Kurds in Northern Iraq Badly Need Help

AS the United States ventures in and out of humanitarian relief missions, the Clinton administration should not forget its unsettled business in northern Iraq, where 3 million Kurds are still suffering the consequences of the 1991 Gulf war.

Despite Operation Provide Comfort's no-fly zones in northern Iraq, security threats remain. Iraq's Saddam Hussein continues to violate United Nations resolution 688 through ongoing terrorism against international relief efforts.

UN sanctions, which prohibit nonfood items from entering Iraq, are hindering Kurdish attempts to reconstruct and develop their war-ravaged economy. Saddam's personal embargo has exacerbated the situation by denying Kurds funds and services traditionally provided by the central government.

Most recently, Turkey, the main source of survival for Iraqi Kurds, reduced the amount of Iraqi oil it allows Turkish truckers to import from 4,000 to 400 liters per truck. This restriction is particularly serious, since nearly 80 percent of Kurdish revenues come from customs taxes. Certain measures must be taken to address the crisis.

First, the UN should partially lift the sanctions to exclude Iraqi Kurdistan. UN sanctions were aimed at punishing Saddam through an economic embargo. Unintentionally, the sanctions have deprived minority populations such as the Kurds, and not Saddam, of fuel, food, and services critical for survival. They also ignore the international legal rights of the Kurds as an autonomous group within Iraq.

Since May 1992, Kurdish leaders have compromised their separatist sentiments in the effort to secure lasting peace and stability for the Kurdish people. The regional government has evolved into a viable political structure capable of administering the region according to democratic principles.

This political decision, however, leaves the Kurds caught in the structural dilemma of international law. Because they remain an autonomous unit within the state, the Kurds are not differentiated from the oppressive Iraqi regime.

There is no escape mechanism by which they can distinguish themselves legally from Baghdad. In an era in which the traditional geopolitical state system is disintegrating, it is becoming increasingly necessary to enlarge the scope of international legal means to include regional-autonomous governments.

A second measure is to remove all aspects of relief assistance from central government control. The UN made a serious mistake in October 1992 when it failed to fully implement the Security Council's resolution aimed at seizing approximately $500 million in Iraqi assets to compensate war victims. Instead, the UN was duped by Iraqi Foreign Minister Muhammad Said al-Sahaf's alternative plan to sell Iraqi oil for similar relief purposes.

The UN was not guaranteed a sufficient role in monitoring oil sales and securing Baghdad's distribution of food and medicine. Not surprisingly, the arrangement has failed miserably. Saddam continues to divert food and fuel to his Baathist cohorts while sabotaging relief trucks headed north.

Third, recognition and support of the Kurdish regional government is essential to Kurdish survival in the long term. Political officials have worked for months staffing ministries, formulating studies, and creating a centralized administrative structure in the north. The Kurdish government is now at a critical stage in its political development and requires cooperation from local, regional, and western organizations in the form of technical support and resource sharing.

According to Mamun Brefkani, minister of reconstruction and development, "Without essential equipment and supplies, our cement factories, cigarette manufacturing plants, oil refineries, printing presses, and communications networks will remain idle."

Under the direction of the Allied Forces' Military Command Center's Relief Coordination Center in Arbil, existing nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) should begin transitioning their operations to local Kurdish groups and/or relevant ministries of the regional government. The situation has drastically changed since March 1991, when Kurds were stranded in the mountains as refugees without an administrative and political structure.

With sufficient funds and NGO cooperation, the Kurdish government can begin to implement the projects it has spent the past 10 months developing.

The Kurdish situation cannot be ignored as an issue of national sovereignty. It is also a regional problem involving Turkey, Syria, and Iran, which are threatened by the destabilizing effects of their own Kurdish populations. The Kurds occupy a strategic location between historical rival empires. For the US, addressing the Kurdish issue involves political responsibility and national interest in peace and regional security.

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