New Relief for the Kurds

They were financially marooned by the sanctions against Iraq

THE United Nations Security Council has just passed a much needed resolution to assist the Kurds and other victims in their survival against the Baathist regime in Iraq. Adopted by all member states except China, this plan seeks to seize approximately $500 million of Iraq's $4 billion in overseas assets to compensate for war-related costs, such as purchasing and distributing relief items to civilians and detecting and destroying Iraq's nuclear and chemical weapons.

The majority of these assets are oil payments due Iraq and undelivered cargoes of its oil, which have been frozen since Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990. For the country's 3 million Kurds the timing of this resolution is appropriate. Continued security threats, political constraints, and economic deprivation reveal the seriousness of the situation and why seizure must take place immediately.

Saddam Hussein has shown no interest in promoting democracy, peace, and security in Iraq. The 10-month blockade imposed by the Iraqi Army south of the 36th parallel prevents food, fuel, and supplies from entering Kurdish areas. Continued assaults against the Shiites in southern Iraq and problems with UN inspections of Iraqi's nuclear facilities have heightened Allied anxieties.

Most recently, Saddam rejected a Security Council offer to sell $1.6 billion worth of oil every six months to pay for critical imports. He also refused to renew the UN agreement that maintains relief workers and guards at Iraqi distribution centers. Relief programs have nearly stopped, preventing the safe distribution of services and supplies to the population.

Although Baghdad has recently changed its position by offering to renegotiate Iraqi oil sales and temporarily extending UN visas, obstacles remain. Saddam must agree to allow the UN safely to deliver relief supplies and to ensure that the Kurds, and not Iraqi officials, receive the designated goods. Based on his previous actions, cooperation is likely to be problematic.

UN sanctions unintentionally have been most harmful to the Kurds. Freezing Iraq's assets removed a major source of revenue for Iraqi Kurdistan. Prior to the war, the Kurds were provided a portion of the central government's budget to administer Kurdish areas. Since the sanctions, however, they have not received their allocation of expenditures. According to Satchil Khazzaz, representative of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) in Ankara, "Once Iraqi assets were frozen, Saddam compensated by cutting ou t the Kurdish portion of the budget."

Without money, Kurdish officials are constrained politically. In May 1992, the Iraqi Kurds elected their own National Assembly, the first democratic structure of its kind in Iraq. While a significant accomplishment for the Kurds, there are still problems to resolve, including power-sharing between two leaders, tribal discontent, centralizing of political structures, relations with regional neighbors, and economic development.

Yet because of the sanctions, Kurdish officials and civil servants have not received salaries in months. This attempt at democracy will be difficult to sustain without sufficient resources to support the effort.

At the same time, the Kurds face political and economic pressures in the north. During the summer, Turkish Kurdish insurgents, the Kurdish Workers' Party (PKK), terrorized Turkish truck drivers and prevented them from transporting food and supplies into Iraqi Kurdistan. Although the PKK has temporarily stopped the blockade, the situation remains precarious. Food prices have soared while the value of the Iraqi dinar to the US dollar has fallen 45-fold since the Persian Gulf war. Even with food and supplie s available, lack of hard currency poses the additional problem of how to pay for relief items.

Even more serious are the scarcity of fuel and the environmental consequences. Sanctions against Iraqi oil are informally violated by truckers and "helpful," armed Turkish and Kurdish guards, all of whom profit handsomely by exporting cheap Iraqi diesel fuel to neighboring Turkey. But petrol is largely unavailable to the majority of the Kurdish population. Siphoning diesel fuel from vehicles is common, and as Kurds turn to alternative sources of fuel in preparation for the winter, the woodlands in Kurdis tan are all but disappearing.

It is in the Security Council's interest to provide relief assistance to Iraqi Kurdistan. Existing economic hardships could exacerbate this politically volatile area, threaten regional security, and dismantle the political structure the Kurds have worked so hard to establish. While the Kurds have made great strides in establishing a democratic structure, they still need international support for their efforts.

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