I actually didn't think Bush and company we're serious about going after Iraq, but per today's NYTimes it seems even Powell and the Brits are onboard for a 'two-track' military/diplomatic approach.
A major problem is that UN aid monies have seen the Iraqi Kurds living in relative luxury:
Iraqi Kurds, Flush With Aid,
Lose Desire to Take On Hussein
By HUGH POPE
Staff Reporter of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
ARBIL, Iraq -- A 15-story mosque is nearing completion, the most lavish ever built here. A sprawling recreational park opens next month where the army base stood. Books and magazines are more plentiful than ever. Even refugees have satellite TV.
This is northern Iraq, home to the country's 3.6 million ethnic Kurds. Just 10 years ago it was one of the grimmest war zones on the planet. But geopolitics, international largess and the Kurds' resourcefulness have worked a remarkable transformation.
"It's a golden age. It has never been better for the Kurds in 4,000 years," says Nasreen Mustafa Sideek, age 33, the region's minister of reconstruction. Ms. Sideek's mobile phone connects her to an international network, and her desktop computer plugs into a freer Internet than is available in some Mideast states. But as the Kurds' fortunes improve, they increasingly realize how much they have to lose -- raising the diplomatic price the U.S. will have to pay to persuade them to join in any attempt to topple Saddam Hussein.
After the Gulf War, Saddam Hussein capped a decades-long campaign of oppression against his country's Kurds with an operation that sent many fleeing from their homes. Spurred by televised footage of 1.5 million Kurds huddled in wintry mountaintop camps, the U.S. and its allies in 1991 began protecting the Kurds with air power. In 1995, the U.S. was instrumental in ensuring that the Kurds receive a chunk of the money earned by Iraq under a United Nations-administered program that allows the Iraqi government to sell oil and buy food with the profits.
The program has funneled about $4.4 billion into northern Iraq since 1996 -- or about 60% of the region's $1.5 billion annual economy -- with close to $2 billion more still in the pipeline. U.N.-controlled Iraqi oil money is paying for the repair of water and sewage pipes, the construction of electricity grids and the management of telephone networks. It pays for small power stations, trucks, housing, schools, hospital repairs, medical training and vaccinations.
U.N.-organized imports, from wheat to milk powder, provide many Kurdish families with as much as three-quarters of the food they need, thus freeing up funds for other purchases and creating for many their first disposable income in decades. While thousands of Iraqi Kurds remain poor, the majority have seen their lot improve -- in sharp contrast to the austerity of life elsewhere in Iraq.
The new strength in Iraqi Kurdistan has reinforced a view among some U.S. officials that the Kurds could be a significant ally in any effort to oust Saddam Hussein, playing a role not unlike that of the Northern Alliance in unseating the Taliban with U.S. support. That isn't a role many Kurds are comfortable with.
"We will not be party to any project that will endanger what we have achieved," says Massoud Barzani, who rules the stronger of the two Kurdish "statelets" in northern Iraq.
Kurds remember that in 1991, the U.S. briefly turned its back on them after promising protection, as it had done in 1975 after giving them covert support in another rebellion. Although the U.S. returned in 1991 to lead the alliance that shielded the Kurds, the notoriously fractious Kurdish leadership is united on one thing: They won't consider an attack on Mr. Hussein without public pronouncements that the U.S. and its allies are bent on deposing the Iraqi leader. They also want a promise that the U.S. will help formalize their current autonomy. The U.S. refuses to grant this concession, partly because its key regional ally, Turkey, is dead-set against it.
A tour of northern Iraq by U.S. officials in December included a check on Kurdish military bases. The region can field 50,000 fighters, though little in the way of advanced weaponry. "It was an opportunity to see what their capabilities are," says State Department spokesman Greg Sullivan. He emphasized that no decisions have been made about any potential military operation against Iraq.
It's also unclear what would happen if Iraqi Kurdish revenues or U.N. spending was trimmed by any change in the sanctions. The region also remains hobbled by such wartime legacies as landmines, which render 20% of agricultural land unusable. Iraqi troops and artillery are positioned only six miles outside Arbil, and the Kurds blame small, late-night bomb blasts in the city on Iraqi agents trying keep the population on edge.
For the past five years, Iraq, Iran and Turkey have imposed tough restrictions on travel to the region by reporters and nongovernment organizations. One way into Iraqi Kurdistan was a route, now used by many Iraqi Kurds, requiring a dash from Syria in a plywood speedboat across the Tigris River, swollen by the first melting snow. This reporter's trip involved an invitation from Iraqi Kurds and the permission of Syria, but not the requisite Iraqi visa.
