The Kurds Get in Their Own Way Under the Wing of US Protection

People without a country blow their chance to unite in northern Iraq after the Gulf war

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FOUR years after United States planes made food literally fall from the sky and US troops sent Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein's Army fleeing, Americans still have a demigod-like status here in northern Iraq.

Kurdish children wave to foreigners as they did to troops here in 1991. Kurdish soldiers smile at foreign cars through long lines at military checkpoints. And many Kurds treat foreign journalists as omnipotent messengers, able to convince the world to come save them with an article or two.

''We are very honored by your presence here,'' Kurdish villager Adil Rasheed Zubei says, telling reporters how Turkish forces shelled his village last week. ''Let everyone know about our plight, and do something for us as quickly as possible.''

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Turkey's decision to send 35,000 troops into northern Iraq two weeks ago to wipe out the Marxist Kurdish Workers' Party (PKK) guerrilla movement has refocused the world's attention, if only fleetingly, on the Kurds.

An estimated 20 million Kurds endure varying degrees of discrimination in an area that spans parts of Turkey, Azerbaijan, Iraq, Syria, and Iran. Non-Arab Sunni Muslims who speak their own language, Kurds were first referred to as a distinct group by ancient Greek historians around 400 BC.

Over the last 100 years, short-lived independent Kurdish states in the picturesque wheat and barley fields, orchard-dotted hills, and rugged snowcapped mountains of the region, have been crushed by the Ottoman Turks, the Shah of Iran, the British rulers of colonial Iraq, modern Turkey, and Saddam.

The revolts and retribution have been bloody. In the late 1980s, Saddam systematically destroyed thousands of Kurdish villages. In March 1988 an Iraqi poison-gas attack killed 5,000 Kurds in the town of Halabja. In neighboring southeastern Turkey, a guerrilla war between the PKK and government troops has killed 15,000 people since 1984.

But just after the 1991 Gulf war, the Kurd's situation looked as if it were improving. The United States victory over Saddam's forces in Kuwait and former President George Bush's exhortations led the Kurds and other groups to revolt against the weakened Iraqi leader.

Iraqi forces quickly crushed the revolt, and to avert a humanitarian disaster, the US, Britain, France, and Turkey launched Operation Provide Comfort. Food was dropped by parachute to hungry Kurds and a no-fly zone was established in northern Iraq to prevent Iraqi jets from bombing the planes.

Hopes were high that the Kurds' time had finally come. The US and its allies opposed the creation of an independent ''Kurdistan,'' but the West felt the Kurds could develop some form of autonomous self-government that could be eventually reincorporated into Iraq after Saddam falls.

Four years later, Saddam is still in power and according to Western observers, massive corruption and infighting among Kurdish leaders is laying the groundwork for another Kurdish tragedy.

Infighting resumed between forces loyal to Kurdish leaders Jalal Talabani and Massoud Barzani late last year after political deadlock following 1992 elections. Western diplomats say the fighting prevented the more moderate Talabani and Barzani from forcing the radical PKK guerrillas out of northern Iraq -- opening the door for a Turkish invasion.

Reports surfaced Tuesday that seven Kurds had been shot execution-style and mutilated by Turkish soldiers. With the Turkish government refusing to say when its forces will leave, the Kurds are once again looking to omnipotent America to save them.

''America is able to stop Turkey from doing atrocities to us,'' says Zubeir, the villager. ''We have human ties to the rest of the world. We have the right for the rest of the world to look after us.''

After all the tragic history few Kurds express bitterness. Most are farmers and focus their energies on their large, closely knit families.

But Western aid workers in northern Iraq say the Kurds don't realize how much they've lost by failing to unite over the last four years. Western governments, eager to find a reason not to do more in northern Iraq, are saying that the squabbling Kurds may be history's great failures, not history's great victims. ''The biggest goal of [the no-fly zone] was to protect them from Saddam Hussein,'' says one Western diplomat. ''What it hasn't done is protect them from themselves.''

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