Kurds voice support for war to remove Hussein from office

Residents remember chemical attacks by regime during the 1980s

January 29, 2003|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

SULAIMANIYA, Iraq - A small group of Kurds gathered outside a United Nations compound here yesterday, voicing support for a war to remove President Saddam Hussein from power but demanding international help to protect Kurdish civilians from chemical or biological attacks.

The demonstration, which included several survivors of previous chemical attacks by the Iraqi military, was modest in size and subdued in tone. The protesters stood quietly outside the compound in a cold rain holding photographs of their injured and their dead.

But the undercurrent of support for war stood in relief to larger and more strident demonstrations occurring in nations around the world.

"We want to change the Iraqi regime," said Dr. Fayaq Muhammad Golpi, a surgeon and head of the Anti-Chemical Weapons Society of Kurdistan, the nonprofit group that organized the event. "If this change is peaceful, it would be better than if there was war. But the change is necessary, even if this means fighting."

The demonstration also brought to the surface the persistent public worry here about the Kurds' vulnerability to a chemical or biological strike by Hussein.

Sulaimaniya, like the large Kurdish cities of Erbil and Dohuk, is a short drive from Iraqi Army positions.

As Kurds count down the days to a war that they expect to start soon, they know this is a land virtually without chemical protective gear, where medical supplies are limited and specialized drugs to combat chemical injury are all but nonexistent.

For example, there are nearly 4 million people in the region of northern Iraq that is beyond the control of Hussein's government. Recent tours of markets here found only about two dozen aging gas masks for sale in Erbil, many with cracked eyepieces and almost all with expired filters. In Sulaimaniya, merchants say a stock of about 200 masks sold out long ago.

It comes as little surprise, then, that Kurds express deep misgivings about their fate at the hands of a desperate or vengeful Hussein if the United States attacks Iraq.

"We are afraid," said Muhammad Amin Abdullah, standing in a line of people holding photographs of Kurds killed in a chemical attack by Iraq on the town of Halabja in 1988.

An estimated 5,000 Kurdish civilians died in that attack. In dozens of interviews during the past two months with Kurdish doctors and officials, all have said that Kurds are not much better protected now than they were then, and that to improve preparations they need outside help.

To that end, demonstrators yesterday delivered a letter to the United Nations asking for shipments of chemical protective equipment. Golpi, who treated victims of chemical attacks when he was with Kurdish guerrillas in the mountains in the 1980s, said the United Nations must also provide antibiotics, eye drops, ointments and bandages.

The supplies will be necessary, he said, if a significant number of people are injured by nerve or mustard gas, which Iraq used on Kurds in the 1980s, or biological agents, which the Kurds believe that Iraq possesses today.

U.N. officials declined to comment on the request, citing a policy that generally forbids its employees to speak with foreign journalists in northern Iraq.

In Washington, an American official said the Bush administration was reviewing options to provide such assistance. "We're looking at it very seriously," he said.

The official said there were several possible obstacles, including restrictions in U.N. resolutions and American trade law on importing materials into Iraq, as well as concerns that some chemical defense gear could fall into the hands of Iraqi agents. But he added: "We're looking at it with an intent to be helpful."

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