US Zone for Iraqi Kurds Remains Hotbed of Conflict

IT was once the bustling, spit-and-polish command post of the US Marine unit sent here to save Kurds from Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

Today, cows, sheep, and goats graze in trash-filled corrals, a clothesline sways slowly in front of the dilapidated headquarters, and hundreds of Kurdish refugees are illegally squatting in ramshackle homes and crowded buildings.

''Living is very difficult, we're jobless,'' says Ishmael Fendi, one of 22 Kurdish refugees living in the one-floor former guard house. ''We are worried about where to find bread.''

Four years after the US led an allied effort to feed and protect the Kurds in northern Iraq, dire poverty, political instability, and Kurdish infighting still exist. Turkish officials say their recent incursion into northern Iraq is an attempt to fill a power-vacuum that allows Kurdish guerrillas to use the area as a base for mounting attacks on Turkey.

Western officials in northern Iraq say the United States-led effort -- known as Operation Provide Comfort -- was a tremendous success in the short term, but a major review of policy in the region is needed. Continuing to enforce a no-fly zone against Saddam's forces in northern Iraq, providing $40 million in annual aid to the Kurds, and waiting for Saddam to fall are not producing long-term stability in the region.

''How you put Humpty back together again, I'm not sure,'' says one Western observer. ''But we've got to face facts. If we don't reassess our underlying assumptions ... we're just buying ourselves in here for the long term.''

The biggest problem, Western officials and some Kurds say, is infighting between the two main northern Iraqi Kurdish factions headed by Jalil Talabani and Massoud Barzani. Elections were held in 1993, but the parties deadlocked over who would become the leader of the area, which had long been under Saddam's repressive rule.

''The bottom line is that the Kurds have got to do more for themselves,'' says a Western humanitarian aid official. ''A lot of the money they could have used to rehabilitate their infrastructure has gone to pay for the fighting. The longer it goes on, the more ridiculous it becomes.''

Unemployment in northern Iraq is running at 80 percent, and many villages destroyed by Saddam in the late 1980s have still not been rebuilt. And the person it is helping the most may be Saddam. Desperate to circumvent a United Nations prohibition on the sale of Iraqi fuel, the Iraqi leader has found willing partners among poor Kurds and Turks and corrupt Turkish border officials.

Local Kurdish officials estimate that prior to last month's Turkish military incursion, up to 1 million gallons of diesel fuel a day was being smuggled into Turkey through northern Iraq. While not producing large revenues for the Iraqi government, the purchasing of fuel from the Iraqi city of Mosul eases other economic pressures on Saddam there.

''It's a barter business. They take flour to Mosul, and they bring diesel back,'' says Nazir Tahir, who has Donald Duck painted on his tank outside of Dahuk, in the no-fly zone in northern Iraq. ''The [Turkish] invasion has affected business. If they withdraw, business will flourish again.''

Hundreds of impromptu Kurdish gas stations have sprouted like weeds along a three-mile stretch of highway leading to the Turkish border.

The more sophisticated operations involve rickety, but colorfully painted, tanks pulled from the back of fuel trucks. Other Kurds have set up tents and sell diesel from 50-gallon barrels. ''Diesel is cheaper than water in Mosul,'' says the Western aid official. ''They can buy it for 10 cents a gallon in Mosul and sell it for 50 cents a gallon to the Turks.''

ON the Turkish side of the border, more than 5,000 trucks parked along a 15-mile stretch of highway were seen this weekend waiting to cross into Turkey. Large, removable gas tanks have been welded between the front and rear wheels, nearly scraping the ground when the vehicles are fully loaded.

Drivers while away the time on the remote stretches of highway, living in their cabs for up to two weeks until they can cross the border.

Recent US protests over the smuggling led to an apparent crackdown by the Turkish government, but aid officials say the crackdown had more to do with the Turkish incursion into northern Iraq than to halt smuggling.

''The roads were literally blocked by trucks, three-abreast,'' the official says. ''It's hard to maneuver tanks around that many trucks.''

Whatever progress humanitarian aid groups are having in improving the economic situation in the region, aid officials say, is quickly being erased by new inter-Kurdish fighting.

Robert Blincoe, project director for the US aid group Northwest Medical Teams International, says the US should not give up on them.

''It's the demon of tribalism,'' Mr. Blincoe says, ''but you've got a lot of people who really want to throw off their father's loyalties.''

With the West rejecting a Turkish request for ground troops in the region last week, the chances for a major shift in policy here seem low.

Western observers say the troubles in northern Iraq will not just dissolve. ''I see the American policy in the region as being ... all magic and mystery,'' says the Western observer.

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