I think the parallels are unfair.”
He said Bush’s comments about the Iraqi people overthrowing Hussein were intended only to emphasize to all segments of Iraqi society that the United States will never maintain normal relations with Baghdad as long as Hussein is in power.
Other officials have said that the President’s remarks were directed to Hussein’s own allies in the country’s military and political power structure. In effect, Bush was inviting a coup, not a revolution.
In addition to the Kurdish rebellion in northern Iraq, Shiite Muslim insurgents are battling loyalist forces in the southern part of the country. Although the battlefield situation is far from clear, reports from the area indicate that the Iraqi army has gained the upper hand in both sections.
Kurdish rebels said Friday that they had lost, then recaptured, Kirkuk--the northern oil city that was the biggest prize of their revolt, Reuters news agency reported. The insurgents said the fighting with government troops was brutal.
In the south, Shiite guerrillas fled to U.S. lines after Hussein’s troops recaptured Samawa, thought to be the last major southern town held by rebels. The rebels said loyalist forces had advanced behind a shield of captured women and had shot town residents on sight.
A senior Pentagon official rejected suggestions that Washington has a moral responsibility to the rebels. He said the allied forces gave the insurgents “a fighting chance because we knocked him (Hussein) down to size.” But he said the U.S.-led coalition cannot be expected to do more than that.
“What’s being done to these people is absolutely horrible and revolting and almost beyond belief,” the official said. “These statements on (Iraqi) tanks about ‘No More Shiites After Today’ are pretty close to genocidal. But I don’t believe these people are rebelling because we egged them on. I don’t believe we have a debt to them.”
Moreover, the official added: “Not to diminish in any way the repugnance of what’s going on, but some of these people are very anti-democratic themselves and very anti-American. They are not freedom fighters; they are not friends of America. There may be some who are, but we don’t know enough about them.”
The Administration may be caught in the contradictions of its own policy, which calls for Hussein’s overthrow but opposes the dismemberment of Iraq.
The Kurds want independence or autonomy for northern Iraq, where they are in the majority. The Shiites, who constitute the largest religious-ethnic group in the country, want to take power in Baghdad but might settle for an independent enclave in the south, where their population is concentrated.
Kurdish nationalists also share an ultimate objective of creating an independent Kurdistan that would include parts of Turkey, Iran, Syria and the Soviet Union in addition to Iraq. Washington has long been opposed to such an outcome.
U.S. officials also are concerned that the Shiites are influenced--although apparently not totally controlled--by their co-religionists in Iran. A Shiite-dominated Iraq might give Iran the sort of regional hegemony that the United States opposed during the eight-year Iran-Iraq War.
Nevertheless, if Hussein succeeds in crushing the rebellion, Bush could face embarrassing political recriminations. The Kurds already enjoy the support of key members of Congress such as Sen. Claiborne Pell (D-R.I.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. If the rebels are defeated, their cause might become an attractive target of opportunity for Bush’s political opponents who have been frustrated by the President’s success in the Gulf War.
Barzani, the Kurdish leader, is the son of Mustafa Barzani, who led an insurgency that collapsed in 1975 after the United States and the late Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi of Iran abruptly withdrew support. The House Intelligence Committee reported a decade ago that Mustafa Barzani, who died in 1978, was abandoned by then-Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger and other officials of the Richard M. Nixon Administration. That parallel could prove embarrassing to the Bush Administration.
Shiites, long identified with Iranian and Lebanese holders of American hostages, enjoy little sympathy in the United States. But in this instance, they gain some public support by opposing Hussein.
However, Administration officials say the President is determined to bring U.S. forces home as soon as possible and to stay free of direct entanglement with Iraq’s internal affairs--objectives that preclude providing much help to anti-Hussein Iraqis.
Pentagon spokesman Bob Hall said that once Iraq agrees to a permanent cease-fire, allied troops will end their occupation of sections of southern Iraq. The U.S. withdrawal will eliminate a sanctuary where as many as 25,000 Shiites have sought refuge from the fighting.
Times staff writers Melissa Healy and David Lauter contributed to this story.