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Saturday, 29 June, 2002, 19:17 GMT 20:17 UK
Kurds grit teeth for US strike
Iraqi Kurd Guerrillas
Guerrillas will be expected to take part in a US attack

The Kurds of northern Iraq find themselves, once again, facing an uncertain future, with the Americans vowing to bring about the removal of Saddam Hussein's regime in Baghdad.

After the upheavals which followed the US-led war against Iraq in 1991, the four million or so Iraqi Kurds have enjoyed a quasi-independence under the protection of a western air umbrella which keeps Iraqi government forces at bay.


In recent times the Iraqi Kurds have never had it so good - they have been able to carve out what amounts, in almost all but name, to an independent entity

Although it is a precarious existence, the prospect of change is one which raises anxiety as well as hope among the Kurds.

They have a lot to lose, and are in no hurry to plunge into an adventure against Baghdad.

Travelling through this beautiful land of towering mountains and fertile valleys and plains it is easy to see why.

Rare freedom

In recent times the Iraqi Kurds have never had it so good. They have been able to carve out what amounts, in almost all but name, to an independent entity.

The people enjoy a freedom which is rare in the region. Many newspapers and radio and TV stations, reflecting different points of view, have sprung up.

Alcohol is available for those who want it. Women are free to wear the Islamic hejab, or not, as they choose.


Gleaming Mercedes, BMWs and brand new four-wheel-drive vehicles are common sights, as are internet cafes

There is still a lot of poverty. One recent study concluded that more than half the households had an income of less than $25 a month.

But those same households are also given a monthly food basket worth $50, financed by Iraq's oil-for-food exports.

And there is a lot of prosperity about. Much of it derived from trading, or smuggling. Gleaming Mercedes, BMWs and brand new four-wheel-drive vehicles are common sights, as are internet cafes.

In the countryside there has been a bumper harvest after a winter of generous rainfall.

Although they ultimately depend on western air protection, both the main Kurdish factions, who divided the area between them after clashing in the mid-1990s, have a kind of unspoken modus vivendi with the Baghdad government, from which they both buy the petrol they need.

Guerrilla role

So why risk all this?

Well, the Kurds may have little choice. Both the main leaders, Masood Barzani and Jalal Talabani, told me they had been informed by the Americans that Washington is serious about removing Saddam, though the timing and the exact manner are not yet decided.

Mr Barzani's rival, Jalal Talabani
Talabani: Washington is serious about removing Saddam
The Kurdish guerrillas, known as Peshmergas, are the only organised Iraqi opposition force in the country.

They would obviously be expected to take part in some way.

An active Kurdish role could also help to secure what both leaders say they want to see - a strong Kurdish say in a democratic, federal new Iraq.

Nobody is interested in seeing one dictator replaced by another.

The Kurds are also united in not wanting to see a military role played by any of their big brother neighbours, Syria, Turkey or Iran.

They also want guarantees of protection against Saddam's retribution if things do go wrong. Memories of his use of chemical weapons against them in the last 1980s are still very strong.

If all those conditions are met, the Kurds will join in, hoping to help build a more stable future, both for themselves and for Iraq as a whole.

See also:

26 Mar 02 | Middle East
17 Mar 02 | Middle East
15 Mar 02 | Middle East
12 Mar 02 | Middle East
18 Jan 02 | Middle East
15 Dec 01 | Middle East
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