WASHINGTON - The missile attacks launched by President Clinton against Iraqi military sites last week failed to address the real cause of the crisis: Saddam Hussein's move into Kurdish territory in northern Iraq.
As a result, a serious source of regional instability is likely to continue to fester, causing future problems for the United States.
Instead of halting Iraqi troops before they moved into the Kurdish capital, Erbil, or ousting them once they got there, President Clinton sought to punish Saddam Hussein elsewhere. He chose as targets Iraqi anti-aircraft and command and control sites in the middle of the country and expanded a no-fly zone that will be patrolled by U.S. planes.
This served a strategic purpose: making it more difficult for Iraq to move aggressively against Kuwait and other states the Persian Gulf.
But it allowed Saddam Hussein to secure a foothold in northern Iraq that some analysts believe he will now try to expand - perhaps gradually so as to avoid renewed U.S. retaliation. This may enhance his domestic prestige and strengthen his grip on power.
"There are no good solutions in Iraq, only the less bad," says Phebe Marr, a senior fellow at the National Defense University.
Clinton's tactics were just the latest in a series of American half-measures in dealing with the Kurdish problem.
He is not the first American president to want to avoid getting embroiled in northern Iraq's murky disorders.
But by directing U.S. military action farther south, "the United States appears to be suggesting that the north is not of vital importance. I think that's a mistake," said Alan Makovsky of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
After the 1991 Persian Gulf war ended, President George Bush allowed the Iraqi armed forces to quell a Kurdish rebellion with brutal helicopter strikes until the plight of hundreds of thousands of refugees caused a worldwide outcry and forced Washington to change its policy.
Even then, the United States and its allies withheld strong support for the Kurds, instead creating a protected enclave and a larger zone where Iraqi aircraft were barred from flying.
While they frequently prick the world's conscience, Kurds seldom draw much political support. Numbering 20 million, the Kurds are sometimes called the world's largest ethnic group without their own country.
Indeed, if there's one thing Bill Clinton and Saddam agree on, it's that Kurds should not be allowed to have their own country.
This would not only break up Iraq but require other nations with Kurdish populations - Turkey, Iran, Syria and states of the former Soviet Union - to donate chunks of territory. World leaders have long viewed this as impossible.
Kurds themselves have added another big reason for denying them sovereignty, in the American view: They're so riven by bitter internal feuds that any nation they might form would serve to increase, rather than reduce, the region's instability.
And if the Kurds were to gain a state, the Shiite Muslims in southern Iraq might want autonomy too, it is feared, breaking Iraq up into three separate states.
So the United States and the West have come to prefer a unified Iraq - even one ruled by Saddam Hussein - to a splintered nation.
Repeatedly abandoned by outsiders, Kurds have never been entirely suppressed, however, and continue to serve as a lightning rod for regional trouble.
"You can kill mountain people one by one, but you can never conquer or subdue them," says Judith Kipper, a Middle East expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Both the Bush and Clinton administrations have encouraged Kurdish leaders to join forces with other Iraqi opponents of Saddam Hussein. These efforts, however, have been an obvious failure.
Kurds have formed hostile rival camps: the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, headed by Jalal Talabani; and the Kurdistan Democratic Party, headed by Massoud Barzani. According to reports from the region, the two factions have fought bitterly over revenue from black market cigarettes and Iraqi gasoline sold in Turkey.
dTC While voicing sympathy for Iraqi Kurds, the Clinton administration has done little to prevent Turkey, a NATO ally, from assaulting its own Kurdish villages in an effort to wipe out a guerrilla group fighting for autonomy from Ankara.
The White House also gave a green light to a Turkish thrust into northern Iraq to strike guerrilla bases there.
Now the intra-Kurdish feud is taking a dangerous turn.
Talabani's faction has formed a relationship with Iran, a bitter enemy both of Iraq and the United States. In turn, Barzani's group sought Saddam Hussein's help in ousting the PUK from Erbil.
Even if Iran stays on the sidelines, the region could become more tense, according to Kipper, of CSIS.
Turkey, alarmed at Kurdish unrest, may try to create a security zone along the Iraqi-Turkish border, similar to the Israeli-controlled security zone in southern Lebanon.
Mark Matthews covers the State Department for The Sun.
Pub Date: 9/08/96