Source: Foreign Policy Association
Author: R. Nolan
August 22, 2002

Welcome to this week’s edition of Global Q&A. Today we are speaking with Mr. Kani Xulam, director of the American Kurdish Information Network (AKIN), a nonprofit organization whose mission is to foster Kurdish-American understanding and friendship. Mr. Kani spoke to us about the plight of the Kurds in Northern Iraq.

FPA: Thanks for being with us today Mr. Xulam.

KX: Thank you.

FPA: I’d like to talk primarily today about the Kurds of Northern Iraq, but first, a little bit about your organization. When was it founded, and how does its mission relate to the current U.S. policy regarding Iraq?

KX: In the immediate aftermath of the Gulf War, there was a vacuum of information relevant to the Kurds. It was obvious to me as someone who had gone to school here and understood the system here that that was the case. There was also a lot of misinformation regarding the Kurds. Since 1993 we have been trying to serve the information needs of this country relative to the Kurds in Turkey, Iraq, Iran, and Syria. In terms of Iraq, we think that the U.S. policies are very wanting. We believe that the Kurds have been used in the past, and that they may be used again. If Kurdish help is wanted, they need to be taken seriously, I mean, their aspirations, and not left to the mercies of someone like Saddam Hussein or his successor. In terms of long-term aspirations of the Kurds, here in Washington, we are trying to hold a mirror to developments in the area. People from academia, from the government, students of politics and history are contacting us. We believe in the self-determination of the Kurds, just like President Wilson did. Ultimately, we believe the will of the Kurds needs to be accepted and respected. Unfortunately, in none of the countries I mentioned, the Kurds are taken seriously. Kurds are shunned, abused and discriminated against. We are at the receiving ends of violence and intolerance.

FPA: I understand that the Kurds in Northern Iraq have established quite an open and democratic society in the region, thanks to the protection of American and British no-fly zones that have been patrolled since the Gulf War. What are some of the factors that have contributed to this development?

KX: Security is number one, and the Kurds have never had it so good. Their history is very painful, so when we have been secured a future that is not threatened by someone like Saddam Hussein, despite the problems, we have been able to establish a civil society that is the envy of the Middle East if you will. Many people say this, not only the Kurds. People have access to the internet, access to phones, all kinds of newspapers without restrictions, and no political prisoners. Of course, there are good people and bad people in all the human societies, but in terms of the oppression we have left behind, this is the first opportunity we have had to put our house in order.

FPA: How will a move against Iraq impact this part of the country?

KX: Of course you can’t tell the future of war, but my hunch is that it is going to hurt the Kurds badly, that what we have gained may go up in smoke. From what I am hearing, the U.S. government is saying that even if Saddam attacks this region with chemical and biological weapons, that the U.S. government will not retaliate, but will only do so at a time of its own choosing…

FPA: I read that Donald Rumsfeld vowed last week that he would protect the Kurds…

KX: What he said was that the U.S. government will retaliate at a time of its own choosing, reminiscent of 1996 when Saddam moved in, then President Clinton attacked southern Iraq. In between, there has been 9/11, which has changed things dramatically. Call me a pessimist if you will, but the U.S. government’s position is wanting in terms of what Washington says relative to protecting the Kurds. The number two-man at the D.O.D. went to Istanbul and said that the U.S. is against the establishment of a Kurdish state in northern Iraq…

FPA: Paul Wolfowitz…

KX: Right, which is basically saying to Turkey not to worry about it, we are not going to let the Kurds enjoy freedom. It also means that if someone amenable comes into power in Baghdad, the Kurds will be left to the mercy of the regime there. Saddam just happened to have crossed the wrong path with the current U.S. administrations, but if a new regime does what the U.S. wants it to do, the Kurds will be at his mercy. In Iraq we can’t speak of a culture of tolerance, or of accommodation with the Kurds. The freedoms we enjoy now rest on very thin ice. We could lose them all. This, by the way, happened accidentally. It isn’t like there was a plan to protect the Kurds. In 1991 when thousands of Kurds were fleeing to the mountains, the media covered it and the elder Bush felt compelled, because France and Britain had felt compelled, to protect the Kurds. So the present accommodation came about, and is apparently costing U.S. taxpayers roughly 1 billion per year. The Kurds are not that important to U.S. policy makers to be spending that much money on the no-fly zones. The future looks bleak. Dark clouds are gathering over the skies of Kurdistan and Iraq. My hunch is that the regime in Baghdad will be toppled, and a new regime will come in, but the Kurds will be left at its mercy.

