PARIS — Paris. John Major's proposal for U.N.-guaranteed enclaves inside Iraq to protect refugees has won European Community endorsement and a skeptical reaction in Washington, concerned because of the plan's obvious shortcomings.
Like the American decision to counter Iraqi military action north of the 36th parallel, it is a fairly desperate improvisation motivated by genuine concern for the refugees, but also by the need to beat back public indignation in the West over what is happening in Iraq as a consequence of the Gulf War. To the extent that both actions serve the latter purpose, they compound the cynicism which marked Western encouragement to the Iraqi people to rise against Saddam Hussein, followed by their abandonment.
Even if it were feasible now for relief agencies to provide decent living facilities for something approaching a half-million refugees in the hostile terrain and weather conditions of the frontier zones, what follows? Turkey and Iran cannot be expected to take the refugees in. Do they simply stay there to rot? Is the West now to walk away, closing eyes and ears to this immense human tragedy, for which the United States and its allies bear an important share of the responsibility?
Something serious might be made of Mr. Major's proposal and the American extension of air cover to the refugees. It is essential that we try.
The American protection zone north of the 36th parallel includes Mosul and 11 other substantial towns. It covers something like a sixth of Iraq's territorial extent. Discussion of the Major plan includes a proposal that it extend as far south as the city of Kirkuk, some 40 miles south of the 36th parallel. In the southeast, Iran has asked for a U.N. sanctuary for persecuted Shiites. Kuwait has formally proposed a security zone for the refugees now protected by the American troops in southern Iraq.
We are talking about the partition of Iraq -- something the Bush administration has made plain it does not want. However, people and governments do not always get what they want. Mr. Bush surely is sufficiently intelligent and experienced to understand that launching the heaviest bombing campaign in history, and a 500,000-man coalition army, into Iraq would scarcely contribute to that country's political order and continuity. Or did he decide to think about that tomorrow? Tomorrow is here.
De facto partition could be made into an instrument for getting what Washington and its European allies really want from Iraq, a change of regime. The only other visible way to do that is to resume the war. That obviously is unpopular and would require a complicated reversal of the vast machinery now engaged to bring the troops home.
Another way is possible. The allies could do the following:
* Go back to the Security Council for authority under the 1948 U.N. Genocide Convention to create large, temporary, security zones in Iraq in regions adjacent to Turkey and Iran, where Kurdish and Shiite populations have lived.
* These areas to be placed under United Nations administration for as long as necessary to assure the permanent security of their inhabitants, and to be defended by a U.N.-mandated military force.
This means effective partition of Iraq under international
authority, to last as long as the present Baathist regime in Baghdad threatens its Kurdish and Shiite populations. When a new government is installed which offers reasonable assurances security for all of Iraq's people, U.N. intervention would be terminated and Iraq restored within its old borders.
The principal advantage of this plan is that most refugees could go home. Farming and a limited economic life could resume. People could recapture something resembling a normal life, with reasonable expectations of security. They would not be reduced to the endless penury and hopelessness of the refugee camp -- the prospect the refugees face today.
The second advantage is that this could provide an alternative to more war, the only other way to overturn Saddam Hussein and put Iraq together again. I qualify that statement because the Iraq regime might fight to hold or reconquer these zones. Given what happened to Iraq's army in ''Desert Storm,'' they might not. Partition would also greatly intensify pressures within the Iraqi military and political classes to get rid of the dictator.
Coalition forces would have to remain in the region to establish and protect the security zones. U.S. troop withdrawals would have to be curbed, but once the zones were established the force mix could be predominantly composed of air power.
The final advantage is that this plan has clear objectives and a time-limit. It is not permanent partition. Partition is qualified and the conditions for its termination are explicit. It offers an invitation for Iraq to return to the community of the civilized. It also extends the principle of international humanitarian intervention to counter genocidal acts, an idea making its way in international precedent and law.
It might work. It is better than more war. It certainly is better than the moral treachery involved in now walking away from Iraq, admitting that the West intervened in that country long enough to wreck it, but not long enough to do anything for those Iraqis who thought themselves allies of the democracies, and acted on their beliefs.
William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.