February 25, 1998

Editor’s note: The following incomplete introduction refers to the televised “town meeting” on Iraq which aired on CNN earlier this month, during which U.S. Secretary of Defense William Cohen held up a photograph of Kurdish victims of Saddam Hussein’s chemical bombing in Halapja on March 18, 1988.

Newscaster: Cohen called the dead “Saddam’s Madonna and Child”, but it turns out he had key parts of the story wrong. PNN’s news director Laura Flanders spoke with Kani Xulam of the American Kurdish Information Network about the relationship of the U.S. Administration to the Kurdish populations who live in the north of Iraq along the border with Turkey.

Laura Flanders (LF): Reflecting back a week ago, how have you felt the Kurds have featured or not featured in the debate about U.S. policy with respect to Iraq?

Kani Xulam (KX): You know, the biggest problem we have is to be called Saddam’s people, as the U.S. policy makers often say, “he gassed his own people”. We don’t like it, we resent it, and we have fought for years not to be his, because he has abused us, he has gassed us. The picture Secretary of Defense William Cohen was holding [at CNN’s “town meeting”] was not of an Iraqi mother and her baby; it was of a Kurdish father and his baby, an infant boy. The father had a name, Omar, and he had eight daughters and one son, his youngest. When the Iraqi air force planes appeared in the skies over Halapja, his city, he grabbed his son with the hopes that he would save him, and ran to a neighbor’s shelter. He never made it; he dropped dead on the steps of the neighbor’s door together with his infant boy. It’s really not fair for the American policy makers to use that tragedy to garner support for an attack on Iraq.

LF: The Kurds, however, have always been a crucial part of U.S. pressure on Saddam Hussein. The Washington Post just yesterday called for increased support to Kurdish dissidents and others. What does that mean to you, and what has the history been of that kind of U.S. support to Kurdish dissidents in Iraq?

KX: We’ve been down that road before. Our relation on that issue with the U.S. is not a very good one. It’s not one that others should emulate. In 1975, U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger left us to the tender mercies of Saddam Hussein, and thousands and thousands of Kurds died, perished, and the whole Kurdish revolution collapsed. In 1991, Voice of America editorials urged the Kurds to rise up against Saddam, and again the Kurds did rise up, but again they were left alone. Saddam was allowed to fly his helicopters, the only means with which he could subdue the rebellion. Today there is talk again of using the Kurds, or supporting the Kurds, to oust Saddam. They seem to believe that if Saddam goes, everything will be nice. It won’t be nice. There have to be institutions that support democracy, institutions that accept the rule of law, institutions that give the middle class a voice in the government. When you rely on one person and “put all your eggs in one basket” and that person does something horrible like Saddam does, then your policy goes down the drain. It doesn’t generate hope.

LF: If that policy has been the creation of a kind of puppet leaders?

KX: Exactly. The U.S. really needs to look at the demographics of Iraq: the Kurds, the Shiites, the Sunnis. They make up Iraq, whether we like it or not. The U.S. should develop long-term policies. If the Kurds’ democratic aspirations had been supported in ’75, in ’91, Saddam could have been kept in check. What he does today would not have happened.

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