On the opposite bank stands a neat group of buildings under construction, which will be the Iraqi Kurdish customs post, and around them freshly planted pine saplings. Newly paved roads run past rebuilt villages boasting traffic lights and towns with well-stocked shops. By contrast with the war years, when rough roads and gunfire took a heavy toll on cars, nearly every auto -- usually Toyotas and Brazilian-made Volkswagen Passats imported in the 1980s years of Iraqi oil wealth -- boasts an intact windshield. Herds of sheep, goats and cows have tripled in size, according to the Iraqi Kurdish Ministry of Agriculture.
In Arbil, where the Iraqi army's old headquarters stood, Kurds in baggy trousers and tightly wound turbans are laying out a 250-acre park, complete with trees, children's slides and canals for pleasure boats. The Iraqi army abandoned the base -- the nerve center of a 1980s campaign that killed 180,000 Iraqi Kurdish men -- in 1991, and the Kurds later bulldozed it, removing mass graves and torture chambers.
In the provincial center of Dahuk, the Kurds have turned the headquarters of the feared Iraqi secret police into the new local university's law school. The old Iraqi army base in Dahuk has become the site of Iraqi Kurdistan's first major supermarket, drawing customers from as far away as Baghdad, 250 miles to the south. "One Iraqi lady burst into tears just at the sight of our shelves of goods," says Sherzan Jamil, a former guerrilla who now works as a manager in the supermarket and as a part-time TV actor. The Iraqi Kurds have set up nine new television stations since 1991.
The Worst Weeks
Ms. Sideek, the minister of reconstruction, remembers the worst time after March 1991, when the U.S. called on the Kurds to rise up against Saddam Hussein and then abandoned them. In the weeks that followed, Baghdad assailed the north, stampeding 1.5 million Kurds into flight. Then an architecture student, Ms. Sideek shivered in the filth, ice and stench of a mountaintop camp along with other Kurdish refugees who had fled to the Turkish and Iranian borders. "I would wake up at night with women wailing when babies died in tents nearby," she says.
When media images of the suffering shamed the U.S. and other Western powers into protecting the Kurds, Ms. Sideek walked home with the other refugees. International support bloomed from mid-1991 to 1994. Ms. Sideek worked for the U.N., helping to direct the reconstruction of towns and villages damaged by Saddam Hussein.
From 1994 to 1997, Kurdish factions frittered away foreign support with internal battles. The lowest point came in 1996, when the stronger of the two main factions in northern Iraq, ruled by Mr. Barzani, cleared out rivals by briefly allowing Saddam Hussein's troops back into Arbil. The U.S. pulled out its remaining officials and several thousand of their collaborators, the cream of the English-speaking Iraqi Kurds.
But 1996 was also the year a U.N. resolution took effect that allowed Iraq to start selling its oil for food and nonweapons development. A 13% share of this income was allotted through the U.N. to Iraqi Kurdistan.
The two main factions -- Mr. Barzani's in the west, and that of Jalal Talabani in the east -- still squabble over money. But their rival administrations now engage in more positive competition. "They got a cellular phone system first. But we got the first electronic, seven-digit, city telephone exchange," says Sami Abdurrahman, a senior aide to Mr. Barzani. "They couldn't connect their mobile phones to anyone in the city, but we could!"
Unlike any of its neighbors, Iraqi Kurdistan allows the International Committee of the Red Cross access to its internal prisons. Ethnic and religious minority figures have been given senior governmental posts. The U.N. says the number of babies who die in their first year has dropped to 58 per 1,000 live births, compared with 108 per thousand in Iraq proper. "Since 1998, we've had no polio, malaria infections are down, and no cases of cholera, which is endemic in Iraq," says Jamal Abdulhamid, the region's minister of health.
Iraqi Kurdish politics have benefited, too. Until the early 1990s, Iraqi Kurds lived under Baghdad's administrators and had scant rights or privileges. Elections in 1992, encouraged by the U.S. and others, brought an Arbil-based Iraqi Kurdistan regional administration. It soon split in two, but in both the Barzani and Talabani halves the political system is now an evolving mix of princely rule, a one-party state and a coalition cabinet. Both halves use words like "ministry," but Iraq's only recognized government is in Baghdad. Now the rift between them is slowly mending, and new municipal elections have been held.
"There's a different attitude to governance. They are thinking about civil society," says Pram Unia, Middle East director for Save the Children, which is working in the north.
Even the fortunes of the poor have improved. The most disadvantaged currently include thousands of families displaced by 1994-97 fighting and a steady flow of 50 to 100 Kurds a month evicted from Iraq by Saddam Hussein.
Ali Mohammed Gomar, 40, spent seven years in Iraqi prisons for Kurdish activism until he was released 18 months ago. At that time, his family of eight was forced to leave for northern Iraq. Once owners of a two-story house, they now occupy two small rooms concocted from mud, cinderblocks, sacking and plastic sheets in a camp on the edge of Arbil.
The only family member earning money is a 16-year-old son, who makes the equivalent of 40 cents a day working as a mechanic. The family relies on U.N. rations. Yet they have a television, electricity and even a satellite dish. Nearby, 360 housing units paid for by the U.N. are rising from the hard-earth plain. The Gomars will soon have a house there.
