Help for the Kurds

April 04, 1991

The Kurds of Iraq deserve to win provincial autonomy within that sovereign country. They deserve humanitarian aid from the United States in the form of food and medicine. And those fleeing Saddam Hussein's retribution deserve safe haven in Turkey, despite its own Kurdish problem.

Humanitarian aid would not contradict President Bush's repeated determination not to intervene in Iraq's internal affairs. For that matter, the U.S. should also offer humanitarian aid to Baghdad. It is not in the U.S. interest to let people with whom we have no quarrel die of disease and starvation as the consequence of U.S. action against their despotic rulers.

The decision to allow State Department contacts with Iraqi dissidents -- first with Shiites, then with Kurds -- edges closer to encouraging the overthrow of the tyrant, at least to establish contact with those who may eventually bring it off. Meanwhile, Kurds are hunted and killed by the regime that previously gassed them.

These are a people of Kurdish language and Muslim religion living next to Turks, Azerbaijanis and Iraqi Arabs in a contiguous area mostly in Turkey but substantially in Iraq and Iran, with enclaves in Syria and the Soviet Union. Kurds came into modern time as semi-nomadic mountain people on both sides of the line demarcating the Turkish from the Persian empire.

Their story at the end of World War I paralleled that of the Armenians. The Treaty of Sevres in 1920, imposed on the defeated Turkish empire, provided for a sovereign Armenia and autonomous Kurdistan that might become sovereign. The revolution in Turkey repudiated that treaty and led to the Treaty of Lausanne of 1923, which withdrew both promises. Kurdish revolts subsequently broke out in Turkey and were suppressed.

A portion of Kurdish lands, including Mosul and Kirkuk, were given at British insistence to the creation of Iraq. The Kurds split among five countries, each therefore opposing an independent Kurdistan. Yet some governments helped Kurdish separatism to undermine their neighbors. The Soviet Union long sustained a Kurdish movement in Iran.

Of 20 to 25 million Kurds, about half live in Turkey, where they have been suppressed, their very language forbidden. Perhaps four million live in Iraq. President Turgut Ozal of Turkey has timidly proposed liberalization -- legalization of the Kurdish language has been postponed -- if only to clean up Turkey's human rights record in hopes of joining the European Community.

By supporting decent impulses in Turkish policy, the U.S. can also support Kurdish autonomy in Iraq while opposing dismemberment of Iraq. Kurds are dying from Saddam Hussein's vengeance for having helped the muted American war aim of toppling him. They are entitled to attain aims of their own, of which life is paramount.

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