The Kurdish dilemma

Barham Salih, prime minister of Northern Iraq's Kurdistan regional government, talks about the recent attempt on his life, why he wants a regime change in Baghdad and what should happen in the days after Saddam is deposed.


Asla Aydintasbas
September 6, 2002 11:00PM (UTC)

In March 2002, Barham Salih, prime minister of the Kurdistan regional government in Northern Iraq, narrowly escaped an assassination attempt by al-Qaida-backed militants. These days, the straight-talking Kurdish politician is in Washington to talk to the Bush administration about war, taking out Saddam Hussein, and yes, how to deal with his own al-Qaida problem.

Whether they like it or not, Salih and his fellow Kurds are at the center -- literally -- of the current Iraq war plans. If Washington ultimately decides to unseat the regime of Saddam with military action, local opposition forces -- including some 80,000 armed Kurdish peshmerga (meaning "those who face death") fighters -- might end up playing a role similar to that of the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan. The Kurds are experienced in guerrilla warfare, have a safe base in Northern Iraq from which to launch operations, and are eager to see Saddam Hussein gone.

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Long before "regime change" was a popular phrase in Washington, the Iraqi Kurds were fighting Baghdad for greater autonomy. Tens of thousands of Kurds perished when Saddam Hussein -- then a U.S. favorite in his war against Iran -- embarked on his famous Anfal campaign to quash the Kurdish opposition in 1988. Pompeii-like pictures of an Iraqi chemical attack on the Kurdish town of Halabja, which killed 5,000 in seconds, were among the first revelations the West had of the uncontrollable ferocity of the Iraqi dictator. When Kurds listened to Bush pere at the end of the Gulf War and rose up against Baghdad, and were quickly abandoned by the allied forces, 1.5 million fled to the Turkish border and thousands died. In 1996, Washington pulled the plug on an effort to topple Saddam at the eleventh hour, forcing more than 5,000 involved with the opposition into exile.

But since the Gulf War, the Kurdish safe haven -- z region the size of Austria, home to 4 million people and controlled by two main Kurdish factions -- has been going through a period of relative stability and prosperity, a "Kurdish spring." With international aid flowing and the American military protecting the skies, Kurds now have new schools, Internet cafes, newspapers and, according to Salih, "something tangible about civil society from the ashes of genocide."

As the prime minister of the fragile self-governing region acknowledged, Kurds have a lot to gain and a lot to fear from military action to topple Saddam. At best, they hope for an autonomous Kurdish federation and greater say in Iraqi affairs; at worst, they fear they might once again be the targets of Saddam's wrath.

As is always the case, Iraqi Kurdistan's two main ruling parties are divided on what to do. Salih's Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) has already decided to join the U.S. effort to oust Hussein. Last week PUK leader Jelal Talabani invited American troops to the region. (During talks in Washington, Talabani also asked for gas masks and military guarantees to protect Kurdistan's citizens from chemical attacks.) A rival group, the Kurdistan Democratic Party, led by Mesud Barzani, is taking a more cautious approach and has not yet signed on to a U.S. strike.

And then there is the whole al-Qaida business. Soon after the war in Afghanistan started, rumors started going around of al-Qaida operatives taking their war to the Kurdish safe haven in northern Iraq. Under the guise of a local Islamic fundamentalist group, Ansar al-Islam, the jihadis staged a few attacks on local Kurdish officials, including last April's attempt on Salih's life, and caught the attention of the Bush administration. The PUK's claims initially drew skepticism, but have since been corroborated by numerous reporters in the region and by Washington's own intelligence. Rumors of Iraqi connections and speculation that the group might actually provide the White House with an excuse to go after Saddam have not gone anywhere. So far, at least.

Meanwhile, as he is making rounds in Washington, the 41-year-old Kurdish politician, who holds a Ph.D. in statistics and computer modeling from the University of Liverpool, is busy making a far more compelling case than all the saber-rattling from Vice President Dick Cheney and talk of preemptive strikes. "We are not embarking on anything new now -- we Kurds embarked on this decades ago," Salih says, "This is not a war against Iraq but a war for Iraq ... This should be about the freedom of Iraqi people -- about empowering Iraqis to reclaim their country as a nation at peace with its own people."

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Let's start with the recent attempt on your life. You literally dodged a bullet when al-Qaida-related Islamic militants tried to assassinate you in northern Iraq last March.

