US Move to Protect Gulf Allies Shows Stateless Kurds Play Second to Oil
Washington's post-Gulf war actions to protect Kurds in northern Iraq seem like empty promises to Kurdish people today
"Just look at the map," complained my Kurdish guide in northern Iraq recently. "The Americans carved out this 'safe haven,' but they gave Saddam everything for the oil. We Kurds were left with nothing."
Judging by the map, he was right: even though the US-, British- and French-enforced no-fly zone extends north above the 36th parallel, the slice of territory controlled by rebellious Kurds tilts along a different axis, wrapping like a crescent around Iraq's two most important oil cities of Kirkuk and Mosul.
For my guide - and for many opponents of President Saddam Hussein inside northern Iraq - this misshapen territory was created deliberately, as evidence that the US is not committed to helping the Kurds.
Whether this perception is true or not, American missile strikes upon southern Iraq this week - prompted by Saddam's attack on rebel Kurds in the northern zone - suggests to many Kurds that in Washington oil policy takes precedence over protecting Kurds.
The American strikes coincide with growing disenchantment among Kurdish leaders over the sporadic US efforts to make peace between rival Kurdish factions, and by clandestine activities by the Central Intelligence Agency in northern Iraq that have left the Kurdish groups further divided.
Despite claims that they would embrace an American solution, both Kurdish factions are so split that the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) made the unprecedented move of inviting Iraqi forces - until last weekend the archfoe of both groups - to join it in attacking the rival Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), which had turned to neighboring Iran for arms.
The American response to Iraq's advance in the north was seen as not so much as punishment but as a way to further handicap Saddam's military capacity in the south, where his forces could threaten oil-rich sheikhdoms allied to the US.
Secretary of Defense William Perry explained that destruction of Iraq's air defenses, radar, and command network in the south will prevent any move toward the Gulf oil states, which supply the bulk of the petroleum for the US.
The no-fly zone in the south was also extended, bringing it to within 30 miles of Baghdad. No US cruise missiles hit the north, nor were any new conditions placed upon Iraq in the north.
"Our concern is that if Saddam Hussein is emboldened by what he would see as a success in the north, he might strike out in areas which are of greater strategic importance to him, as well as to us, in the south," Mr. Perry said.
"Our vital national interests in Iraq are in the south, not in the north," he said later in a television interview. "Our objectives, first of all, are protecting our vital strategic interest, which means protecting our friends and allies in the region - Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia; secondly, keeping the free flow of oil from the Gulf."
For the Kurds, that response confirms a long-held suspicion: that they don't matter to US policymakers, except for their ability to influence events in the region.
They often remind visitors to northern Iraq of US actions in the aftermath of the 1991 Gulf war: first then-President George Bush encouraged Kurds, Shiite Muslims, in the south, and other opponents of the regime to rise against Saddam; then the US failed to react when Iraqi troops turned back the Kurdish uprising and forced 1.5 million Kurds to flee the country.
Similar historical examples that engender US-Kurd mistrust, however, stretch back to the mid-1970s. Then - in a move that then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger is said to regret to this day - the US backed out of a promise to guarantee support for their movement from the then-American ally, the pro-West Shah of Iran.
The situation of the Kurds in northern Iraq is further complicated for the US because Turkey - a NATO ally - has been at war with its own separatist Kurdish guerrillas for years, and Syria and Iran both have restive Kurdish minorities.
These regional powers argue that the Kurdish safe area in northern Iraq could be the first step toward an independent Kurdish state. For them, such an entity would be a permanent source of destabilization.
Still, five years after the Gulf war, there appears to be little strategy laid down in Washington for protection of the Kurds, except that it is a lower priority than the region's oil fields.
"The Americans are just interested in there being no fighting," said a Kurdish official in northern Iraq recently. "They want 'no war, no peace' - they want us to hang in limbo."