What the U.S. Owes the Kurds

April 24, 1991

The camps that U.S. troops and allies are building on the Iraqi side of the border with Turkey may alleviate the starving and freezing of hundreds of thousands of homeless refugees on the mountainside. Those camps may alleviate the pressure of more Kurds on a nervous Turkey that suppresses the cultural freedom of its own Kurds for fear of losing the southwestern quarter of its territory. But the camps are only a Band-Aid, and could, like many a festering bandage elsewhere, become part of the problem.

It is small wonder that some Kurdish leaders refuse to lead their people back to the Iraqi side of the border, believing that U.S. protection will not last as long as Saddam Hussein's malevolent power. The last thing the U.S. should wish to make permanent is a set of Kurdish camps on the model of Palestinian camps in Lebanon or Cambodian camps in Thailand with no economy, no future and no hope.

The three million or so Kurds of Iraq who have fled their homes belong back where they came from, in their homes, their jobs, their farms, their way of life, unmolested. The United States started the avalanche that brought them to the mountains of northern Iraq, where Sun reporter Diana Jean Schemo has vividly described their suffering and where the White House says some 510 Kurds each day are dying. The United States has a humanitarian obligation to those Kurds that extends beyond putting up flimsy camps.

This does not mean marching to Baghdad and need not mean the permanent entanglement in Iraq's affairs that President Bush rightly fears. It does mean taking an interest in the extraordinary negotiation that is taking place in Baghdad between Kurdish insurgents and Saddam Hussein's government. The object of those talks is an autonomous Kurdistan within a sovereign Iraq, a regime under which the masses of Kurdish refugees now in Turkey, Iran and adjoining strips of Iraq would willingly go home.

Saddam Hussein and his henchmen hope to free Iraq from United Nations sanctions that prevent reconstructing the economy. That gives the outside world diplomatic and economic leverage with which to play a constructive and humanitarian role. The Kurds and Iraq's government can reach an internal agreement that calls for international monitoring.

The United States should not be accomplice to a Kurd-removal policy by Saddam Hussein; at the moment, it is. The United States can be part of an international mechanism to assure that the Kurds live in Kurdistan in safety and in peace. And if it can, it should.

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