Three people attacked my home when I was about to come out, killing five of my bodyguards. Two of the assassins were killed; the other one fled and was later captured by security services. After debriefing, he established to us that he was set up to assassinate me upon the orders of al-Qaida -- for they are unhappy about the secular approach that we have in our region and they consider our region a zone of American influence.

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Coming at a time when there was relative peace in the north of Iraq, it must have shaken you.

My bodyguards were like a family to me. They had worked for me for a long time. The worst part is to think that people paid with their lives to protect me. That's a big issue for my conscience; it gives me a great sense of responsibility. I had never doubted that my job carried serious risks with it. We live in a tough neighborhood. We Kurds are trying to rebuild our shattered lives and build something new. I had expected that we would be subject to threats and assassinations and so on. But nothing is like seeing and feeling it, especially when you lose people close to you.

How do you know they were related to al-Qaida? After all, there have always been small fundamentalist groups in that region.

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The way we understand al-Qaida is that it's a loose federation of various entities subscribing to the same ideology and trying to promote the same values and policies. [This group], Ansar Al-Islam, is led by a hard core of Afghan Arabs [Arab fighters who fought against the Russians in Afghanistan] numbering about 120. Few were in this remote area [Halabja] before 9/11. Many more arrived afterwards, fleeing the war in Afghanistan. They are working under the cover of the Ansar al-Islam movement but in essence they are part and parcel of al-Qaida, directed and under instructions from them.

Ansar al-Islam has suddenly cropped up in Western media as well, even being cited as justification for a possible U.S. military action. What are they up to and why all of a sudden?

I try to step back and look at it in a context. This is a region that has seen so much destruction. Thanks to the relative peaceful environment we have seen for some time now -- and no doubt thanks to the protection accorded to us by the U.S. and British military facilitated by Turkish coordination -- we have been able to embark on a process of self-government. Something tangible in terms of a civil society and the rule of law is emerging from the ashes of genocide. I am not going to tell you that everything is rosy. We do have our problems. Democratic institutions will take a long time to grow. But in this terrible geopolitics and with the history we have, it's remarkable what we have achieved.

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Here is a statistic I am proud of. In 1991, we had 804 schools. Today we have more than 2,700. We started with one university in Arbil in 1991; today we have three. In 10 years of self-government, we built twice as many as was built for us in seven decades. Then we had 548 doctors. Today we have 1,870 doctors. In my hometown Sulaymaniyah, there are 138 media outlets -- including literary magazines, radio channels and so one -- most of which are independent. This is a bright spot of freedom in the heart of the Islamic Middle East. It has profound repercussions for the rest of Iraq and Islamic Middle East. Therefore it's no wonder that people who have a different agenda would try to destabilize you and export terrorism in order to drain your energy and resources and undermine our hard-won gains.

It's true the Kurdish region has really blossomed and is experiencing relative stability. On the other hand, your group, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, is willing to embark on a campaign to topple Saddam. Are you not jeopardizing what you have?

We are not embarking on anything new now -- we embarked on this decades ago. We are not joining the campaign against the Iraqi regime. We've been fighting for it for decades. There is one new factor in the Kurdish society. I am a Kurd and I am proud of my Kurdish heritage and identity. My people have suffered genocide and we deserve international guarantees that we'll be safe in the future. But we live in that region. After 10 years of self-government, we have learned the limitations of nationalism. We cannot live in this Kurdish bubble in isolation from our neighbors. We are part of Iraq. Our history obliges us to be part of Iraq. To guarantee the safety of our people, we need to work with Iraqi democrats to bring about a representative federal government in Baghdad which will not unleash chemical attacks against my people again. We are doing this because what we have today is so precarious and unstable. We cannot be safe while tyranny rules in Baghdad. It's in our interest to be party to a larger Iraqi democratic movement and really reshape Iraqi politics.

Still, Iraqi Kurds have endured the worst excesses of Saddam's regime. People must have fears about taking him on again -- given his record of chemical attacks on Kurdish population centers.

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It's fair to say people have mixed feeling of anticipation and apprehension. People are hoping to see a democratic government in Iraq and welcome change. They also realize that we've never had it as good. But that's a statement more about how terrible things were in the past. We know that we live in a very precarious environment and so long as the situation exists in Baghdad -- the Iraqi tanks are massed a mile away from my hometown -- people realize that they cannot be safe, they cannot plan ahead. They need change, but at the same time they are concerned that we would be left high and dry as in so many other episodes in our history. My hope is that the U.S. and the civilized community of nations will not leave us once again defenseless in the face of possible chemical and biological attacks, and that the U.S. and Western powers will understand the importance that this democratic process in the north of Iraq be protected -- because it is truly a catalyst for the rest of Iraq.

