A People Betrayed : Twice before, Washington let Kurds die to promote foreign-policy designs. Now it’s the Bush Administration doing the deed.

<i> David Wise writes frequently about intelligence and national security. His most recent book is "The Spy Who Got Away" (Random House)</i>

President George Bush, after calling for the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, refused to commit U.S. military power to protect the Kurds, who tried to follow his advice. When the desperate plight of the fleeing Kurds--the news stories of possibly thousands dying, of children crying in the snow because their bare feet had frozen--created a political backlash at home, Bush belatedly airlifted food, blankets, bandages and the secretary of state to the Iraqi-Turkish border. He also warned Hussein to end military operations against the Kurds in Iraq.

One thing seems clear: The President and his advisers did not adequately consider the consequences of calling for Hussein’s overthrow. “They didn’t even see the wave coming,” said one former U.S. diplomat. For the Kurds trekking toward hostile borders, their third betrayal by yet another Administration in Washington should not really come as a surprise. In the mountains of Kurdistan, there is a saying: “Kurds have no friends.” Once again, the words have proved tragically true.

Bush sought to justify his policy of nonintervention by arguing that the killing of Kurds in northern Iraq and of Shiite Muslims in the south by Hussein’s army was an internal Iraqi problem. Yet the United States has not hesitated to intervene in the internal affairs of Iraq in the past. Its chosen instrument has been the Central Intelligence Agency.


In July, 1958, Brig. Gen. Abdul Karim Kassem staged a coup in Iraq and murdered the royal family and Premier Nuri Said, who tried to escape dressed as a woman. Under Kassem, Iraqi communists grew powerful, and Washington worried that the new government was serving Soviet interests. The Eisenhower Administration strongly opposed the Kassem regime.

Enter the gruesomely named Health Alteration Committee, a CIA unit that had as its purpose doing exactly what its name suggested. The committee decided to “incapacitate” a target described in the Church Committee’s assassination report as “an Iraqi colonel.” Dr. Sidney Gottlieb of the CIA’s Technical Services Division mailed a monogrammed, poisoned handkerchief to the target, identified in subsequent published reports as Kassem. The CIA told the senators on the Church Committee that the handkerchief had not worked, but that the target “had suffered a terminal illness before a firing squad in Baghdad.” That description would fit Kassem, who was killed in that manner during a 1963 coup led by officers of the Baath Party, the political instrument of Hussein’s rise to power.

Almost a decade later, during the Nixon Administration, the United States launched a CIA covert operation to support the Kurds against Hussein, who had by then become Iraq’s strongman after a second Baath Party coup in 1968. In May, 1972, Richard M. Nixon and National Security Adviser Henry A. Kissinger met in Tehran with the shah of Iran.

As a favor to the shah, a staunch ally of the United States, Nixon and Kissinger secretly directed the CIA to provide arms and money to the Kurds, who were seeking autonomy in Iraq. Over a period of three years, the CIA funneled $16 million to the Kurds. After the operation began, Britain and Israel joined in. Israel reasoned that if Iraqi troops were tied up fighting the Kurds, they would not attack Israel. Iran’s role in the covert operation consisted mostly of directing artillery fire over the heads of the Kurds into Iraqi troop positions.

A proud, handsome ethnic minority of mostly Sunni Muslims, the Kurds live in the mountains and plateaus of Kurdistan, an area that spills over from northern Iraq into eastern Turkey, northwestern Iran, and parts of Syria and the Soviet Union. There are an estimated 20 million Kurds living in the five countries.

The CIA operation became known only because the story was told in the final report of the Pike Committee, a House panel that investigated the intelligence agencies in 1976. The House voted to suppress the report, but it leaked to then-CBS correspondent Daniel Schorr, who made it public. So secret was the CIA support for the Kurds that Nixon, according to the Pike Committee report, never formally notified the Forty Committee, a presidential panel supposed to approve such covert operations.


It was clear, however, that the Nixon Administration, despite its support for the Kurds, did not actually want them to win their battle against Iraq. “Documents in the committee’s possession,” the Pike report said, “clearly show that the President, Dr. Kissinger and the (shah) hoped that our clients would not prevail. They preferred instead that the insurgents simply continue a level of hostilities sufficient to sap the resources of (Iraq).”

The Kurds, of course, were not told this. “Even in the context of covert action, ours was a cynical enterprise.”

A CIA memo of March 22, 1974, makes no bones about the U.S. objective: “We would think that (Iran) would not look with favor on the establishment of a formalized autonomous government. (Iran), like ourselves, has seen benefit in a stalemate situation . . . in which (Iraq) is intrinsically weakened by (the Kurds). . . . Neither (Iran) nor ourselves wish to see the matter resolved one way or the other.” The memo calls the Kurds “a uniquely useful tool for weakening (Iraq’s) potential for international adventurism.”

In March, 1975, the shah and Hussein, meeting in Algiers, suddenly reached an agreement to end their dispute over the Shatt al-Arab waterway, Iraq’s only inland route to the Persian Gulf. At that point, Kissinger pulled the rug out from under the Kurds and Mustafa Barzani, then the leader of the Kurds. As the Pike report put it, “The insurgents were abruptly cut off by (Iran) three years, thousands of deaths and 16 million U.S. dollars later.” One observer remembered the chaotic scene at the airport when the shah returned to Iran. “He began shouting orders to his aides. They had no clue that the shah had ended the operation. He kept it all to himself.”

The Kurds could not believe they had been betrayed by their trusted ally, the United States. Five days later, Barzani sent a heart-rending message to Kissinger: “Our movement and our people are being destroyed in an unbelievable way with silence from everyone. We feel, your Excellency, that the United States has a moral and political responsibility toward our people who have committed themselves to your country’s policy.”

The same message might easily have been written last week by Barzani’s son, Massoud, who took over the leadership of the Kurds after his father’s death in 1979. The Bush Administration stood by as Hussein’s helicopter gunships crushed the Kurds and the Shiites, at least in part because of Washington’s fear that a fragmented Iraq would lead to further instability in the Middle East. Having defeated Hussein, a certified butcher and torturer whom Bush compared to Hitler, the President now finds himself in the ironic and highly uncomfortable position of acting, in a real sense, as Hussein’s ally.

The Kurds were betrayed a second time by Washington in 1988, after 5,000 Kurds were gassed at Halabja by Hussein’s army. The Senate considered legislation to impose sanctions on Iraq for using chemical warfare against its own people, but the Reagan Administration--supporting Iraq in its eight-year war with Iran--opposed the bill, and like the Kurds, it died.

For the Kurds, the Bush Administration’s betrayal is the third time around, exacerbated by radio broadcasts from a mysterious Voice of Free Iraq, based in Saudi Arabia, and very probably supported by the CIA, that urged Hussein’s overthrow. It is not the first time, however, that the United States has called on a people to rise up and overthrow a government only to abandon them when their fight against their oppressor began. That happened in Hungary in 1956.

Bush’s dilemma in Iraq is easier to perceive than to resolve. To have aggressively acted to protect the Kurds would have risked losing the enormous political support Bush enjoys from a public unlikely to favor renewed war in the Persian Gulf. But doing nothing to protect the Kurds from Hussein’s forces has also made Bush vulnerable to political attack at home and to world condemnation.

Having based his Gulf policy and armed intervention against Iraq on high moral principles--”Our cause is just; our cause is moral; our cause is right” is how the President put it in his State of the Union address--it is paradoxical that Bush has sought to duck the moral issues embodied in the desperate exodus of some 2 million Kurds. He has scrambled to repair the damage. Whatever the outcome, however, it is probably too little and too late to do the Kurds much good.