By Peter Boyle
More than 300 Kurds, mainly children, are dying every day on the Iran-Iraq border, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Canberra. Even more are dying on the Turkey-Iraq border, despite the highly publicised emergency air drops by US and allied forces and the fact that the main refugee exodus is into Iran.
The United States government bears a major part of the responsibility for the disaster, according to representatives of Kurdish organisations in Australia who spoke to Green Left.
The tragedy on the borders follows the defeat of a month-long uprising by the Kurds in northern Iraq by overwhelmingly superior Iraqi armed forces. United States forces occupying southern Iraq since the end of Operation Desert Storm did nothing to stop Saddam Hussein from brutally crushing the Kurdish revolt and an earlier revolt by Shiites in the south.
Now, according to Kurdish organisations in Australia, some 2.5 million Kurds are attempting to escape into Iran and Turkey.
The Kurds are angry at almost every government currently involved in the post-Gulf War mess in the Middle East. Chahin Bakr, a spokesperson of the coordinating committee of Kurdish organisations in Australia, told Green Left Weekly that his people had been betrayed by the US and the Soviet Union.
The US had urged the Kurdish and Iraqi people to revolt against Saddam Hussein during the Gulf War but quickly denied support for the uprising once US military objectives had been achieved. George Bush's rhetoric about waging the Gulf War for democracy is being exposed — at the expense of the Kurds.
The US government is trying desperately to create an appearance of concern for the Kurds (with the air drops, for instance) while carefully avoiding any move that would allow the Kurds an opportunity to press their claims for self-determination.
The US wants the Iraqi military to remain in control of Iraq (though it would like Saddam Hussein to go so as to provide a cosmetic change). Bush and Dick Cheney have said so explicitly. It does not want to allow the Kurds a homeland in Iraq, because this would boost Kurdish liberation movements which are being repressed by the Western-backed Turkish government.
So in the last two weeks the US and its allies have manoeuvred to appear to be on the side of the Kurds while carefully allowing their uprising to be defeated. While Bush accelerated his troop withdrawal from the Gulf, British Prime Minister John Major proposed UN protection for the Kurds. But in the Security Council, the US and the Soviet Union combined to block this proposal.
The much-publicised Western emergency aid conveniently came mostly has allowed in only 150,000 Kurdish refugees. Iran, which has accepted a million refugees from Iraq (and is the country with the most refugees from abroad, according to the UNHCR) received little international assistance or publicity.
This one-sided and politically motivated Western aid program allows Turkish President Turgut Ozal to pose as a friend of the Kurds. (Rather belatedly, the Turkish government has moved to improve its image by lifting its ban on the use of the Kurdish language.)
Thousands of Kurds have perished in the snow-covered mountains along the borders while the Western powers play a cynical game of exploiting international concern while betraying the Kurds.
But this attempt at global deception does not wash with the Kurdish people. "We hold President Bush personally responsible for Saddam Hussein's massacre of the Iraqi people and his attempts to destroy the Kurdish identity in Iraq", said Chahin Bakr.
The Kurds are also furious at the Soviet Union for opposing the proposal for United Nations protection of the Kurdish refugees. "The Soviet Union has betrayed the Kurdish nation and has lied to the Kurds through its propaganda", he said.
His anger was understandable: many of the weapons Saddam has used to repress the Kurds have come from the Soviet Union. The chemical weapons which killed 5000 Kurds in Halabja in 1988 were dropped from Soviet-made bombers. Soviet military advisers and technicians have assisted the Iraqi armed forces since Moscow signed a "friendship and cooperation" treaty with the Baathist regime in 1972. Soviet advisers are even reported to have trained Saddam's notorious secret police.
Mahmut Onay, the secretary of the Australian Democratic Kurdish Association, told Green Left that the Kurdish movements are demanding that the United Nations send a peacekeeping force to protect the Kurds in northern Iraq and that it then consider the rights of the Kurdish people. Kurdish rights are as essential to lasting Middle East peace as are Palestinian rights, he said.
"The Kurds don't want American military occupation of Iraq. We opposed the war and we don't want the war to start again", he insisted.
Cemal Gulbahce of the Australian Kurdish Association agrees. "We are calling for humanitarian aid and for the UN to establish a safety zone between the Kurds and the Iraqi army. We don't want American forces to intervene in Iraq, we only want America to support a UN peacekeeping force to protect the Kurds. This is the united position of all the Kurdish movements.
"Our longer term demand is for the Kurdish people to be freed, within a federal state of Iraq."
Cemal said 150 Kurdish people picketed the Iraqi embassy, the US embassy and the embassy of the USSR, in Canberra on April 12. While there were some scuffles at the Iraqi embassy, there were no arrests. The Kurds' complaint against the Soviet Union, he explained, is that it has kept very quiet and done nothing to help. Also, the USSR opposed the idea of a safety zone, and recently there had been radio reports that Moscow is against an autonomous Kurdish state.
Cuba is also denounced by Chahin Bakr because of Cuba's vote against the harsh cease-fire terms imposed on Iraq by the Security Council. The Cuban government has consistently opposed Western attempts to punish the Iraqi nation and people for Saddam's aggression against Kuwait (which the Cubans condemned). The cease-fire placed limits on the Iraqi army and imposed a reparations tax on Iraq's oil income that will last for years.
Kurdish liberation movements were hoping that they would gain some protection and recognition through the cease-fire arrangements. In the end, the US ensured that the Kurds were ignored. If anything, the cease-fire freed Saddam to use more military might against the Kurds.