Protecting the Kurds

William Safire

June 25, 1991|By William Safire

Washington -- IN DIPLOMATIC secrecy, the Bus administration is negotiating a deal with its coalition allies to pull the last protective troops out of Iraqi Kurdistan.

Our policy is driven by the politics of extrication: how to get out of Iraq quietly, replacing a force of coalition troops with more than a company of U.N. eunuchs. The plan is to prevent Iraq's underdefeated dictator from merely waiting a decent interval before he breaks his promises of peaceful autonomy and resumes his genocide against the Kurdish people.

Here is the preliminary deal being discussed:

First, we await the outcome of talks that took place in Baghdad between Kurdish leaders and Saddam Hussein. The dictator has promised autonomy in Kurdistan, elections throughout the country, the separation of the Baath party from the government -- all items he can easily rescind later. He has held back the inclusion of the oil city of Kirkuk in Kurdistan because that might interfere with cash coming in soon.

Next, we await the talks among the Kurds. All Kurds may be victims, but not all Kurds are angels; to a hostile or indifferent world they present a united front, but in the back are as faction-ridden as any nation.

Massoud Barzani, son of Mulla Mustafa, is the authentic leader who has long fought his people's battle in the hills. He must deal with Jalal Talabani, a smooth talker who has spent most of his time outside Kurdistan; and with independent-minded guerrilla leaders on the scene; as well as with longtime Kurdish collaborators with Saddam who swung over to the Kurds' cause when he seemed about to fall, and who precipitated the high-casualty war in the cities.

As the enterprising Patrick Tyler of the New York Times reports from Kurdistan, Barzani is now selling the imperfect agreement made in Baghdad -- which includes his promise to help Saddam get sanctions eased -- to his colleagues. Arab members of the anti-Saddam coalition tell me he has a shrewd strategy: obtain from Saddam whatever democracy and autonomy he is now ready to falsely offer, and then get the rest of the world to guarantee that those phony promises are kept.

When the Kurds agree with Barzani to make that gamble, the Americans and other coalition members would take that as a signal to withdraw.

To show that the extrication is not abandonment, a division or two of allied ground troops, including Americans, would remain nearby in Turkey; the U.N. relief observers inside Iraqi Kurdistan would be increased to 500; more significant militarily, coalition air and naval forces would be based in Egypt, the gulf emirates, Saudi Arabia, as well as Turkey. (Syria won't play; Israel won't be asked.)

One purpose of this international force, to be announced later this summer, would be to make certain that no genocidal attacks are launched against Kurds or Shiites.

With this military assurance, on top of a threatened calibration of economic sanctions, the coalition would tiptoe out of the line of fire between a recovering Saddam Hussein and Kurds who always resist subjugation.

Sound good? Sure. Would it work? Only if an unmistakable message accompanied the pullout: that allied air power would enforce the reforms extracted by the Kurds from Baghdad.

Many Kurds suspect their nemesis plans to exploit a withdrawal by a type of warfare he has conducted before: kidnapping or assassinating Kurdish leaders, as he did the brothers of Massoud Barzani. If withdrawal is inexorable, here's how to help prevent that: President Bush should invite Barzani to visit him in the White House, thereby providing the personal protection and support that Ronald Reagan gave Angola's Jonas Savimbi.

He should assure the Kurdish patriot that the coalition will make Iraqi Kurdistan a gunship-free zone; that relief will be channeled through Turkey to the autonomous Kurdish subgovernment in the regional capital; and that the United States will welcome 5,000 Kurdish refugees a year to underscore our concern.

This month, after two decades, Henry Kissinger manfully asserted that the great error America made toward the Kurds in the 70s was in not telling them at the start of their uprising how far we were prepared to back them up. We made that tragic mistake, so costly in lives, again this year. Twice is enough.

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