The Kurdish Question
By WILLIAM SAFIRE     OP-ED COLUMNIST      January 14, 2004

On Monday, Kofi Annan will have a chance to play "a vital role" in Iraq that the U.S. has promised. Iraqi, U.S. and British representatives will troop into his New York office with a request: inform the Shiite leader, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, that the world body supports a reasonable timetable for Iraqi elections, not a premature election that would amount to a coup by Iraq's Shiite majority.

As the U.N thus demonstrates its nation-building usefulness, the U.S. will face its own delicate task: to persuade the Kurds in the north not to demand so much autonomy that it may endanger the nation's unity.

Here is what we owe the Iraqi Kurds, targets of genocide, as demonstrated in Saddam's poison-gas massacre of 5,000 innocents in Halabja:

(1) We abandoned Kurds to the shah in the 70's, after Mullah Mustafa Barzani placed his trust in America. We double-crossed them again after the gulf war, when their forces rose at our instigation and were decimated by Saddam's gunships. Despite this double duplicity, Kurds fought on our side with little equipment and great valor against Saddam for over a decade.

(2) After we protected this non-Arab people in a no-flight zone, Kurds overcame tribal differences to establish a working free-enterprise democracy in Iraq's north, now a model of freedom for the rest of the country.

(3) Despite casualties elsewhere in the post-victory war, not a single U.S. soldier has been killed (knock wood) in the area called Iraqi Kurdistan and patrolled by the pesh merga, its battle-hardened Kurdish militia. (But in a blunder, Kurdish leaders suspicious of Turkey blocked the contribution of 10,000 Turkish troops to help us put down the Baathist insurgency.)

The Kurds owe their American ally plenty, too: U.S. and British air forces, from bases in cooperative Turkey, secured the Iraqi Kurds from Saddam's predations for a decade. And last year we freed all Iraqis from that dictator forever.

Now Americans and Kurds need each other's understanding. The U.S. is committed to helping to build a unified Iraq, with no path to secession, and with representation based on geography, not ethnicity. The Kurds, a 20 percent minority in Iraq, are committed only to autonomy within a federal Iraq: they refrain from declaring independence, but require constitutional and security guarantees that they will not be tyrannized again.

"We cannot afford another Halabja," says Barham Salih, the articulate Kurd who would make Iraq's most effective U.N. representative. "Surely Americans grasp the value of states' rights, and remember how all states had to ratify your Constitution."

Commitments to unity and autonomy may not be in conflict, but they are not in accord. Though Arab Iraqis are happy to let the Kurds continue to run their local affairs in what used to be the no-flight zone, many find trouble arising in other Kurdish lands seized by Saddam, who drove Kurds from their homes and moved in his supporters to "Arabize" the area.

The key is the city of Kirkuk, which Iraqi Kurds consider their capital. But Arab colonists and indigenous Turkmen dispute that hotly, as does Turkey, worried about a rich Kurdistan attracting Turkish Kurds. Kirkuk sits atop an ocean of oil holding 40 percent of Iraq's huge reserves.

Determined to reverse Saddam's ethnic cleansing, Salih insists that "Kirkuk is not about oil." (I think of Senator Dale Bumpers's line during impeachment: "When you hear somebody say, `This is not about sex' — it's about sex.")

Our Paul Bremer told Kurdish leaders brusquely last week to forget the past U.S. autonomy policy and get with the unity program; they suggested he stick that in his ear. He has since modified his demeanor, and Washington is reviewing our policy reversal. Mollified Kurds then met constructively with Iraqi Arabs, and Salih meets tomorrow with "our friends to the north [Turkey]."

The solution should include relocation funds for Arabs displaced by returning Kurds; a referendum to decide status within a Kurdish or other Iraqi "governorate"; legal protections in Kirkuk for Turkmen, Christians and other minorities; and the pesh merga's place in Iraq's national military command.

"The oil is part of the national treasure," says Salih, in autonomy's concession to unity. "We just want to make sure that Iraq's oil wealth is never again used against Kurds."  

Copyright 2004 The New York Times