PICTURE this: The last American helicopter is lifting off from the Military Coordination Center in Zakho, northern Iraqi Kurdistan, as a throng of Kurds press against the gates of the compound. A few Kurds push through and reach up to the sky as the chopper pulls away. Saddam Hussein's Republican Guard begins moving north, filling the vacuum left by the Western coalition forces, and resuming Baghdad's genocidal policy against the Kurds.
American forces arrived in northern Iraq a little more than a month after the Persian Gulf war ended as part of a coalition force to protect the Kurds after their failed rebellion against Saddam. The coalition troops created a safety zone between the Turkish border and the 36th parallel. Meanwhile, ill-equipped peshmerga guerrillas, or "those who face death," confront 100,000 Iraqi soldiers along the demarcation line running from Syria to Iran.
When air cover ends, the United States will have only delayed Saddam's Anfal, the campaign against the Kurds that claimed tens of thousands of lives. A growing body of evidence, including the 30 tons of Iraqi police documents recently spirited out of Kurdistan, shows that Baghdad pursued an orchestrated campaign of torture and execution.
The Kurds are slated for annihilation and they cannot protect themselves. Yet US policy remains focused on realpolitik considerations, neglecting humanitarian concerns.
The US is correctly concerned that a balkanized Iraq may not sufficiently counterbalance Iran and that talk of Kurdish autonomy may upset Turkey, with its 13 million Kurds. The Kurdish issue is a lead weight on the delicate regional geopolitical balance. Consequently, the State Department convinced congressional staffers, among others, not to travel to northern Iraq by threatening to prosecute anyone violating an executive order banning commerce with an outlaw country.
Within this context the free elections of May 19 took place in Iraqi Kurdistan. The Kurds took the electoral process seriously. Overly anxious voters had to be pushed back by election officials. Men and women voted in near equal numbers, an unusual scene for a Muslim region. Kalashnikov-bearing peshmerga drove into two villages near the demarcation line in four-wheel-drive vehicles with mounted machine guns to vote and to protect the process from rumored election-day violence.
About 1 million voters, 88 percent of those eligible, turned out to elect one of four presidential candidates and choose among seven parliamentary groups. The choice was essentially between the Kurdistan Democratic Party, which favors negotiations with Saddam, and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, which opposes direct talks with Baghdad. The parties exaggerated their differences during the campaign.
The election was a tremendous feat. Kurdistan previously had no central authority, but stumbled forward under the contentious leadership of two tribal leaders with thousands of peshmerga under their command. The region currently suffers under a double embargo, by the Turks and Iraqis. Drive in any direction in northern Iraq and the work of the Anfal is apparent. Between 100,000 and 180,000 Kurds were killed and thousands of villages were razed. Rubble piles lie where houses stood, dynamited by the Iraqi Army. By sheer force of will, the Kurds conducted what most observers agreed were free and fair elections.
The Kurds may remain a faction-prone people caught between hostile neighbors. As it stands, the two main parties achieved near equal representation in the parliament and their presidential candidates will compete in a runoff in July. So far, the election results have defied US policymakers' expectations, and if Saddam returns, he will not be crushing a couple of bickering tribal leaders, but a fledgling democracy.
THE US must reevaluate its policies, especially in light of its relationship with the Kurds. The Nixon administration encouraged the Kurds to revolt and then abandoned them when their actions ran contrary to the plans of the Shah of Iran. Many Kurds remember Henry Kissinger's reference to them as an expendable people.
Then, in the '80s, as Iraq's ally, the US said nothing as Saddam decimated over 4,000 Kurdish villages.
Finally, after the Gulf war, President Bush encouraged the Kurds to rebel, failed to support them, and only came to their rescue after bloodied children made the covers of magazines.
Geopolitics and morality need not be mutually exclusive. Since it is unlikely that diplomatic, economic, or another kind of mechanism could ensure the safety of the Kurds, the US should work toward staying put until it can be guaranteed that the Anfal will not return.
With the Turkish Parliament deciding in the coming weeks whether or not to reapprove the right of coalition forces to fly out of its territory, the US must make clear that the protection of the Kurds is an essential policy goal.
The costs are minimal, with only seven Americans still stationed in northern Iraq and the over-flights originating from existing bases in Turkey. A peshmerga on the front line facing the Iraqi soldiers said, "We need only one American soldier in Kurdistan to keep Saddam away."
When US Col. Richard Naab, until recently the commander of the coalition forces, walked down the street in Zahko the Kurdish children would run out and grab his hand. When he choppered around, they waved towels from rooftops.
The Kurds know the coalition forces stopped the Anfal. "They're a fantastic people - you can go out in the middle of nowhere and they'll ask you to sit down and they'll share whatever they have with you," said Colonel Naab. "They don't ask for much, just a simple life with dignity."