There has been much talk of an Afghan model in a possible war with Iraq, with local Kurdish forces moving south in coordination with a U.S. air campaign. What exactly will your role be in a possible war?

That's not the proper context to ask. People are talking about a war against Iraq. We are Iraqis. We naturally would not condone "war against Iraq." But we welcome the support of the Iraqis to retake their country. This should not be war against Iraq but a war for Iraq. This should be a war to help the Iraqi people, rid Iraq of the weapons of mass destruction, and the tyranny that has governed this country. We have been at the forefront of the democratic movement in Iraq. We have a vital stake in regime change in Baghdad. And we'll no doubt work closely with any power that will support us [in achieving] that aim and help us end the suffering of the Iraqi people.

What leads you to assume that democracy will be the outcome this time?

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Everybody we have spoken to from the vice president [Dick Cheney] to the secretary of defense [Donald Rumsfeld] confirmed that they are not just for regime change but that they want to replace this regime with a democratic form of representative government. That is definitely welcomed by us and we believe that this is the only way to go forward. The vice president specifically said, "American lives should not be risked for replacing a dictator with another." In Iraq we have a unique opportunity to bring about democracy. If we could do it in Iraqi Kurdistan, which is the least developed part of Iraq, I think the prognosis for democracy for the rest of Iraq is good. I think the Islamic Middle East definitely needs that boost. We need to change that pattern of politics. We look to help from Western powers and neighbors to overcome our predicaments.

I was in London working as a spokesman for my movement during the Gulf War and trying to make the point that the problem is not in Kuwait but in Baghdad and that unless you have a democratic representative government in Iraq, the miserable pattern of Iraqi politics of internal repression and external repression will continue. I hope this time the world will heed the lessons of the past and help bring about an Iraq at peace with itself.

Let's go back to war plans. What is your sense of the timing?

We are yet to be told any of the specifics in terms of timing and such. But I think it's imperative that the message should be war for Iraq and freedom for Iraqi people. I make that point to people in Washington. This should be about the freedom of Iraqi people -- about empowering Iraqis to reclaim their country as a nation at peace with its own people.

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Is a full-scale U.S. invasion in the cards?

We have not been told any specifics for an invasion as such but I don't think it will take an invasion. The people of Iraq are ready for change and the Arab streets of Iraq would welcome international assistance to liberate the country and this misery.

But no doubt your troops, the peshmerga, will play a role?

The peshmergas have been at the forefront of the struggle to bring democracy to Iraq. We were fighting this government of Iraq even when the U.S. was supporting it. So we have been the consistent one in fighting for a democratic movement in the country.

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Given the current Iraqi regime's history of horrendous crimes and abuses, the "day after" in Baghdad could easily turn into a retribution frenzy. How will people know where to stop? Beyond Saddam's inner circle, are there plans to push for war-crimes indictments against top-ranking Baath Party officials and the Iraqi military?

Those who have participated in the war crimes that have taken place in Iraq, the top leadership, need to be brought to justice and answer for their crimes. But I hope that the South Africa model of "truth and reconciliation" will apply. We've had so much violence in our country that it would be wise for us to practice this tolerance and not embark on a campaign of revenge that could be unending and unrelenting. I hope the top leadership will be held responsible for these terrible atrocities affecting the Kurdish people, "the Arab marshes," and other segments of the Iraqi society should be brought to an international court of justice.

[In citing the "the Arab marshes," Salih is referring to the Arabs in the southern marsh lands of Iraq, who are predominantly Shiite and have been leading an insurgency against the Iraqi government for more than a decade. Unlike the Kurds and other opposition groups, they have very little contact with the outside world and, for the most part, are not on Washington's radar. -- Ed.]

These are subjects hotly debated within Iraqi opposition circles these days but I think it's premature for me to speculate on the specific modalities. In 1991 when the uprising took place we issued a general amnesty for the rank and file of the Baathist establishment and the military forces in our region. We'll have to do that, most probably. We should seek ways of restitution and not engage in a terrible cycle of violence that will take many years. We need to get busy rebuilding Iraq, and revenge should not be a priority. Justice requires that the Iraqi people be given a peaceful environment and no doubt that those who were responsible for directing and ordering these terrible atrocities will need to be brought to justice. But we should not make that a tool to exact retribution on anyone that might have been associated with this regime here and there. We'll need to lift ourselves beyond the past and the problems we are faced with.

