RAY SUAREZ: Robin Wright is the chief diplomatic correspondent for the "Los Angeles Times." She recently returned from a trip to Iraqi Kurdistan in Northern Iraq and joins us to talk about what she saw and heard there. Well, Robin, when you're on the ground, does it feel like, does it look like a place that's getting ready for war?
ROBIN WRIGHT: There's certainly the feeling among the Kurds that something is about to happen, and I think that's backed up by the fact that the United States has quite quietly since the passage of the U.N. resolution moved into the North for the first time since 1996, when the CIA was forced to pull out. And the United States has now set up listening posts in Northern Iraq to monitor the rest of Iraq. It has inspected the four airfields up there to see what kind of usage there might be, if needed, and I've talked to the Kurdish leaders in both sectors of Northern Kurdistan about what kind of cooperation there might be. And that's generated the kind of buzz around Northern Kurdistan that has led people to think that there long battle with the Baathist Party in Baghdad dating back to 1961 might actually be heading towards its final battle.
RAY SUAREZ: But is there uniform support for the possibility of taking Saddam Hussein out with a war?
ROBIN WRIGHT: There is certainly backing for taking out Saddam Hussein. I think there's a great deal of nervousness about the war in part because of what role Northern Kurdistan might play, but most of all about what happens next, and the fear, of course, because of the long experience the Kurds have had with American betrayals that the United States might back out yet again and cost yet again thousands of Kurdish lives.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, for people whose early 90's history is getting a little rusty, what happened back then that might give them pause?
ROBIN WRIGHT: Well, in 1991, President Bush called in the aftermath of the Gulf War on the Kurds in the North and the Shiite Muslims in the South to rise up against Saddam Hussein, and they did, but unfortunately, the Bush administration allowed Saddam to use his helicopter gunships to put down both of the revolts, and that led in the North more than a million people to flee to the borders of Turkey and Iran and led to thousands of deaths as Saddam Hussein quashed the revolt, and of course this was not the first time the United States had done this; again, in 1975, again at a loss of thousands of Kurdish lives.
RAY SUAREZ: What about more recently? After the Oil for Food system got set up, didn't a lot of Kurds see some pretty good times in relative terms, peace, more food in the market, that kind of thing?
ROBIN WRIGHT: Absolutely. In fact, one of the things that is so striking about the North, which was devastated when Iraq ruled up until 1991 is the way it's thriving today - Saddam Hussein pulled out after the United States imposed a no-fly zone in 1991. Saddam's intention was to starve the Kurds in the North because they were already under an embargo from the United Nations, and then to impose a second one would really cut them off completely. But, in fact, the Kurds began to rebuild and under the protection of U.S. and British warplanes and then the Oil for Food program that was introduced in 1996, Kurds began to convert the North, and it is in many ways a model for what the outside world would like to see in Iraq after Saddam Hussein is ousted.
RAY SUAREZ: Is there any sign that you're actually in Iraq? Does - the government in Baghdad run at all in that part of the country?
ROBIN WRIGHT: No. And that again is also very striking. You don't see any statues, no billboards of Saddam Hussein. All the schoolbooks, the first thing they do when the come from Baghdad is rip out the pages, the pictures of Saddam Hussein in the front of the book. A lot of the kids in the North actually don't remember his rule because there are two Kurdish parties that filled the political vacuum after Saddam Hussein pulled out his administration.
And whether it's a free press - dozens of different feisty independent newspapers, independent television - the return of the Kurdish language in the North, the fact that there are a lot of new political parties that have been licensed, there is the beginning of a democracy in the North.
RAY SUAREZ: Don't they possibly have some really complex choices to make in the near future? I mean, you mentioned that there are several factions. You've got Turkey next door, we've been running a lot of stories in the NewsHour recently about how Turkey regards all of this. This isn't cut and dried, is it, by any means?
ROBIN WRIGHT: Not at all. The Kurds claim that despite the success of particularly the recent years in opening up society that they have begun to realize that their future lies in Baghdad, not in merging with the Kurds and Turkey and Iran and Syria, that they see that another mini state in a globalizing world isn't really going to work. And so the leaders anyway talk very much about creating a post Saddam system that includes all three major ethnic and religious groups.
Now, at the same time, they do want a lot of self-determination; they want the kind of ability to maintain the system they have; they want a federal union, in effect, of Iraq. Of course, the issue is whether Turkey next door, with the world's largest Kurdish population, would welcome a strong northern Kurdish state in neighboring Iraq.
RAY SUAREZ: Because they have their own Kurdish minority?
ROBIN WRIGHT: Absolutely. And it is - the Kurds have fought a 15-year insurgency in Turkey, and there is a great deal of fear that if there is a model for a Kurdish entity, even if it's within another state, that it will inspire the rest of Kurds inside Turkey.
RAY SUAREZ: Now, by visiting Northern Iraq you were in a part of the world where the Bush administration says there are al-Qaida elements. Explain to me how that all works out.
ROBIN WRIGHT: Well, al-Qaida just in the run-up to 9/11 actually sent some of its personnel across through smuggling routes in Iraq into Northeast Iraq, into Kurdistan, and there's an enclave there that's probably the most active known group; they have fought both the Kurdish forces and they are opposed to the kind of secular rule in Baghdad.
There are up to a hundred hard-core al-Qaida - and there are up to, it depends on who you listen to, seven or eight hundred operatives of Unsar al Islam, which is a local militant Islamic group allied with the al-Qaida forces. And they have taken a lot of pot shots at the Kurdish, including an attempt to assassinate the prime minister, one of the U.S.'s closest allies in Northern Kurdistan.
RAY SUAREZ: So where does that stand right now, just sort of a stand-off, nobody really actively trying to wipe out the other side?
ROBIN WRIGHT: Well, the Kurds are very much trying to get the Iranians to help squeeze al-Qaida, but of course it's hoping that the United States, if there is some kind of military operation in the North, will move in and eliminate al-Qaida in the process, perhaps even in the run-up to any kind of confrontation to make sure they don't play any kind of role.
RAY SUAREZ: And very briefly, there is an armed Kurdish force in Northern Iraq. Is it going to play a role in anybody's war plan?
ROBIN WRIGHT: The Peshmirga have been fighting the Iraqi regime since 1961 on and off, and many of them would like to be the equivalent of the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan, allies with American troops, they have the most experience in fighting Saddam Hussein. They're the only armed force inside Iraq, but the United States also is very nervous about using them in part because of the feedback and the nervousness in Turkey.
RAY SUAREZ: Robin Wright, thanks for coming by.
ROBIN WRIGHT: Thank you.