"All we are asking for is work," says Mr. Gomar's wife, Harbiyeh, to the deputy minister of reconstruction, Fakher Barzani, who is visiting the refugee camp and is a distant relative of Massoud Barzani. "But I really hope we get one of the houses with a garden, not a flat."
Aid workers attribute northern Iraq's success to its drive to make self-government work. Two problems vex the rest of the country. The Iraqi government is intent on wrecking the U.N. oil-for-food program -- the U.N. has repeatedly criticized Baghdad for its slow implementation -- and regaining control of its oil revenues. In addition, the U.S. is delaying possible development projects that it says could abet Iraqi re-armament.
Stability has encouraged foreign-based businessmen, mostly expatriate Kurds and some Turkish Kurds, to bring in technology, computer shops, factories and plans for a Disneyland-style amusement park. They usually deploy the Kurds' traditional skill in smuggling to bypass the sanctions imposed by the U.N. and regional states.
Fadl Jalal and Farhad Abid are typical investors. Former Kurdish guerrillas in their late 40s, they fled into exile in 1975 after Iran and the U.S. dropped their backing for another Kurdish rebellion against Saddam Hussein. Mr. Jalal founded a chain of supermarkets in Sweden. Mr. Abid set up a company in 1993 called B-Plan Information Systems Ltd. that is now a market leader in British hospital and police accounting software.
They are back to pursue again their dream of Kurdish self-government. Mr. Jalal sold Swedish assets to open the first full-service hotel two years ago in Arbil, a city of 800,000. Mr. Abid arrived last year to sell his computer systems to new Kurdish institutions. His company hopes to expand into a post-Saddam Baghdad and elsewhere in the Middle East with Arabic and other versions of the programs it develops.
'Island of Freedom'
"This place is a small island of freedom in a region of dictatorships," says Mr. Abid, sipping a Turkish beer with Mr. Jalal in the hotel restaurant and reminiscing about their year operating a jeep-mounted antitank cannon. (Some Muslims see no problem with alcohol as long as they drink privately or don't get drunk.) "In 1974, we were just a guerrilla army; there was no other form of civilization. Now there are gun-control laws, there is a push toward setting up a civil, progressive society."
As for supporting any new U.S. action against the Iraqi leader, "if Saddam tumbles, and we hope he will, then that's the best thing," say Mr. Abid. But the Kurds would have to have something to win if they were to join the U.S. campaign, he says, adding, "At least with Saddam, there's some level of certainty. It's something you can plan around."
There are still flaws and fragility in Iraqi Kurdistan. Increasingly, U.S. and other Western officials receive Iraqi Kurdish ministers, but there are no treaties formalizing the relationship. Another issue is how northern Iraq will resolve its yen for political autonomy and its economic dependence on Baghdad. Regional powers fear the emerging Iraqi Kurdish administrative entity will split off from Iraq, fanning Kurdish separatism in Turkey and Iran and destabilizing the Middle East.
With 25 million ethnic Kurds living in the mountain valleys that are split among Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Syria, the Kurds have long been one of the world's biggest nations without a state. They are divided into hundreds of tribes and many regional dialects, traditionally rebelling against central authority and fighting against neighbors.
They have few natural resources other than livestock and subsistence farming, so many have earned their living by smuggling or by working in faraway cities. They came late to a national awareness, but their high rates of population growth and mounting insistence on language and other ethnic rights have increasingly collided with the established states of the Middle East. Iraq, Turkey and Iran have all brutally oppressed their Kurdish minorities at times, unwilling to dilute the powers of their ethnic majorities of Arabs, Turks and Persians.
With self-government in Iraqi Kurdistan have come efforts to reverse the effects of oppression and define a Kurdish culture. The government is knitting together the major dialects of the Kurdish language, a cousin of Persian, in schools and broadcasting. "Now we're broadcasting in both dialects of our region," says Karwant Akray, director of a new television station, Kurdistan Satellite TV, which is also watched in Europe and the U.S. "For the first time, all Kurds can understand each other."
In Mr. Akray's school days, only Arabic was taught. Even in 1990, just 50 books appeared in Kurdish each year, half of them in praise of Saddam Hussein. There was just one Kurdish newspaper and one magazine. But last year, according to Badran Hasib, who owns the leading Arbil publishing house, Araspress, Iraqi Kurds published 250 books and 100 newspapers and magazines. Mr. Hasib recently brought out a new dictionary of administrative terms that had never been necessary in Kurdish before.
"The language is getting deeper and more beautiful," Mr. Hasib says. "We don't fear so much anymore. We are laying the foundations of a state. But as the Kurdish saying goes, 'the goat makes its bed for one night at a time.' "
Write to Hugh Pope at firstname.lastname@example.org
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