We have painted ourselves into a corner in northern Iraq. More accurately, the US government has supplied the brushes the Kurds have used to paint themselves into that corner.
For decades, the international community recognized the need for refugees to cross borders to seek safety. Thus, in 1988, when Saddam Hussein unleashed chemical weapons on Kurds, tens of thousands fled into Turkey. In 1991, in the immediate aftermath of the Gulf war, Saddam crushed a Kurdish revolt and would-be refugees again fled to the Turkish border. But this time Turkish soldiers pushed them back. More than a quarter million were stranded on windswept mountains along the frontier.
Well-established principles of refugee protection dictated that Turkey keep its border open and provide at least temporary asylum, as had been demanded of Thailand in the 1970s when confronted with Cambodian and Vietnamese refugees or of Pakistan in the 1980s when Afghan refugees poured across its borders. But the Gulf war partners, led by the US, decided to take the pressure off Turkey and, in their view, to keep it on Iraq. In fact, they put pressure on civilians in Iraq who otherwise would have become refugees and put themselves and their families out of harm's way.
UN Security Council Resolution 688 transformed the victims into the threat and let Turkey off the hook. Refugees, said the Security Council, would "threaten international peace and security in the region." The US and allies carved out a security zone in northern Iraq and told the Kurds they would be protected there.
The rhetoric of Operation Provide Comfort was humanitarian, and it did provide Kurds of northern Iraq relative safety from Iraq's central government for several years. But it was not politically neutral humanitarianism. It was intended to protect Turkey from Iraqi Kurdish refugees by preventing them from seeking asylum there. That precedent haunts us. Turkey is no more willing than it was in 1991 to open its borders to Iraqi Kurdish refugees. But there is no longer an alternative for their safety inside Iraq.
The infighting among the Kurds of northern Iraq, precipitated in no small part by their sense that the safe haven could not be maintained indefinitely, has allowed Iraqi government forces to penetrate the zone and contaminate its security. We do not know the extent of the deals that Massoud Barzani, the leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), has struck with Saddam, or what deals his rival, Jalal Talabani of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), may have struck with other regional players. We do know that the US has evacuated its own employees and political oppositionists whom it had funded.
The total number of evacuees, at this writing, is less than 3,000. Many more people are vulnerable. Foremost are local Kurds who were hired by private humanitarian organizations. These are the people who dug the wells, distributed the medicines, and delivered the food for Operation Provide Comfort. They were the public face of the relief effort where it counted - in the field - and the persons most visibly associated with US-funded humanitarian projects.
In recent weeks Iraqi agents have searched the offices of private American humanitarian organizations, looking for their personnel files; computers have been confiscated; local staff questioned and threatened. On Oct. 13, a local driver for Concern for Kids, an Atlanta-based charity, was dragged from a vehicle, beaten, stabbed, doused with gasoline, and torched. The "official" report of the incident called it a suicide attempt. Local authorities arrested the victim and threw him in jail, where he now remains.
This is not an isolated incident. Four days later, a driver for the International Catholic Migration Commission was shot in the head.
The State Department has suggested that the risk to Kurdish employees of American aid organizations is not great enough to warrant their evacuation. How many shootings and stabbings will it take before the critical mass is reached?
The biggest obstacle may, in fact, be the Justice Department, home of the FBI and the INS, the immigration service. They are reluctant to admit to the US refugees who have not been thoroughly screened. It would be difficult, if not impossible, to turn any bad apples back to Iraq.
In the past, this wouldn't have been a problem. Large flows of refugees would congregate in camps in Thailand, Pakistan, or elsewhere. The US would help to maintain the camps, where most refugees would stay until it became safe to go home. The US would resettle those who would never be able to go home, oftentimes people associated with our government either directly or indirectly through involvement with private American organizations.
Only option short of arms
Today the people most in need of our help are cornered. Temporary refuge is no longer an option. We don't have the luxury of slow and cautious screening in Turkey or another neighboring country. Now the only option - short of a renewed US military intervention (a delusion more than an option) - is to evacuate the approximately 4,000 additional Kurdish employees who are most vulnerable.
US officials are uncomfortable bringing evacuees directly to US territory. But the US organizations that worked in northern Iraq can vouch for their employees. The Americans trusted their local staff with their lives. They can personally identify each name on their lists, if need be, at the Turkish border before each person leaves the country.
We wish any Iraqi Kurd who feared for his or her life could simply cross into Turkey. We wish the US were able to take the slow and deliberate approach in choosing those in need of US resettlement.
Perhaps, when this emergency has passed, we can work on the formidable job of reconstructing a refugee response regime that provides for temporary asylum and international burden-sharing. But time is rapidly running out. We painted ourselves into this corner in 1991. We owe it to those who trusted us, who worked with us, who are identified with us, and who who have no place else to go, to get them out.
Bill Frelick is a senior policy analyst at the US Committee for Refugees in Washington.