The speaker, Prime Minister Barham Salih, joined the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) in 1976 when it was yet an underground movement. Arrested twice by the Iraqi authorities, he left Iraq in 1979 for England where he earned a B.S. in civil and structural engineering from the University of Cardiff and a Ph.D. in statistics and computer modeling from the University of Liverpool. He became the PUK's London spokesman in 1985, then moved to Washington in 1991 where he was a leading advocate for the Iraqi opposition. Today he is prime minister of the Kurdistan Regional Government in Sulayimania, Iraq.
Perhaps the main debate of the post-September 11 crisis is what steps the U.S. should take after defeating Usama bin Laden and the Taliban. One camp holds that the war should end in Afghanistan. The other camp seeks to confront all states that support terror - notably Iraq. This latter position is strongly supported by the Iraqi opposition.
September 11 in Perspective
Iraqi Kurds know what it is to lose 5,000 people in a single day. It happened to them when Iraq used chemical and possibly biological agents against the Kurds in 1988. While there is no hard evidence that Iraq is implicated in the attacks on America, Iraqi strongman Saddam Husayn is capable of such brutality.
The Iraqi opposition now anxiously awaits the U.S. policies that evolve out of Operation Enduring Freedom. Right now, Northern Iraq is part of the Northern "no-fly zone," protected by the US and the UK. This area has come to be known as Kurdistan, ruled by Kurds. While they are content with this safe haven in Iraq, Kurds are eager to see Saddam's illegitimate regime toppled so that democratic, self-governing principles can be instituted throughout Iraq. They hope Iraq becomes the next target.
In the northern "no-fly zone" Kurds succeeded in building a civil society and made great strides toward true democracy. It is not merely an ethnic project; Kurds now have a decade of governing experience, and want to apply that to a larger Iraqi democracy that will one day become a responsible member of the community of nations.
The Kurdish government today boasts a civil administration that employs 82,000 people. It provides services through ministries of education, culture, finance and more. Further, it provides benefits to the Iraqi people through the Oil-for-Food program, construction projects, UN programs, and trade with Turkey.
Kurdistan's social and economic indicators are also very encouraging. In 1991 it had only 504 schools in the region; by 2000 there were 1,600. In 1991, there were 199 doctors; in 2001 there were 676. The status of women is up while crime rates and child deaths are down. Further, there are some 55 newspapers, all operating under a free press. This is in marked contrast to Western Iraq where Saddam deprives his people of basic liberties.
The Importance of Iraq in the Region
Iraq may be linked to the terror and Anthrax attacks in America, but there is still no conclusive evidence. What can be said, however, is that bin Laden's terrorist actions are a consequence of a world that tolerates despots like Saddam. The international community must recognize its enemies, and prevent the suffering of innocents at the hands of tyrants. Indeed, Iraq is one of the most visible manifestations of anti-Americanism and repression.
Moreover, Saddam has a dangerous history. He has already used weapons of mass destruction against his own people and against Iran. What would prevent him from doing so against the U.S.? He has the political will, the technology, and is getting more money through illegal oil sales. The West can no longer afford to be indifferent to this situation. The danger is too great.
While the risks of military intervention in Iraq are grave, ignoring the problem is no longer an option. Saddam must be overthrown.
Fortunately, the Iraqi regime is far weaker than most people believe. Ousting Saddam would simply require an American military and political commitment. The U.S. should realize the value of the opposition forces inside Iraq and employ them. American ground troops would be unnecessary because existing opposition forces could be very effective in conjunction with U.S. bombing raids, not unlike the cases of Afghanistan, Kosovo or Bosnia.
No matter how it is done, America will almost certainly be forced to use military force against Saddam in the future.
Saddam's Arab Support
Saddam still enjoys support in the Arab world because the Iraqi propaganda machine has been good while the anti-Iraq campaign has not been as successful. The Arab countries that enjoy American economic support must do a better job of explaining the U.S. position. Indeed, America needs better Middle East allies. For instance, papers owned by Saudi Arabia like al-Hayat and al-Sharq al-Awsat should do a better job of explaining America's policy rather than fanning the flames of anger on the Arab street.
The Question of Sanctions
In a recently released video, Usama bin Laden stated that the suffering of Iraq's children justified the attacks of September 11. In reality, Iraqi children have nothing to do with these terrorist acts. Sanctions are not the cause of suffering in Iraq. These policies have unquestionably helped Iraqis. It is Saddam's corrupt political system that denies human rights to the people. As long as that system prevails, the Iraqis will suffer.
One way of countering Saddam's corruption has been the Oil-for-Food program. Prior to its implementation, much of Iraq's wealth was squandered on weapons. Now, for the first time, oil wealth provides for Iraq's people, not just its leaders.
Recently, Kurdistan has been targeted by Usama bin Laden's al-Qa'ida network through an organization called Jund al-Islam, or " Soldiers of Islam." According to Kurdish intelligence, a group numbering around 500 was formed early this summer when two Islamist groups joined forces with the military wing of the Islamic Union (the principle Islamic organization of Iraqi Kurdistan, and member of the coalition government). Bin Laden targets the Kurds because they are secular, democratic and represent the American values that he seeks to undermine.
It is known that members of Jund al-Islam received training at al-Qa'ida bases in Afghanistan. Further, one of its leaders, Abu Abed al-Rahman, was said to be a personal envoy of bin Laden.
On September 23, the group ambushed and killed 42 Kurds, leaving the Kurds no option but to respond with punishing reprisals. Field reports indicate that Rahman was killed in a battle with Kurdish forces. Still, bin Laden's framework remains. Kurdish groups must now work in cooperation for regional security.
Iraq's Kurds and Israel
The Kurds have always enjoyed the sympathy and support from Jews and Jewish Americans. They share a common history of genocide. However, the Kurds are a vulnerable people that seek acceptance amidst Arabs and Muslims, and therefor must be careful in crafting external perceptions vis-à-vis Israel. Still, once a representative system is brought to Iraq, the world could witness a very different security system in the Middle East, and a very different dynamic for Arab-Israeli relations.
Iraq's Kurds and Turkey
Despite the largely tumultuous Kurdish-Turkish history, Kurdistan's relations with Turkey have improved over the years. Turkey is crucial for the future of a democratic Iraq because it is a member of NATO, and because it is a secular democracy. Indeed, Turkey is a good model for the government many Kurds would like to see Iraq become.
A Vision for the Future
Despite ten years of success, it's not possible to turn Kurdistan into a state. It would not be viable; and Iraqi Kurds see themselves first and foremost as Iraqis. They want to live free as Kurds in Baghdad. Our vision is to create a political system that turns Iraq's diverse population into an asset, using America as a model. Iraqis must all learn to live together - Kurds and Arabs, Shiis and Sunnis. Iraq must be shaped to support human rights and basic freedoms. In the end, Kurdish salvation lies in a new democratic government to be formed in Baghdad.
Summary account by Jonathan Schanzer, research associate at the Middle East Forum.