KURDS: THE ENEMY WITHIN
SEPTEMBER 10, 1996
Rival Kurdish factions continue to make deals with former enemies in order to control Northern Iraq. Kurdish Democratic Party troops, backed by Saddam Hussein, marched into Sulaimaniya as thousands fled for nearby mountains and the Iranian border. The move is seen as a strategic victory for Saddam, and is likely to guarantee instability in the region. A background report is followed by a discussion with two Iraq experts in the U.S.
MR. LEHRER: Now, two assessments of the U.S. response to the Kurds situation in Northern Iraq. Graham Fuller is a former Foreign Service and Intelligence officer. He's now a senior political scientist at Rand, a non-profit research organization. Henri Barkey is an associate professor of international relations at Lehigh University. He's traveled extensively in Northern Iraq and is a scholar of Kurdish nationalism. Mr. Fuller, first, should the United States have stepped in and stopped what happened from happening, in other words, Saddam Hussein helping this one faction take over Northern Iraq?
Previous NewsHour Transcripts and Forums:
September 6, 1996:
Browse the Online NewsHour's recent forum: Who are the Kurds?
September 4, 1996:
A panel of experts discuss Saddam Hussein's decision to send troops in the Kurdish Safe Haven."
September 3, 1996:
Secretary of Defense, William Perry, discusses U.S. missile attacks in Iraq."
September 2, 1996:
Two experts discuss the ramifications of Iraqs invasion of the Kurdish "Safe Haven."
May 20, 1996
The NewsHour looks at the U.N. decision to lift sanctions against Iraqi oil sales.
February 7, 1996
The state of Iraq five years after the imposition of sanctions.
GRAHAM FULLER, RAND: I think it would have been almost impossible for the United States to physically intervene to stop this kind of fighting. Really, the time to intervene was probably politically and much earlier and not easily done. I think the real question is were there alternative means or should all the focus of the United States be directed at this specific quarrel or at the broader issues that are involved here?
JIM LEHRER: Mr. Barkey, tell us, is there a simple explanation, just so we'll understand, what divides these factions, these Kurdish factions, why--what is it that they're fighting about, or that they can't get together about?
HENRI BARKEY, Lehigh University: (Bethlehem, PA) Well, there's more than one issue. One issue is clearly the division between two leaders. Mr. Barzani, as your reporter just said, is the son of the legendary leader, Mustafa Barzani, so he thinks that he has a natural claim on the leaders of the Kurds. But the Kurds have been divided in Iraq along language lines as well.
In the North of Northern Iraq, the Barzani groups speaks one language, in the South, the Telebani group speaks another language, but there are also issues of finances. Mr. Barzani's group was controlling the access route into Turkey, where most of the trade between Iraq and Turkey passes. He was charging passing trucks a certain fee, and he was making a lot of money, and that dispute eventually led to a major--a bigger fight between the two parties.
JIM LEHRER: But it does not surprise you? In other words, the intensity of these disputes is such that it does not surprise you that each side sided with a “enemy” in one case, Saddam Hussein, one case, and Iran on the other, because they're--they wanted to win against their fellow Kurds so badly. That does not surprise you?
MR. BARKEY: What is surprising, what is really surprising is the fact that Mr. Barzani sided with Saddam Hussein. The Iraqi Kurds historically have not had a beef with the Iranians. I mean, the fight has always been with Saddam or the Iraqi regime. So what is really surprising is to find one of the Iraqi factions making a deal with the real devil. Saddam Hussein is a person who perpetrated the famous massacre in Halabja, where he gassed Kurdish civilians, and it is Mr. Barzani who made that deal.
The deal between Iran and the PUK is more tactical rather than strategic. Mr. Barzani has made a much more involved deal with Saddam, and Saddam now is in Northern Iraq, whereas the Iranians were never there.
JIM LEHRER: Mr. Fuller, do you agree that this should be seen as a victory for Saddam Hussein, that he wanted control in Northern Iraq and he's used these divisions that Mr. Barkey has just explained for his own advantage, that he won?
MR. FULLER: Yeah. I'm afraid this is a strategic victory for Saddam in many, many ways. I don't want to say it's total, but, in effect, he has been able to extend his influence into the Northern region which had been denied to him for five years.
JIM LEHRER: Now, why is that important?
MR. FULLER: Well, it's important because, in effect, the, the whole--the Northern zone was being used as one of the areas to deny Saddam sovereignty and power within his own region, and to protect the Kurds. With this move, Saddam has been able to eliminate, to bite off, if you will, one half of the Kurdish opposition forces to him, to divide them, and I think he will bide his time now and at the appropriate time he will eat the other half.
JIM LEHRER: You think he will, you think he will eat the other half?
MR. FULLER: I think he eventually will unless that other half proves to be totally subordinate to his ire, and that would be also suicidal for the Kurds.
JIM LEHRER: Is there a non-partisan way to, to portray the U.S. responsibility for what has happened? As Charles Krause's piece explained, both sides blame the United States for doing what they did. Sort that out for me.
MR. FULLER: Look, it's easy to blame the United States, because, obviously, we're the most prominent force in the area. In the end, I think there are really--there are legitimate issues of quarrel between both of these two parties. I don't think that we can probably decisively solve them, but I think they came to this quarrel simply because five years down the road, five years after the Gulf War, we have had--we have been unable to remove Saddam by sanctions or CIA operations or any other means.
I think at this point Barzani, in particular, could see or thinks he saw handwriting on the wall and figured that if he didn't cut a deal with Saddam now, he would probably be forced to do one later under much less positive circumstances. In other words, I think the U.S. needs to--really needs to move more vigorously against the number one problem, which is the presence of Saddam Hussein, himself, and Iraq.
