A 1991 Kurdish Betrayal Redux?

By Najmaldin Karim
Special to washingtonpost.com
Saturday, December 2, 2006; 12:00 AM

The media are building up the forthcoming report of the Iraq Study Group, led by former Secretary of State James Baker, and former Democratic Congressman, Lee Hamilton, as the solution to America's problems in Iraq. Sadly, the report is unlikely to offer anything other than the same discredited policies that for 60 years created a dangerous illusion of stability in the Middle East, a "stability" bought with the blood of Middle Easterners and that produced such horrors as the massive 1991 bloodletting of Iraqis who sought to overthrow Saddam Hussein.

The Iraq Study Group looks balanced, just as for many years the Middle East looked "stable." Baker is from the 'realist' school of foreign policy, while Hamilton is a longtime ally of the movement to liberate Iraq. The devil lies in the details. The Iraq Study Group's "expert" advisors included many diehard Arabists, supposedly objective analysts who opposed the liberation of Iraq and have long stood shoulder to shoulder with Arab dictatorships. In their published writings, many of these "experts" bend over backwards to accommodate the interests of Iraq's Sunni Arab minority, the third largest ethnic-religious group in Iraq after the Shiite Arabs and the Kurds. Some of the "experts" are Arabs, and in once case, an Iraqi Sunni Arab. Interestingly, none is a Shiite Iraqi or a Kurdish Iraqi.

Worse yet, the Iraq Study Group, which has made great play of visiting Iraq and talking to Iraqi officials has refused to visit the safest and most pro-American part of Iraq -- Kurdistan. Even Turkey, which has been openly unhappy with the growing importance of Iraq's Kurds, on a day-to-day basis deals with the reality that the Kurdistan Region of Iraq is a fully recognized and constitutional entity, an autonomous region with considerable powers. Russia, which backed Saddam's regime to the end, has also bowed to the inevitable and has a consulate in Iraqi Kurdistan -- not the Iraq Study Group, however, which has not set foot in Kurdistan.

The failure to visit Iraqi Kurdistan, or to consult with its democratically elected president and prime minister, or simply to see the evidence of a peaceful, thriving economy, is no oversight. The Iraq Study Group has considerable policy experience and its expert advisory groups, if expert they truly are, must know about the advances made by the Iraqi Kurds. The most casual follower of the news knows that Iraqi Kurds are massively pro-American and that Iraqi Kurdistan is the one part of Iraq where people complain that they do not see Americans enough.

No, the Iraq Study Group has shunned America's closest allies in Iraq, the Kurds, out of ideological prejudice. It's not just that the pro-American Kurds make it difficult to argue that Iraqis all hate Americans, thereby obliging troop withdrawals. The Kurds make 'realists' and Sunni Arab advocates nervous; the evidence of Kurdish suffering is irrefutable and it is hard for the United States to walk away from the victims of genocide.

The Kurds also attest to the 'realist' betrayal of Iraq in 1991. As Coalition Forces were breaking the back of Saddam's army from the air, President George HW Bush's public suggestion to Iraqis, "to take matters into their own hands and force Saddam Hussein, the dictator, to step aside," encouraged Kurdish and Shiite uprising against the Baathist regime. George H.W. Bush and Baker provided no support and tens of thousands of Shi'a and Kurdish Iraqis were slaughtered in reprisal once the regime regrouped.

The last truly 'realist' administration in United States history only intervened after considerable public pressure following shocking CNN images of Kurdish refugees, and after Turkey resisted accepting thousands of refugees. Even then, the intervention was mitigated. A safe haven was set up for the Kurds, but little was done for the Shiites beyond the "no-fly zone" in southern Iraq, in which Saddam's almost non-existent air force was not allowed to fly but where Iraqi attack helicopters were.

Having suffered so much under the rule of the largely Sunni Arab Baathist regime, Iraq's Kurds and Shiites want a decentralized state. Yet the Iraq Study Group, and its many "experts" has already dismissed the notion of establishing three autonomous ethnic-religious regions in Iraq, a proposal promoted by Senator Joe Biden and emeritus president of the Council on Foreign Relations, Leslie Gelb. Biden and Gelb's proposal is profoundly respectful of the Iraqi democracy, as such a plan would be legal under the 2005 constitution that nearly 80% of Iraqis voted for.

Of course, why would a panel that has spent more time talking to America's enemies, Syria and Iran, than America's allies, the Iraqi Kurds, care about the democratic wishes of the people of Iraq? Looking at the Iraq Study Group, what Iraqis, and Kurds in particular, see is not an expert group coming up with new ideas, but a likely repetition of the failed and costly policies of the past.

Najmaldin Karim, M.D. is the president of the Washington Kurdish Institute (WKI).

© 2006 The Washington Post Company