Kurdish dispute has long festered in the region

USA TODAY
September 3, 1996, Tuesday, FINAL CHASE EDITION
BYLINE: Tom Squitieri
SECTION: NEWS; Pg. 1A
LENGTH: 1073 words

Another U.S. election is drawing near and, once again, Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein has become an uninvited participant.

By sending his troops to attack Kurds in a northern Iraqi city declared off-limits to him by U.N. resolutions, Saddam has confronted President Clinton with a dicey foreign policy challenge just as the presidential campaign heats ups.

The Persian Gulf’s geopolitics complicate any action. Iraq is carrying out a proxy battle against Iran. Each country is aligned with opposite sides in an internal struggle between Kurdish factions.
U.S. officials hope neither prevails.

By ordering a U.S. military response early today, Clinton risks the downing of a U.S. airplane or having a hospital or school destroyed by U.S. missiles. But ignoring Saddam’s move, would have left him open to criticism from Republican opponent Bob Dole. Here is the background.

What prompted the crisis?

Iraq sent soldiers to capture the town of Irbil, controlled by a group of Kurdish separatists backed by Iran. The action violated a U.N. resolution prohibiting Iraqi military attacks on Kurds.

Iraq says its strike was in response to a request by a second group of Kurdish separatists, who asked Saddam to “help us ease the foreign threat” from Iran.

What is Saddam’s strategy?

Some experts speculate Saddam was trying to counter the Iranian support of Kurds inside Iraq. Others suggest he may be testing U.S. resolve once again.

Is this Saddam Hussein’s first attack against the Kurds?

No. In 1988 he launched a scorched earth campaign against the Kurds, which included a gas attack against a major Kurdish city. Tens of thousands were killed.

In March 1991, after Iraq’s defeat in the gulf war, Kurdish rebels seized several northern Iraqi towns. Saddam sent troops, causing more than 2 million to flee into Turkey and Iran.

The attack prompted U.N. resolutions in April prohibiting Iraqi planes and helicopters from flying north of the 36 degree parallel and establishing a “safe area” to protect the Kurds from Iraqi ground troops.

Who are the Kurds?

They are the largest ethnic group in the world that does not have an independent nation. More than 20 million Kurds live in a 74,000-square-mile wild mountain region — about the size of Washington state —
where the borders of Iraq, Iran, Turkey, Syria, Armenia and Azerbaijan converge. Of those, about 10 million Kurds live in Turkey, 5.5 million in Iran and 3.5 million in Iraq.

Kurds trace their history to the region thousands of years before the birth of Christ. They were a strong power in the Middle Ages. One of their military leaders, Saladin, recaptured Jerusalem from the crusaders in the 12th century.

Do the Kurds have any ties to their neighbors?

Kurds speak a language very similar to Farsi, which is the chief language in Iran. The overwhelming number of Kurds are Sunni Muslims, the sect of most of the Muslims living in Kuwait and Turkey. Iraqi
leader Saddam Hussein also is a Sunni.

Iranian Muslims are mostly of the Shiite sect. So are the so-called “marsh Arabs” of southern Iraq.

Why should Americans care?

First, any widespread disruption in the Middle East endangers the flow of oil. The last time there was a similar threat — Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990 — the United States responded by organizing
a multinational military response.

Second, the United States wants to prevent any expansion of Iraqi or Iranian power in the region.

Third, the U.S. government has disappointed the Kurds before, and may not want to again.

Are the Kurds united?

No. Within Iraq there are the two main groups that have been fighting for control of the region for 20 years.

The Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) is led by Massoud Barzani, grandson of legendary Kurdish rebel leader Mullah Mustafa Barzani. The party, founded in 1946, draws its strength from rural areas that are still tribal and semifeudal.

Barzani is trying to negotiate a compromise with Saddam and settle for a measure of autonomy. His group controls the western and rural areas of northern Iraq.

The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) was founded by Jalal Talabani in June 1975 after a dispute with Barzani. He accused the other party of being a backward, tribal organization. Talabani built his organization as a modern, leftist party. He developed broadcast and newspaper outlets to reach educated, urban Kurds.

Talabani wants to continue the struggle to topple Saddam and welcomes support from Iran. His group holds the eastern section and held Irbil until the weekend.

Did the two Kurdish groups just start fighting?

No. Tribal fighting first began in 1974, after Iraq permitted about four years of Kurdish autonomy. That fighting ended in 1975.

After the 1991 gulf war, the two appeared to reconcile under U.S. pressure. In 1992 elections, the two parties took 50 seats each in the regional Kurdish government.

Fighting resumed in December 1994, after each side accused the other of not sharing revenues from an illicit oil trade with Turkey. About 4,000 were killed before a U.S.-arranged cease-fire in August 1995. Fighting resumed on Aug. 17, 1996.

Who does the United States support?

In theory, both sides. U.S. officials have pushed the rivals to work together to create a strong Kurdish region in Iraq. It has also worked to keep each group from enlisting outside aid from Iran and Iraq.

The United States promised to fund a monitoring force of neutral Kurds and others, but never provided the $ 1 million.

On Friday, U.S. officials called together representives of the rival Kurdish factions based in London in an effort to negotiate an extension of the U.S.-brokered cease-fire. No progress was made.

Have the Kurds been independent?

Yes, twice. After World War I, President Woodrow Wilson promised them an independent state as the map of the Middle East was being redrawn. But the British and French vetoed the idea after oil was discovered in Iraqi Kurdistan. Turkey also objected for fear it would lose territory.

After World War II the Kurds in Iran, helped by the Soviet Union, created their own independent homeland. But it collapsed after 11 months when Moscow pulled its support in order to curry favor with oil-rich Iran. The shah’s army wiped the Kurdish nation off the map.