JIM LEHRER: Mr. Barkey, where do you come down on this question of what the U.S. could have done to have prevented this?
MR. BARKEY: Well, I think one thing that is not being discussed and appreciated about Northern Iraq and the Kurdish policy of the United States was that the--when you look at the policy on Iraq, it was essentially a policy of sanctions, of retribution, of military attacks. But in Northern Iraq, the United States showed its human face towards the Iraqi people. In Northern Iraq, the United States helped the Kurds, protected the Kurds, so psychologically, I think Northern Iraq was much more important, was very important to the United States policy with respect to Iraq.
And, therefore, I think more attention should have been paid to the divisions among the Iraqis, the Iraqi Kurds, and maybe intercede much earlier and to stop Mr. Barzani from going further. For instance, you see the Barzani spokesman saying this is a limited action. If it was really a limited action, why didn't they stay and stop at Irbil after having captured one city? Instead, they went all out and tried to capture the main stronghold of Mr. Telebani, their opponent.
Therefore, the United States should have intervened, they should have put the deadline earlier to stop maybe Mr. Barzani from going all out after the other Kurdish faction.
JIM LEHRER: You're talking diplomatically, or are you talking militarily, that the U.S. should have intervened militarily to keep this from happening?
MR. BARKEY: Well, clearly, when we talk about military intervention, it's very difficult, the military choices are few, nobody is going to introduce ground troops. The only thing we can do clearly is either Cruise missiles or air attacks, and it's unlikely that we would have used them necessarily against the Kurds, themselves, but we could have used them against the Iraqi positions because ultimately Mr. Barzani would not have done or dared what he did without the support of the Iraqis. The Iraqi component was crucial to his operation.
JIM LEHRER: And, Mr. Fuller, the United States has taken a position, the President, Secretary of State, Secretary of Defense, and everybody in-between and below, that that is not in the United States' interest to be involved in this factional fight between the Kurds and Northern Iraq. And that's why they chose to do the bombing, or the missile bombings in Southern Iraq, where there was a vital U.S. interest because that's where the oil is, et cetera.
MR. FULLER: Well, look, I'm not saying that the United States at this point should or could really successfully intervene to bring these two parties together. What I'm saying is I think the real issue at stake here is Saddam Hussein and how long he is going to stay in power. I am a bit disturbed that five years down the road we have yet to hear an authoritative statement by either the President or the Secretary of State or Secretary of Defense that Saddam Hussein must go. We very pointedly refrained from that when clearly it is Saddam's presence I think that is--that guarantees instability in the region.
JIM LEHRER: Why--what would you say--to play devil's advocate with you--I guess literally in this case--uh, that that's up to the Iranian--I mean, to the Iraqi people, not to the United States of America, to decide who runs Iraq?
MR. FULLER: Well, I don't think the Iraqi people were consulted by Saddam Hussein in the first place, uh, as to whether they wanted to be ruled by him. I think he's demonstrably the worst regime that we've seen in the history of the modern Middle East. If you look at other contenders, there are a number, he wins hands down. I think the focus really must be on, on Saddam. Uh, we have used sanctions that perhaps seemed useful at the time, but they have failed to dislodge him after five years. I think at this point really the United States has to make a decision here.
We either decide okay, we couldn't dislodge him, therefore, we might as well be very realistic and, and come to terms with Saddam, or else we move quite vigorously, explicitly to, to remove him, essentially by--I would argue--by limiting all military means that he has within the country. Let's lift the sanctions so that the Iraqis can get more food and medicine, if that's required.
JIM LEHRER: So he can sell oil and--
MR. FULLER: So he can sell some more oil and help the Kurds and help Turkey, but at that point, I think we should simply say nobody flies anywhere in the country, and if tanks move, they're free targets of U.S. aircraft. It doesn't require ground troops.
JIM LEHRER: Prof. Barkey, what do you think about that? Do you agree that this is the crucial time has come, we have to make a--we meaning the United States of America has to make a decision, either Saddam goes, or we don't?
MR. BARKEY: Right. I think we have to reassess our Iraq policy. I think Graham is right. We need to squeeze Saddam as much as possible. We need to maybe extend the no-fly zones, create a no-drive zone so his tanks cannot operate. In other words, he may have won a tactical battle now, but he has yet to win the war, and the United States can still win the war.
That will take a lot of attention by the United States, a lot of concentration, umm--this is an election year, and it's very difficult to do an assessment of policy during an election period--but clearly we will have to do it because Saddam has been there for a long time, is not about to leave willingly, and there will not be peace in the Middle East as long as Saddam remains there. And clearly the Kurds are going to suffer as long as Saddam is there. It doesn't matter whether Barzani is on top or Telebani is on top. The Kurds are going to suffer so long as Saddam remains in Baghdad.
JIM LEHRER: And the Kurds, the Kurds just are not a factor, are they? I mean, the people, the Kurds, just don't have any clout and that that's not the issue here, Saddam Hussein is the issue, or oil is the issue.
MR. BARKEY: No. I disagree. I mean, earlier, as I tried to say, the humane face of our policy was towards the Kurds, and the United States, I think, still cares about the Kurds. The fact that we have not intervened and we have disappointed the Kurds now, at least one faction of the Kurds, doesn't necessarily mean that the United States doesn't care. The problem has become very difficult. There are no easy choices in, in Northern Iraq when you have two Kurdish groups fighting. But that doesn't mean that we are not concerned about them. That doesn't mean we're not interested in them.
After all, it is really the suffering of the Kurds in 1991 that pushed the United States and its allies to create a safe haven and no-fly zone. But we need to re-think how we're going to approach this problem now, and we need to do it quickly.
JIM LEHRER: Okay. Gentlemen, thank you both very much.