Selling out to set stage for an attack on Iraq

July 30, 2002|By Dusko Doder

WASHINGTON - Reports that the Bush administration is prepared to write off the more than $4 billion that Turkey owes the United States could not be a clearer sign that the president's plans for a "regime change" in Iraq are moving into high gear.

Turkey is the one country whose support is crucial in that endeavor because no effective military action against Saddam Hussein is conceivable without the use of U.S. military bases on Turkish soil.

The Turks raised other, more modest financial demands, such as hastening the approval of a $228 million aid package the Bush administration had earmarked for them in the current fiscal year. Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, who had been dispatched to Ankara to negotiate the price for Turkey's participation in the planned assault on Iraq, saw no problem in meeting those demands.

Proper decorum was preserved. The Turks insisted that their conditions were not conditions at all; indeed, they were not linked to Iraq. Top Turkish officials said publicly that they question the wisdom of the U.S. desire to topple Mr. Hussein. Mr. Wolfowitz, for his part, pretended the United States was eager to help an old friend in need. As he put it, we want to help Turkey's recovery and promote its economic growth.

He took this a step further by endorsing Turkey's request for membership in the European Union, which is Ankara's most cherished political objective.

A credible case can be made that the removal of Mr. Hussein would be in everyone's interest; few doubt that the Middle East would be a safer place without him. At the same time, Mr. Wolfowitz's hand was conspicuously weak in light of the blunt reluctance of America's Arab friends to take part.

But in arranging the deal, the administration had to do something that is both disquietingly hypocritical and ugly: It jettisons some of America's cherished principles for the sake of expediency. Specifically, Mr. Wolfowitz assured the Turks that the United States was firmly opposed to any arrangements in which the Iraqi Kurds would gain a measure of political autonomy in a post-Hussein Iraq.

The Kurds are the world's largest ethnic group without a state of their own. They live on some 200,000 square miles - nearly as big as California and Pennsylvania combined - that covers northwestern Iran, eastern Turkey, northern Iraq and northeastern Syria. Western experts estimate their number at 25 million, about half of whom live in Turkey. They are not Turks, not Arabs, not Iranians, but they are Muslims.

Turkey denies the Kurds' existence, insisting they are "mountain Turks." About 30,000 died before a 15-year-long Kurdish insurgency in eastern Turkey was quashed in the early 1990s. Now the government is alarmed that the creation of an autonomous Kurdish entity across the border in Iraq might rekindle Kurdish aspirations in Turkey and elsewhere.

Iraqi Kurds account for 23 percent of Iraq's 18 million people. They have been terrorized by Mr. Hussein's aerial bombardments, poison gas and a deliberate destruction of their rural society. Since the 1991 Persian Gulf war, they have been in control of an area nearly the size of Arkansas in northern Iraq, protected by U.S. and British air patrols that enforce no-fly zones.

With about 50,000 lightly armed men but no heavy weapons, the Kurds are the only organized opposition to Mr. Hussein and his Sunni Muslim minority. The Sunnis, who account for slightly less than 20 percent of the population, have dominated modern Iraq's politics by suppressing the Kurds in the north and Iraq's Shiite Muslim majority (60 percent of the population) in the south.

Until a few months ago, some U.S. strategists had planned to cast the Kurds in a role similar to the one the Northern Alliance played in Afghanistan. This was inevitable since the Shiites are suspicious of any U.S.-led liberation of Iraq, saying Washington would be satisfied with another dictator representing the Sunni military elite.

In 1991, the Kurds rose up against Mr. Hussein after being urged to do so by the first President George Bush (who withheld military support, however). This time, the Kurds made it clear they want a firm commitment from the second President Bush before taking up arms against Mr. Hussein. They would not join any venture that failed to guarantee their security and their rights as equal citizens in "a federal, democratic Iraq."

Such a pledge, after Mr. Wolfowitz's visit to Turkey, will not be forthcoming.

Yet the sense that war with Iraq is all but inevitable now permeates the administration. It remains to be seen how this is going to play in the intra-administration debate, especially inside the Pentagon, where the Joint Chiefs of Staff have publicly weighed in against an ill-prepared Iraqi venture.

The chiefs dismissed a plan for the conquest of Iraq that was authored by a former terrorism adviser to the president. It envisioned a combination of air strikes and U.S. Special Forces attacks in coordination with local rebels, presumably the Kurds.

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