U.S. support fraying for Kurd haven

March 25, 1995|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- After spending four years and $1.5 billion creating a haven for Kurds in northern Iraq, the United States stood by this week as the Kurdish territory again became a zone of danger.

This time the attack came not from Iraq but from a U.S. ally, Turkey, and it was aimed not at opponents of Iraq President Saddam Hussein but at Kurdish guerrilla bases used to launch attacks against Turkey.

But the result was the same: Kurdish civilians were again forced to flee their villages.

U.S. acquiescence to the invasion by 35,000 Turkish troops raised questions about the purpose of a humanitarian operation that is already feeling the strains of age and weakening financial support, of fighting between rival Kurdish factions and of growing impatience in Congress for the mission to end.

"It's time to review and to state more clearly what the objectives of U.S. policy should be in northern Iraq," says Rep. Lee H. Hamilton of Indiana, a leading Democratic voice on foreign affairs who usually supports the Clinton administration.

Complaining that U.S. policy toward Iraq seems "on automatic pilot," Mr. Hamilton wants the administration to figure out how to bring the operation "to a successful conclusion."

Dubbed Operation Provide Comfort, the protected zone has by all accounts saved many lives. It was created to avert a humanitarian catastrophe when Iraq sought to suppress a Kurdish rising in 1991, immediately after the Persian Gulf war.

U.S., British and French aircraft, flying from a Turkish airfield at Incirlik, patrol a zone above the 36th parallel in which flights by Iraqi military planes are barred.

Aid officials from the United States, United Nations and private agencies have been resettling hundreds of thousands of people there.

By carving out a semiautonomous region, the United States has also sought to contain the regime of Mr. Hussein and to prevent his regaining regional dominance and becoming a threat to oil supplies.

But these gains have come at a price.

From the beginning, Turkey's Parliament has been uncomfortable with allowing its base at Incirlik to be used for the operation. Diplomats say it has become increasingly difficult to secure parliamentary approval when use of the base comes up for a vote every six months.

To keep Turkey's cooperation, the United States has been forced to temper its criticism of Turkey's well-documented human rights abuses against Kurds in southeast Turkey.

This week, President Clinton gave tacit approval for Turkey to send its troops into the haven to wipe out the camps operated by one of several Kurdish guerrilla groups, the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has waged a war of terrorism to carve out an autonomous Kurdish region inside Turkey.

Mr. Clinton's response contrasted sharply with strong criticism from European countries.

Meanwhile, the relief operation faces other problems.

In December, fighting erupted between the region's two main political parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, curtailing the movement of aid convoys and at times trapping aid workers in their houses.

Hit by United Nations-imposed economic sanctions, Baghdad has imposed its own embargo on the north, further restricting the flow of food, fuel and medicine.

And the Kurdish region of Iraq has to compete with the rest of Iraq for world sympathy. Private aid groups have joined Russia, France and some Arab countries in highlighting the desperation in central and southern Iraq caused by the U.N. embargo.

Robert Yallop, a Jordan-based official of CARE, one of the main private relief organizations operating in northern Iraq, says that while "there's an ongoing need to assist women, children and widows" in the north, "there's also a tremendous need in central and southern Iraq."

The United States and Britain blame Mr. Hussein for this plight. They argue that he could get the sanctions lifted by complying with U.N. Security Council resolutions aimed at Iraq. They also note that Iraq has rejected plans to use oil-sale revenues to relieve the suffering of its people.

But the once-solid international support for maintaining sanctions is starting to fray, even in Congress. Mr. Hamilton, for one, says the Clinton administration ought to be preparing for the day when international support dries up, and should spell out under what conditions the sanctions could be eased.

Aides say the congressman's views were reinforced by a recent classified General Accounting Office study of Operation Provide Comfort that raises serious questions about the open-ended nature of the operation.

Clinton administration officials don't want to hear this.

For them, the operation needs to be preserved for one overriding reason: "the clear and present danger from Baghdad" to northern Iraq, as a senior official puts it.

"It was Saddam Hussein's behavior that made this necessary," said a State Department official. "Until there's a change in this regime, I don't see that you have a precondition for ending it. The Iraqi military would be right back up where they were before."

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