The most ardent supporters of the Kurdish cause, which are the liberal and left-wing circles in the U.S. and Europe, are at the forefront of the opposition to the current administration's policy of regime change in Iraq. Ironically, you now find yourself in alliance with the so-called hawks and in conflict with your traditional backers. Is this a lonely place?

I don't think so. I talk to many liberals and Democrats on the Hill and try to explain this is about freedom. This is not about invading another country. I, as a Kurd, am calling for international assistance to help us overcome our terrible situation -- to face evil and tyranny. I think any liberal-minded, intellectually honest person will support that contention. It's not for me to get involved in the American debate. But as an Iraqi, my perspective is consistent. We have always called for American and Western support for our struggle for democracy. I think my liberal friends must focus on what is to come -- what should be the intended objective. Are we replacing a dictator with another or are we going to do something fundamental? Is U.S. military power going to be used for superficial change in Iraq or are we going to embark on a real process of change at the heart of the Middle East -- that should be the debate. I hope many of my human-rights activists and liberal friends who were on our side will engage in this debate and articulate their vision as forcefully as some of the other friends.

What about in Europe, where the opposition to U.S.-led military action is even stronger?

I think we need to work harder with the public opinion in Europe. We have a perspective on these things. No doubt U.S. has its own priorities as well. But there is a convergence of interests on this [regime change] between the people of Iraq and the United States. This should be about freedom and removing one of the worst dictators history has ever known.

One oft-cited fear is that, with anti-American sentiment running as high as it is, a move on Baghdad could trigger popular instability in the Middle East.

I have a view on the Arab street from my office. Everyday I am besieged by people who come to me with problems about electricity, water supply, education. In the evening when I go home and watch Arab satellite televisions, I see nothing but the Arab-Israeli conflict. People are people whether they are in Amman or Cairo or Riyadh or Kuwait. They have day-to-day problems that are important to them. Arab media, no doubt motivated by the governments, have been very skilled in diverting attention from the problems of the people. Arab governments have no problem controlling their streets when it comes to corruption, lack of democracy, denial of human rights. But somehow they become so sensitive when it comes to international support for the people of Iraq overcoming their misery and predicament. This is truly an irony.

Observers of the Middle East should look deeper into this and not just believe what they see on the screens of Arab satellite television. The Arab street of Iraq is angry because they feel let down and defenseless in the face of tyranny, and they feel the international community, and particularly the Arab countries, have turned their back on the people of Iraq in their hour of need. The same applies to our neighbors. They have been dealing with this instability imposed by the dictatorial regime in Baghdad. For decades it's been a source of instability with wars and other regional problems in conflict after conflict. The main beneficiary [of regime change] after the people of Iraq will be the neighbors of Iraq. They have sensitivities and concerns some of which are understandable. But ultimately we all live there and they cannot look at stability in isolation from the rights of the Iraqi people. Until we solve the problem of Iraq, the region and our neighbors will continue to endure this instability. It's in their fundamental interest to provide the environment for the right kind of change in Iraq.

Speaking of neighbors: Iran is privately signaling that it would not object to a U.S.-led effort to overthrow Saddam Hussein. Could a U.S-Iranian rapprochement be among the unintended consequences of a war?

Both [countries] will have a common interest in a stable democratic Iraq and in resolving the problem. Iran has been a victim of aggression of the present government of Iraq and knows better than most the dangers it poses. I feel Iranians have a fundamental interest in bringing about a democratic representative government in Iraq.

Are you concerned about the rise of anti-Americanism around the world?

In my opinion [fears of anti-Americanism] are highly exaggerated; much depends on what will happen. If the American intervention is to replace a dictator with another dictator, people will probably see it in a different light. But if it is to support the people of Iraq in regaining their lives and country and starting a democratic process, then I think the international public opinion will commend the U.S. for taking a leadership role in this matter.

There are very few cases in history when the moral and the political arguments would coincide. It's morally right to help the people of Iraq, to stop genocide or end these terrible abuses. It's politically right for stability in the Middle East to bring about a representative government that will be at peace with the region.


Asla Aydintasbas

Asla Aydintasbas is a New York journalist. Her writing has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, the International Herald Tribune, the New York Times and other publications.

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