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A No-Fly, Yes-Democracy Zone
SUN, 15 JUL 2001 07:48
The Washington Post
July 15, 2001
While conducting research in Iraq last month, I visited an academy where law enforcement trainers were trying to mold a kinder, gentler police force. In Saddam Hussein's Iraq, this would be a doomed venture. But I was in Iraqi Kurdistan -- where a safe haven for Kurds was created by the Western allies after the 1991 Gulf War, and where democratic institutions are beginning to flourish as Saddam's influence shrivels.
Though largely unintended, this crucible of democracy is a welcome byproduct of the military arrangements that followed the Gulf War. Yet in recent months Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has been contemplating a cutback of the U.S. sorties over the no-fly zone north of the 36th parallel. The argument for doing so is that sooner or later, Iraqi anti-aircraft gunners will get lucky and shoot down a U.S. plane, and our military will be forced to retaliate.
But any reduction in patrolling the no-fly zone would be wrong. The impact of the U.S. and British flights extends well south of the 36th parallel, throughout the Kurdish-controlled areas. Kurds I visited in such cities as Sulaymaniyah believe their safety is dependent on the nearby allied presence; and indeed, despite occasional taunting advances, Saddam's troops have left the Kurds essentially alone since 1991. One day historians just might view Iraqi Kurdistan as the precursor of the post-Saddam Iraq many of us would like to see: a democratic society with a stable, federal government.
Even if this bright future never dawns, Iraqi Kurdistan's people -- mostly Kurds, but also Turkomans and Arabs -- deserve credit for nurturing an increasingly robust civil society in spite of Baghdad's obstructionism. Moreover, they deserve America's respect, since history has mostly denied them any form of self-governance. In the nasty game of musical chairs that followed the breakup of the Ottoman Empire, the Kurds have been left standing. Though the fourth-largest ethnic group in the region, the Kurds have never been able to establish and maintain their own country, and have remained powerless minorities wherever they lived.
The U.S. government, however, has paid no attention to the impressive things that have been happening in the area. Furthermore, there seems to be a blackout in the media as well. In late May, Iraqi Kurdistan's Dohuk and Irbil provinces held elections in which 15 political parties participated; Sulaymaniyah held its municipal elections in February 2000. International non-governmental organizations provided technical advice to the observers, and U.N. staff served on the monitoring committee. These are the first free and fair elections held in Iraq since 1957 -- and they were ignored in the Western media.
Similarly, few foreigners are aware of the progress being made in Iraqi Kurdistan toward building a civil society. In Irbil, I visited the Runahee Foundation, a women's organization that provides care for people who are blind or visually impaired -- in some cases, by Saddam's chemical weapons attacks. At the University of Sulaymaniyah, students are conducting a census of the areas devastated by Iraqi forces during Saddam's 1987-88 genocidal attack on the Kurds. As well as counting residents, they will serve as oral historians, recording the testimonials of the survivors and the families of those killed.
Meanwhile, the oil-for-food money that has been misused in the rest of Iraq is being put to good use in Iraqi Kurdistan. There are no starving babies there; satellite dishes, banned in Saddam's Iraq, sprout from the roofs of mud-brick houses in Kurdish villages; and Internet cafes are proliferating as the populace gamely embraces globalization.
To put these scenes in perspective, one must contrast them with what happened here before the intervention. In the spring of 1987, as the Iran-Iraq war ground to a stalemate, the Baghdad regime turned its attention to collectively punishing Kurds for their support of Iran. A military assault, led by Saddam's cousin Ali Hassan Majeed, was launched to depopulate rural areas whose residents were believed to be disloyal. Iraqi forces routinely used chemical weapons against men, women and children, killing thousands in one attack on the town of Halabja; they are also suspected of having used biological weapons. By the winter of 1988, more than 4,000 villages had been destroyed, more than 100,000 civilians had been slaughtered, some 180,000 others had disappeared, and Iraqi Kurdistan's infrastructure had been devastated.
While in Sulaymaniyah last month, I entered the burned-out remnants of a former prison that, a decade ago, had swarmed with Saddam's intelligence officers and torturers. In one cell were six precisely aligned meat hooks. On the wall of another was a pencil sketch of Superman, scrawled in a childish hand; age clearly presented no barrier to a regime determined to be an equal-opportunity killer.
The horror came to an end in 1991, when the general uprising that followed Iraq's defeat in the Gulf War led to the establishment of the no-fly zones, and the safe haven for Kurds.
The political and educational accomplishments of Iraqi Kurdistan in the 10 years since then deserve to be preserved and enhanced. At the universities of Dohuk, Salahaddin and Sulaymaniyah, the faculties are thirsting for up-to-date curricula and teacher training to reinforce the political progress. Each of these universities is desperate to establish ties with faculties and schools in the West. Public health workers are particularly needed to deal with the aftermath of years of chemical, biological and traditional warfare.
Many institutions that might help have all but given up on trying to get into the area, however, because of the difficulty of the journey. There are no local airports (and, in any case, the no-fly zone prohibits civilian flights as well), so American educators, journalists and public health experts must enter overland, relying on the goodwill of the neighboring Turkish, Iranian and Syrian governments. The United States should put pressure on these neighbors -- particularly Turkey, as a NATO ally -- to provide easy access for journalists, educators and non-governmental organizations. At the Turkish border crossing, visitors are often denied permission to enter, or may be forced to wait at checkpoints for hours, even during these blistering summer months.
In contrast, I learned from a British reporter that his crossing from Iran at Haj Umran had been speedy and uneventful. Since Americans still find it difficult to get visas to Iran, that access point is less useful to us -- but the ease of the Haj Umran crossing should be applauded by U.S. officials, as should every other access point that offers the same flexibility and efficiency.
Conversely -- and even more importantly -- the no-fly zone must be maintained, reinforced and arguably expanded into a no-drive zone, formally prohibiting Iraqi tanks from crossing the 36th parallel. (Currently, the United States might choose to intervene if Saddam's forces moved in by land, but is not obligated to do so.) Should the Iraqi army ever violate this safe haven, no part of which is any farther from Republican Guard positions than Washington is from Richmond, it would not only crush this experiment in democracy, but destabilize the entire region, sending as many as 3 million refugees into Iran and Turkey.
I'm no military expert. But it seems common-sense that a reduction in air patrols over the no-fly zone would only make it more difficult to keep track of Saddam's emplacements and troop movements. Such a reduction would embolden Iraqi troops -- putting U.S. and British forces in more danger, not less. What is needed is an unequivocal and muscular U.S. presence in the region, a projection of power, the only language Saddam comprehends.
Iraqi Kurdistan represents the future the United States should want for all of Iraq. It has become the leading edge of liberty there. As long as Saddam Hussein remains in power, our no-fly zone is the protective hand cupped over the Kurds' flickering experiment in cultural and political pluralism. If this democratic flame is to be fanned and possibly spread throughout Iraq, the United States must not let it be snuffed out.
Carole O'Leary is a scholar in residence at the American University Center for Global Peace, where she oversees the Mustafa Barzani Global Kurdish Studies program.
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