IRAQ has completed the forced relocation of thousands of Kurds, a government spokesman told the Monitor. Meanwhile, Iraqi officials say they hope press coverage they are arranging for a Kurdish election in two weeks will dispel ``myths'' of reported suffering caused by the relocation.
Baghdad announced on June 26 it was clearing Kurdish and Arab citizens from a 20-mile-wide strip along its borders with Iran and Turkey, beginning north of the Persian Gulf port of Basra.
Baghdad hasn't confirmed the number of Kurds relocated. But estimates from other reports range from 200,000 to 500,000.
``Throughout modern history, many states have removed parts of their population from a certain area for civil or military reasons,'' says Salah Al-Mukhtar, Director General of Foreign Information at the Ministry of Information and Culture.
``Why, then, does the world focus on Iraq?'' he asks.
Iraq's treatment of its Kurdish minority is a sensitive issue because Iraq is widely believed to have used chemical weapons against them on two occasions. Several thousand Kurds died in March 1988 when Iraq bombed the city of Halabja. Last fall, up to 60,000 Kurds streamed into Turkey, fleeing an Iraqi assault along the northern border. About 36,000 Iraqi Kurds remain in refugee camps in Turkey, despite three amnesty offers by Iraq.
Asked if the relocation was necessary, Ismat Kittani, Iraq's outgoing representative to the United Nations, responds, ``I don't know. I'm not responsible for this, thank God.'' Mr. Kittani is himself a Kurd.
In the United States, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee has proposed economic sanctions against Iraq for mistreatment of its Kurds. The bill will be considered in September.
US businessmen and State Department officials oppose sanctions. The businessmen don't want to lose access to Iraq's huge postwar reconstruction market, while the State Department says the measure is unprecedented and, in its view, counterproductive on the Kurdish issue. (See story, page 9.)
``We are clearing the border strip of the entire population, including Kurds and others living there,'' Mr. Mukhtar says. ``We must remove them from the security threat of additional Iranian bombardments.'' Iraq and Iran fought an eight-year war which was halted by a cease-fire in August 1988. Iraqi troops launched the fall attack on its Kurds, many of whom had accepted Iranian support during the war.
``Secondly, the living conditions are inhumane along this area,'' Mukhtar says. ``There are no houses, just very primitive quarters, under trees or inside caves, for example. There is no clean water, no electricity, no schools and no hospitals.''
``The design is to transfer the population to modern towns and cities. In nearby Arbil, we have built 20 new complexes just to house these Kurdish people,'' he adds.
``Journalists saw all of the new houses and services we provided for the Kurds in the Kurdish cities of Kirkuk and Sulaymaniyah,'' he says. ``There they can find better employment than what they were doing in the border area, which was basically nothing. Along the border strip they smuggled goods and attacked villages.''
Diplomats and businessmen in Baghdad say the government wants to dispose of the Kurdish insurgency problem once and for all. Some who have been in the northeastern mountainous region say the government is unconcerned with Kurdish welfare. They describe certain villages in the area as ghost towns, except for the presence of the military.
Kittani denies reports that Kurds were sent to predominantly Arab parts of Iraq. ``The statement by the government is very clear that they have a choice of where they want to live - whether, for example, in Arbil or in Sulaymaniyah.''
``The propaganda in London,'' Kittani says, referring to a June account in The Guardian, ``was that they were going to let loose thousands in the desert, which is not the truth.''
`` And besides, by sending 200,000 to the desert, what are they going to do with the other 3 million?'' Kittani asks, using the Guardian estimate of the number of Kurds to be moved. ``They did send some who came back from Iran ... in 1975 down south. But that was a horrible mistake.''
``We are moving the Kurds from border villages to cities within the Kurdish region, not to Arab areas,'' Mukhtar says. ``In fact, we are preserving the national features of the two distinct areas. There is no Arabization going on,'' he insists. There are 3.2 million to 4 million Kurds in Iraq, a mostly Arab country of 16 million inhabitants. A Kurdish population of 20 million is spread across Iraq, Turkey, Iran, Syria, and the Soviet Union.
A Western diplomat who met with relocated Kurds says he found them isolated in barren land, but within the Kurdish Autonomous Region created by Baghdad in northeast Iraq in 1974. He reports that the Kurds complained that they were not permitted to take their livestock with them. And even if they had their herds, the diplomat says they told him, their new-found land proved unsuitable for grazing. They cannot find work outside their traditional livelihood, as there is no industry or business nearby in which to find employment, the diplomat says.
Mukhtar defends Iraq's treatment of its Kurds, and charges that Kurds fare worse elsewhere. ``Iraqi Kurds are the only Kurds in the world who enjoy the privilege of autonomy, the rights of using their own language, practicing their own customs and national life, including constitutional recognition that they are the second nationality in Iraq.... They have a local government and local parliament elected directly by the citizens and they have their participation in the Iraqi National Assembly in Baghdad.''
However, Western diplomats say that Baghdad controls the Kurdish press and influences which candidates run for the 50-member legislative council and 30-member executive council. Baghdad is inviting journalists to visit the north during the Kurdish National Assembly's Legislative Council elections Sept. 9.
In Baghdad, Kurdish life is well within the public view, but it is ``official,'' a Western diplomat insists. It consists of Kurds who are loyal to the Iraqi government and eager to praise it.
One such ``loyalist,'' a poolside fixture at Baghdad's posh Al-Rasheed hotel, presents himself unsolicited to a Western journalist and announces, ``I am a Kurd.'' He then awaits questions.