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.

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