THE Kurds of northern Iraq are heading into winter with their political future as uncertain as ever - and with food and fuel stocks so low that even a belated international relief effort may not head off hardship.
As the cold weather set in this weekend, the Iraqi Kurdish leadership was dealt a heavy blow by a Nov. 14 meeting of the foreign ministers of three key neighbors, Turkey, Syria, and Iran. The diplomats openly criticized the October declaration of a federal state in Iraqi Kurdistan and questioned the legitimacy and results of a recent congress of the broader Iraqi opposition, hosted late last month by the Kurds in Iraqi territory they control.
"We believe that acts and efforts that may divide Iraq, and developments which may lead to the disintegration of Iraq, will have negative and dangerous consequences for regional peace and security," a statement issued by the three ministers said.
Of more pressing concern to most of Iraq's 4 million or so Kurds is their desperate situation as they move into what could be another harsh winter with food and fuel stocks dangerously low.
The Kurds have been suffering a triple blockade - the general embargo imposed on Iraq by the United Nations, a year-long food and fuel blockade inflicted by Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's government, and a halt to truck traffic from Turkey because drivers either sympathized with, or were intimidated by, militant Kurds in Turkey who are at odds with their brethren in Iraq.
The UN's World Food Programme is planning an emergency operation to truck in about $22 million-worth of food, and the UN also announced it would start delivering about 2.6 million gallons of fuel to the Kurds in early December.
But for many in outlying areas, it may be too late. "Winter is almost here, and once the rain and snow arrive, there is no way to get supplies to the people in the villages," says Eberhard Walde of the Swiss charity Caritas. "Most of the roads will be closed by snow and mud. It's already very late to start trying to help."
Since holding free elections in May, the Iraqi Kurds have set up their own regional government to run their affairs - a step that caused alarm in neighboring Turkey, Iran, and Syria, which saw it as a separatist action that might stimulate dissent among their own restless Kurdish minorities. Statements by the foreign ministers objecting to efforts to "divide Iraq" clearly referred to the Oct. 4 announcement by the Iraqi Kurdish "regional parliament" declaring a federal state in Iraqi Kurdistan, although one within the framework of a unified Iraq.
Iraqi Kurdish leaders had hoped that they could defuse regional reaction to their move by uniting with the pan-Iraqi opposition and committing themselves to partnership in a united, democratic Iraq in the future.
They had also hoped that, by throwing their own guerrillas into a three-week battle to oust separatist Turkish Kurds of the radical Kurdish Workers' Party (PKK) from bases near the mountainous border with Turkey, they would have calmed Turkish objections.
But it did not work. Far from drawing reassurance from the broad Iraqi opposition embracing the Kurdish federalism idea, the three ministers questioned not only the move, but also the validity of the opposition itself.
"Who can prove that what has been decided [at the Iraqi opposition meeting] is based on the will of the majority of the people of Iraq?" asked Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati.
His Syrian counterpart, Farouk al-Sharaa, said the decisions of the opposition conference were "a way that might lead to the division of Iraq, which we cannot accept."
The ministers' statements drew sharp comment from Iraqi Kurdish officials. "My own conclusion is that they're worried about their own future - they don't want a democratic process in Iraqi Kurdistan because they fear it may affect their own people," says Latif Rashid of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan.
"They are worried about the new slogans of the Iraqi opposition, because for the first time they see it as an independent opposition that really believes in democracy," he adds. "They didn't mention Saddam once. It seems they would prefer a weak Iraq under Saddam to an opposition which brings democracy and new life to Iraq."
While disappointed by the meeting, Kurdish leaders believe it will make little difference. "After all, what did they do to help us get rid of Saddam anyway?" asks one. They believed their move against the PKK has in fact gained them discreet credit with Turkish officials, and that Turkey's motivation in calling the meeting was to secure Iranian and Syrian cooperation in curbing the radical separatists. Both countries have aided the PKK in the past.