U.S. Quietly Abandons the Kurds of Northern Iraq

Thomas Goltz covers the region bounded by the Adriatic and Caspian seas. His documentary film on Chechnya was a finalist for the Rory Peck Award (London)

The recent evacuation of yet another group of several thousand U.S.-associated Kurds from northern Iraq would seem to signify the tawdry end of yet another Washington-sponsored foreign-policy initiative, and an incremental victory for the "loser" of the 1991 Persian Gulf War, Saddam Hussein.

The new refugees, who were flown from southern Turkey to Guam for processing, will soon join about 2,000 other Kurds and sundry Iraqi dissidents evacuated to the United States this fall, after Washington decided to terminate its presence on the ground due to perceived security threats. Another 3,000 set to be evacuated will bring the total of new refugees from the area to around 7,000.

"We did not want another Saigon on our hands," said a senior U.S. diplomat associated with the initial evacuation, referring to the chaotic U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam in 1975. "This time, we intend to take care of our own."

Such sentiments seem laudable in light of Hussein's reputation for vengeance and brutality. The much-coddled Kurds make no secret of their pro-American sentiments, having gone so far as to allow the United States and its allies to use Iraqi Kurdistan as a base for other Iraqi dissident organizations to try and topple the dictator in Baghdad. As such, they--and especially those drawing salaries from U.S. security institutions and even NGOs (non-governmental organizations)--would be natural targets for Iraqi retribution.

But virtually everyone else associated with Operation Provide Comfort, the wildly expensive post-Gulf War effort designed to shelter the Kurds of northern Iraq from Hussein's wrath, say the sudden U.S. withdrawal from the region is likely to precipitate chaos in Kurdistan.

(Last week, France said it would halt its reconnaissance operation in northern Iraq.)

Motivated, in part, by a feeling of guilt for having fostered a failed uprising against Hussein, and to do something for the world's largest ethnic group without a country of their own, the United States and its Gulf War allies mounted a huge, multimillion-dollar effort to save the Kurds and give them the faith to believe in a future free of force.

The first stage was to throw Hussein out of northern Iraq and create the "safe haven" zone. The second was to repatriate the Kurds, using the presence of dozens of non-governmental organizations as "security" bait, and to rebuild hundreds of villages destroyed by the Iraqi government since 1975. The third and crowning effort was to bring the various bickering political factions in Kurdistan together to create a government of national unity, replete with a democratically elected parliament.

But the much-coddled Kurds threw away all the gains and have now set a terrible example for all future international altruistic engagement in local conflicts. A brief if bloody fratricidal war this summer left thousands dead and invited both Iraq and Iran to join in the conflict. The two primary Kurdish leaders, Jalal Talabani of the PUK and Masoud Barzani of the KDP, accuse each other of a range of misdeeds and plots. But the root cause of the internal conflict in Kurdistan seems to be simple greed: the control of revenues associated with the transit trade to and from Turkey through Zakho, and especially the trade in oil and diesel fuel.

According to some estimates, "levies" on the U.N.-sanction-busting trade by Barzani's KDP amount to $300,000 a day. Barzani's KDP, of course, has refused, so far, to share the collected duty with its political rival.

The question of "revenue sharing" was the main point at a recent meeting in the Turkish capital between the KDP and PUK under the auspices of Washington Kurdish point man and Deputy Secretary of State Robert H. Pelletreau and his counterparts in the United Kingdom and Turkey. Sources close to the negotiations say that the question of who controls the money will be the rock upon which the negotiations eventually will break down.

To put a bright U.S. face on things, however, Pelletreau took advantage of the occasion to announce a new U.S. aid package for northern Iraq (he was careful not to say "Kurdistan")--$11 million in immediate relief for food and medicine for children, before winter comes.

The package, Pelletreau explained, was to be distributed by such international organizations as UNICEF and the World Food Program in order to address "immediate need."

When asked if the United States had any immediate or even short-term plans to return to assist in distribution and implementation, Pelletreau ducked.

"We have chosen UNICEF and World Food because they are reliable organizations," he said.

The question now being asked, however, is whether even those organizations will remain on the ground to implement the U.S. aid now that the Americans are gone.

"The American withdrawal of its personnel was bad enough," one Western diplomat said. "But Washington's evacuation of "its" Kurds from northern Iraq has created an effective brain drain, where all the best and the brightest are simply gone, and only riff-raff remains."

Another observer suggested the opposite, that it was precisely the riff-raff of northern Iraq who has washed up on the shores of the United States as refugees.

"All Kurds, without exception, want asylum in the United States," he said. "Certain individuals were able to manipulate situation reports to create an environment where getting asylum was a certainty. It is not going too far to say that the Americans were duped. In this case, it also created a climate of fear in a vacuum--and it will be very difficult for them to come back."

What the Americans left behind when they pulled out the Military Coordinating Center in the frontier town of Zakho is instructive--and sad. The detritus of international altruism gone awry included 32 personal weapons, computers, a radio still turned on, three HumVee all-terrain vehicles, a larger number of ordinary cars, maps, diverse sensitive documents and a small library of spy thriller novels.

In addition to the expected Tom Clancy techno-thriller, the collection included at least three highly instructive novels about American and Western involvement in the Middle East and post-Soviet world: "Agents of Innocence" and "The Bank of Fear," by Washington Post writer David Ignatius (the former concerns CIA dealings with the Palestine Liberation Organization in Beirut in the 1970s; the later with CIA dealings with corrupt Arab potentates in the 1990s) and "Our Game," by John le Carre, about how the West, after having encouraged the ethnic minorities in the post-Soviet Union to just be themselves, turned a cynically blind eye to the same movements once they embraced the cause of freedom.

"These books may have been written about fictitious Palestinians, Iraqis and Chechens, but they are really all about us today," said Abdulaziz Rajib Abdulaziz, a Zakho schoolteacher who has found himself the curator of the post-American collection in Zakho. "We should have read them before we decided to take the West at its word. We still might have decided to be pawns in the Great Game, but at least we would have been pawns aware of their fate."*

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