FPA: Currently, there are two major factions in the region, the Kurdish Democratic Party, led by Mustafa Barzani, and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, led by Jalal Talabani. What are the objectives of the two groups? How does each perceive a post-Saddam Iraq?

KX: They had a conference here in early June and both are basically saying that they want a federal solution to the situation that exists in Iraq. They want internal control over the whole area to the degree that they would have representation in foreign countries. No Kurd, if he knows he could have a secure future, would say that they want to live under an Iraqi government. So they feel constrained. Kurds feel obligated to the U.S., which is obligated to Turkey, that no Kurdish state should emerge. So they are going for the next best thing – some kind of federal system, some kind of autonomy. They are trying to have U.S guarantees that oil-rich cities, some of which used to be predominantly Kurdish and are now being Arabized by Saddam, will remain under their control. Present Kurdish leaders, despite their differences, are saying that local revenues should be used in Kurdistan, and that Kurds should have their own judges and their own constitution, and only nominally be part of Iraq since that is what the U.S. and Iraq’s neighbors want. I don’t know how much of that they will be able to get. Basically, they will be content with the March 11, 1970 agreement, which Saddam signed, but basically as a ploy to crush the Kurds, which he later did in 1975. There is a lot of politicking going on.

FPA: There was some controversy created by the absence of Barzani at last week’s meeting of Iraqi opposition leaders in Washington, while at the same time Talibani announced on CNN that the Kurds would allow the U.S. to launch attacks on Baghdad from the Kurdish territories. Could you fill us in a little bit on that?

KX: For reasons that are still not very clear, Mr. Barzani, you are right, did not come to Washington. Mr. Talabani was here, and made the statements that you are referring to. One thing, you should note, and your readers should note as well, is that the adversaries of the Kurds have invested far more in our disunity then we have been able to invest in our unity. That doesn’t excuse Kurdish leaders from protecting the interests of the Kurds. But this talk of disunity is sometimes blown out of proportion. I believe the two groups will unite. They have been moving in the right direction.

FPA: What about cooperation with the opposition outside of Iraq, for example, the Iraqi National Congress and other groups?

KX: Iraqi Kurds, through their public announcements, seem to be much more willing to work with the opposition to bring about a democratic Iraq than the leaders of the Iraqi opposition that basically want to replace Saddam Hussein and have an Arab hegemony over the entire country. At the conference last June, leaders from the INC and others seemed to think that that all the ills in Iraq could be solved by the removal of Saddam. Here I disagree. The holocaust in Germany wasn’t Hitler’s fault alone. There was a lot of anti-Semitism and intolerance of Jews throughout the country as well. One could say the same thing about Kurds in Iraq. They are often perceived as inferior to Arabs, and in my view, this view seems prevalent in opposition circles as well. The Iraqi opposition at the conference was not very serious in terms of really including the Kurds. I am not saying that they should simply give more to the Kurds, only that they should recognize and accept the Kurds.

FPA: There has been much speculation about the military capabilities of the Kurds in Iraq. What kind of support should the U.S. expect in the north? Could the so-called Afghan model be replicated, or is this a completely different scenario?

KX: If the Kurds are given guarantees, I think they could do better than the Afghan model. They are seasoned, and have been at this for all of their lives. They don’t have regular armies, but when you do hit-and-runs, you don’t need regular armies. In that sense, I think with the coverage that the U.S. could provide as it did with the Northern Alliance, they could help from the ground to direct precision bombing. I think that northern Kurds will do far more for the U.S. in that sense. The Iraqi Kurds will succeed as well.

FPA: Lastly, many Kurds felt betrayed by the U.S. when it failed to protect them from Saddam’s chemical attacks, an event many within the administration are using as a justification for an attack on Iraq. We’ve heard a lot of promises this time around from people like Donald Rumsfeld and other Pentagon officials saying that they will protect the Kurds from a preemptive strike by Saddam, or from any other dangers that may come with its policy of regime change. How much do the Kurds of northern Iraq trust the United States and its objectives in the region?

KX: America has to do far more to gain our trust than we have to do to earn their trust. Twice we have been betrayed, and painful memories of those whose lives were lost are still strong. Of course, we have to know the relevance of 9/11 in terms of U.S. motivations for going to Iraq, which will bring them to the region much more forcefully than in the past. We have to gauge it in terms of how the people here feel, and make sure that there is something for us at the end of the day. On the street, there isn’t much faith in America, but if you go to the policy makers who met Rumsfeld and Rice and others, it might be different. We will have to wait and see.