America's Ace in Iraq?

The United States has left them in the lurch with fatal results, but they've also been gassed to death by Saddam Hussein's chemical weapons — so in the event of war, Iraq's Kurds seem inclined to be an American ally within Iraq's borders.

"If America wants to come and be our friend, we would like America to come to the area and help us," said Massoud Barzani, the leader of one of the Iraqi Kurdish factions, the Kurdistan Democratic Party. "If it is to do good things for people, to modernize for people and protect us, we welcome that."

Already, the United States and its allies have provided the air protection over the past decade that has allowed the Kurds to build a homeland and a small army inside Iraq's northern "no-fly zone."

There are estimates the Kurds can field about 70,000 troops, and many of their soldiers are currently being trained in American military methods.

Although the Kurds have no heavy artillery, no armor and no air force, meaning their forces alone are no match for Iraqi tanks, they hope they would have two assets in a skirmish — their rugged land, and their friends.

"In the past, we were only telling ourselves that we have only mountains as our friends," said Jalal Talabani, the head of another faction, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. "Now we have a lot of mountains all over the world — from United States to Japan to New Zealand — and that means we are no more alone. And I think we can survive and we can reach our goals."

Unreliable U.S.A.

The mountains aren't going anywhere, but the friends haven't always been so reliable. The Kurds wonder, as the drums of war are beginning to sound yet again, if this time will be different.

In the 1970s, to please the Shah of Iran, the U.S. government armed the Kurds for a revolt against Baghdad, but then abandoned them during the revolt when Saddam and the Shah reached an accommodation.

In 1991, toward the end of the Gulf War, the first President Bush encouraged a Kurdish uprising against the regime of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, but then failed to provide the expected American military support. Thousands of Kurds were slaughtered, and more than a million fled north as refugees.

A similar operation was encouraged during the Clinton administration in 1996, but Washington pulled the plug just hours before it was scheduled to begin. Thousands of Kurds had to be airlifted to safety in neighboring Turkey.

Strategic Ally?

Barzani said the Kurds would be willing to join the Americans in ridding Iraq of Saddam, but only if the United States avoided civilian casualties in Iraq, and only if certain other conditions are met.

"We need the guarantee that the Kurdish people will be protected from retaliation from those who hate America," Barzani said. "And afterward, if there is a change, we hope that the future condition is better than our present."

In return for such assurances, the Kurds say the United States would get more than a regional ally. Northern Iraq has half a dozen airfields that could immediately be used as staging points for military operations. In the long term, such locations could conceivably become U.S. military bases.

Recently, however, Talabani suggested a Kurdish role in a U.S.-Iraq war might go even further, telling The New York Times his troops were "focusing on [reaching] Baghdad" in the event of an American attack. Some have speculated such a move out of Kurdish areas could be unwelcome, because it could intensify rivalries among a number of ethnic and religious minorities in a Saddam-free Iraq.

Unlike the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan, Iraq's Kurds would not be fighting for the reconquest of their land, but primarily for their own survival.

Turkey, Iran and Syria — all of which have their own Kurdish regions — vehemently oppose an independent Kurdish homeland.

Turkey, a U.S. military ally, accuses one Kurdish group, known as the Kurdish Workers' Party, or PKK, of rebellion and terrorist operations in Turkey.

For their part, the Iraqi Kurds — ethnically distinct from the region's Arabs, with their own language and heritage — say although independence is the dream, for now they'd settle for being an autonomous part of a democratic, federal Iraq.

Kurdish Golden Age

Their "homeland" within Iraq is about the size of West Virginia and rich in natural resources such as oil and water. The approximately 3.5 million locals call the area Kurdistan, but independence-wary neighbors refer to it by its official name — the Kurdish Autonomous Region of Iraq.

In just 11 years since the Gulf War, the Kurds have built a modern and developed society after having been decimated by Saddam's forces. They have thousands of miles of paved highways, supermarkets stocked with expensive foreign goods, and a television network with multiple-language newscasts.

Even with the threat of Iraqi reprisals hanging over their heads, the Kurds still call this their golden age, the first time in their history where they've been allowed to truly thrive.

In another contradiction, the Kurds have established a pluralistic democracy that protects minorities, even though they're officially part of a country that denies their rights, including the right to exist. Although predominantly a Muslim people, their Christian minority worships openly.

Still, not only do the Kurds live under allied air protection, but they are completely dependent economically on two very antagonistic neighbors.

The Turks won't allow free flow of people or goods across their border, but they're more than happy to welcome smuggled Iraqi oil, and the Kurds levy a tax on the tankers that pass through their territory.

In perhaps the biggest irony of all, the Kurds are most dependent financially on Saddam. The United Nations administers the food-for-oil program it imposed on the Iraqi dictator, through which Kurdistan receives roughly 13 percent of Iraq's total oil revenues. But the program's designers gave veto power over how the money gets used to Saddam. The Kurds have no other reliable source of food or medicine.

If those supplies are disrupted by another war, "it would shake society to its foundation, because now the society depends on this program," said Sami Abdul-Rahman of the Democratic Party of Kurdistan.

Saddam vs. Kurds

The Kurds have only two weeks of food stockpiled, but starvation isn't their main concern. It is Saddam's perceived hatred of Kurds.

Saddam has persecuted Kurds for decades under a murderous campaign known as al-Anfar. In 1988, Saddam's forces shocked the world by using chemical weapons against his own people in the Kurdish city of Halabja. Some intelligence sources suspect the Iraqis were testing their new weapons. The Kurds say as many as 5,000 people were killed.

Saddam still directly controls part of Iraq's Kurdish territory, and, in the event of a U.S.-Iraqi war, the Kurds fear the wrath of his nearby troops, tanks and possibly missiles laden with chemical or biological weapons.

"If fighting takes place, they will have to protect us," Barzani said of the United States, through a translator. "Those who hate America who cannot reach America, they will direct their anger on us."