Kurdish survival in Iraq

May 26, 1992

Never has sovereignty been more undermined than has Iraq's in Kurdistan. Kurdish adults turned out massively to vote for a 105-member Iraqi Kurdish National Assembly and for a national leader. In a carefully orchestrated transport movement, American trucks and planes violated Iraqi sovereignty to fly out some 30 tons of records, from three Iraqi intelligence agencies, that were liberated by three Kurdish insurgency movements that overran the police stations last year.

Yet none of the above denies Iraqi sovereignty in the northern Tigris and Euphrates valleys. The United States recognizes no Kurdistan. Turkey, which allowed its air base to be used for the movement of the secret documents, violently opposes Kurdish aspirations. The three Kurdish parties seeking assembly seats and two rivals contesting for national leadership, Massoud Barzani and Jalal Talabani, seek autonomy for Kurds within Iraq. Mr. Barzani has negotiated for it with Iraq's President Saddam Hussein. Mr. Talabani would rather present Iraq with a fait accompli.

Iraq denied the legitimacy of the election. Turkey and Iran, harboring large Kurdish minorities, opposed it. Never was an election so hard won or enthusiastically conducted. Iraqi troops were poised to invade, deterred by fear of U.S. intervention. Baghdad denied food and fuel to the Kurds. Still, they voted, many walking miles to do so. It is hard not to approve of democracy after its stubborn practice under such arduous circumstances.

The movement of archives to safekeeping in this country preserves the records of atrocity. This is what was not done for the Holocaust of Jews and Gypsies in the 1940s, or for Armenians in the teens of the century. The documents, which purportedly record the methodical persecution and destruction of Kurds, were seized when insurgents pushed Saddam Hussein's forces out. The strange coalition of two of three Kurdish insurgent movements, the Human Rights Watch organization, one staff member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the armed forces commanded by President Bush, is rescuing this record for posterity.

Perhaps this will lead to an attempt to prosecute Saddam Hussein under the United Nations convention on genocide, which Iraq signed in 1959. Perhaps it will turn into ten years of research. Perhaps it will eventually go to a cherished repository in a Kurdish homeland. None can say. What can be said is that this theft of documents for safekeeping is one of the finest violations of national sovereignty ever conducted in the name of human rights. Congratulations to all involved.

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