The U.N. weapon inspectors in Iraq are assigned the task of dealing with the symptoms but not the underlying causes of the danger Iraq poses to world peace. Disarmament is vital, but it should not distract us from the often overlooked fact that the presence and use of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq stem from its abject failure as a state, not just the violence of one man or one regime.

Afghanistan's poverty made it vulnerable to foreign influence and the lure of terrorism. Iraq's failure is deadlier. Its considerable resources have been used to create a repressive and brutal regime that is a threat to Middle Eastern and global security. The aggression and defiance will continue until the chronic disease of failure afflicting Iraq is eradicated.

For most Iraqis, President Bush's Sept. 12 speech to the United Nations represented a welcome departure from previous U.S. policy. By committing the United States to a democratic Iraq, Mr. Bush laid the foundation for a new regional security order, abandoning reliance on unaccountable and repressive elites for a false notion of stability in the Middle East.

Peace and stability in the strategically vital gulf area will come only from fundamental political change in Iraq and by building on the democratic experiment that has taken root in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Skeptics will argue that Iraqi history inspires little confidence in the prospects for democracy. Today's pariah state, the totalitarian terrorist regime that has committed mass murder against the Kurds -- and, indeed, against the Arabs -- is a product of that history. Thanks to the Baath regime, every conceivable difference between Iraqis -- social, tribal or ethnic -- has been exploited to divide and oppress. The reason for the cycle of instability and violence is that the British-created state of Iraq was based almost exclusively on the Sunni Arab minority. At the 1921 Cairo Conference that annexed the Kurdish north to the Sunni Arab center and Shiite Arab south of the country, Winston Churchill warned that Iraq would be governed by violence. He wrote that a future Arab ruler "with the power of an Arab army behind him . . . would ignore Kurdish sentiment and oppress the Kurdish minority."

Over the years, the ethnic base of state power has shrunk as the Baath party added many Sunni Arabs to its long list of victims. The capacity for violence and the police state apparatus, itself under surveillance and periodically purged, have expanded. Eliminating one man will not end this cycle, and Bush should resist those who regard helping a post-Saddam Hussein Iraq as too burdensome. Without a comprehensive transformation, a new dictatorship could emerge.

The United States therefore must engage with Iraqis, to protect and sustain us through what will be a difficult transition. As the Kurds have shown, Iraqis can put their talents to good use if given the opportunity. For decades Iraqi Kurdistan was Iraq's least-developed region, both socially and economically, and it was deliberately under-funded by Baghdad. Yet since the end of the Gulf War, Kurds have embarked on economic renewal and democratization from the most unfavorable of starting points.

Iraqi Kurdistan was devastated by the genocide of the 1988 Anfal campaign, which destroyed almost 4,500 villages and killed nearly 182,000 civilians in just six months. Halabja, where 5,000 Kurds were gassed to death, is our Guernica. Thanks to state repression, Iraqi Kurdistan became a region of widows and orphans, whose husbands, sons and brothers were "disappeared" or used as cannon fodder in the regime's pointless wars. Our neighbors, wary of Kurdish nationalism, closed our borders, imposing a crippling embargo.

Against these odds, we have revived Iraqi Kurdistan. In 11 years we have rebuilt some 4,000 villages, set up two universities and opened more than 2,700 schools. Protected by U.S. and British air power, we have created an environment of freedom unique in Iraqi history, in which Kurds, Turkomens, Assyrian Christians and Arabs enjoy cultural and political rights. My home city of Sulaimani alone has more than 130 media outlets, including 13 TV stations and dozens of newspapers -- as well as unrestricted access to the Internet and satellite TV.

Building freedom has not been easy. Conflict between the two major Kurdish parties stalled democratization and cost many innocent lives. The process of transition toward more accountable democratic institutions is hindered by resistance from traditional power structures and the threat of interference from our neighbors. But despite this, Iraqi Kurdistan is a rare and bright spot of freedom in the Islamic Middle East -- and offers the potential for more.

The hard task of reconstruction has taught us to forsake the dream of an independent Kurdistan. When Kurdish self-government began back in 1991, many believed it would lead to the dismemberment of Iraq. Instead, self-government taught the Kurds, especially their political elite, the severe limitations of nationalism. While most Kurds cherish their legitimate right to self-determination, they recognize that economic rehabilitation, education for their children and basic health care require political moderation. Independence might give us a Kurdish postage stamp, but it would mean a dire future as an isolated, shunned statelet in a landlocked corner of the Middle East.

The mainstream Kurdish movements realize that there is more to aspire to in a democratic, prosperous Iraq that can flourish with international support. The new Iraq can be a model of tolerance and diversity in a region where both are rare. The Kurds can for the first time be full Iraqi citizens, catalysts for democratic transformation.

Most Iraqi opposition movements have endorsed a vision of a federal democratic Iraq. Federalism is vital. Devolving political and economic power, sharing Iraq's vast potential fairly among its people, will preclude the possibility of another centralized tyranny gripping the Iraqi state and its oil revenues.

For too long the Kurds have been seen as a threat to Iraq's unity. Yet now we Kurds are championing a federal, pluralist democratic Iraq that cannot again brutalize its citizens and threaten its neighbors. The final irony may be that the Kurds, the perennial victims of the Iraqi state, will turn out to be its savior.

The writer is prime minister of the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq.