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Iraq Invasion Poses Kurdish Dilemma

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Bush administration officials have said that if disarming Iraq requires a war, its happiest consequence would be the liberation of the Iraqi people from Saddam's tyranny. But millions of Iraqis have already been liberated from Saddam — the Kurds of northern Iraq who achieved a de facto autonomy from Baghdad after the Gulf War in 1991, and proceeded to build a thriving modern Kurdish society that makes them the envy of their put-upon Kurdish cousins in Turkey, Syria and Iran. But a new U.S.-Iraq showdown threatens to end that sunny interlude: The irony of the Iraqi Kurdish condition is that as long as Saddam remains in power in Baghdad, the Kurds have international backing to live in as a de facto state of their own. But once he's gone, the U.S. and its allies insist that the Kurdish enclave rejoin a post-Saddam Iraq. None of the neighboring allies on whose support Washington depends for Saddam's ouster is willing to see Iraq dismembered, with resistance strongest from those states with their own restive Kurdish minorities — Iran, Syria and, most importantly, Turkey. There may also be some Kurdish skepticism of a new war because of the bitter memories of 1991, when the first Bush administration urged Kurds to rise in rebellion, and then allowed them to be slaughtered by Saddam's armies. But staying out of the war is not an option for the Kurds, whose best hopes of protecting their autonomy in a post-Saddam regime may lie in taking an active role in his ouster. So, the onset of war brings Iraq's Kurds to an historic crossroads, and that has fostered an unusual unity of purpose among rival political factions whose differences have long been exploited by Saddam Hussein. TIME's Azadeh Moaveni was in the Iraqi Kurd capital of Erbil for a session of parliament last week, and discussed the experience with TIME.com.

TIME.com: How's the atmosphere in Erbil as Kurds contemplate the showdown between Washington and Baghdad?

Azadeh Moaveni:I find it baffling. People obviously express concern over the possibility that they may soon find themselves in the middle of a war, but they're resigned to it. There's no frenetic anxiety, and nobody's behaving in ways you might expect from the residents of a city five miles from Iraq's frontline, which could easily come under attack by Saddam. They're going about their business as usual, and nobody appears to be hoarding food and medicine. Erbil, a stronghold of the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Masoud Barzani, is a relatively conservative city when compared with the more vibrant Sulaimaniya, stronghold of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan led by Jalal Talabani, which is full of new busineseses and restaurants and internet cafes. (The Barzani and Talabani factions have previously fought bloody turf battles, although these days they work together in the region's parliament.)

TIME.com: Barzani has been less enthusiastic than his rival over U.S. plans to topple Saddamů

AM: Publicly, he's being more cautious, more diplomatic than Talabani, who has pledged wholehearted support. Barzani is playing a more calculating game, because he wants definite assurances from the U.S. that his people will be defended before jumps on the bandwagon. But if there's an invasion, he's definitely willing to cooperate. Also, the two finally seem to be serious about putting aside their differences for the greater interests of Iraqi Kurds. They've traditionally always gone through phases of fighting and then making up, there's a real belief here now that they're serious about working together, because the stakes are so much higher than ever. They're dead certain that there's going to be a war, and they believe the only way to get the borders and the federal rights they want is to speak with a single voice. Also, Barzani said today that the U.S. has vowed to protect Kurds if Iraqi forces attack up in the north.

TIME.com: So life has been good for Iraqi Kurds since 1991?

AM: Relatively speaking. They've enjoyed a fair degree of autonomy from Baghdad, and there's a large UN humanitarian infrastructure that has very effectively administered money from the oil-for-food program to fund development. So there's a lot of construction and new business activity — you can see that more clearly in Sulaimaniya, which is livelier than Erbil. There's also a lot more Kurdish-language media now, and Kurds are allowed to study in their own language rather than being forced to speak Arabic, as they were under Saddam. Over the decade you've seen the emergence of a new generation of Kurds in Iraq that has no memory of what it was like to live under Saddam's control.

TIME.com: How does that spectacle of Kurdish autonomy and cultural assertiveness play in Turkey?

AM: The Turks don't believe the Iraqi Kurds' insistence that they don't want a state, only autonomy and cultural rights in a federal Iraq. Turkey fears that those demands are a prelude to a push for full independence. Obviously, even if that's something they'd ultimately prefer, it's not something the Kurds can actually say, because they need U.S. support. And the U.S. won't get the crucial support of Turkey if the outcome of a war would be Kurdish independence in Iraq. So even when asked privately about independence, Kurdish leaders will simply say "It's not in our interests to even talk about that right now." But it's sensitive, because in their heart of hearts, many Kurds would prefer to live in their own state rather than to be a minority in a post-Saddam Iraq. There is a strong sense of solidarity with Kurds in neighboring countries, but they're very careful about links with any separatist groupings because they don't want to provoke the Turks.

But there's also a flip-side, in the form of the ethnic Turcoman minority in northern Iraq, who have their own political parties in Iraqi Kurdistan but have a troubled relationship with the Kurds. Many Kurds see the Turcomans as a proxy for Turkey. The Turcomans themselves feel like a minority without a place in this big Kurdish fraternity, and they look to the Turks for support. I met with the leader of the Turcoman party, who said frankly that if the Turcomans are in jeopardy, they expect Turkey to come in and help them — which sounds like creating a pretext for Turkey to intervene. In the Kurds' idea of their autonomous region in a future Iraqi federation, they include Kirkuk and part of Mosul, but Turkey may be reluctant to endorse those.

TIME.com: Some Iraq war scenarios had the Kurds playing the proxy infantry role that the Northern Alliance played in the U.S. campaign in Afghanistan. How realistic is that?

AM: Well, they're probably keen to play that sort of a role, but they don't have more than 30,000 armed men. And U.S. planners seem to be moving away from giving them that sort of role. They'd love to be trained and armed by the U.S. because that would strengthen their position in the post-Saddam scenario.

TIME.com: What are they expecting Saddam to do once a war starts?

AM: A couple of weeks ago, Iraq suddenly reinforced its forces in the region, moving a large number of tanks right up to the border as a way of intimidating the Kurds. Then, about a week ago, those tanks were pulled back several miles. They were scared their troops would defect. As the likelihood of an invasion grows, people here are expecting plenty of Iraqi defections. But they don't expect Saddam to attack up here. They think he's going to be too busy defending Baghdad.