Former ambassador assesses plight of Iraqi Kurds

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(Host) As northern Iraqi Kurdish fighters moved south this week under cover of U.S. airpower, at least one Vermonter was watching with approval. That man is Peter Galbraith, former U.S. ambassador to Croatia and the son of economist John Kenneth Galbraith.

Galbraith is an expert on Iraq who’s been credited with focusing the world’s attention on the plight of Iraqi Kurds. He teaches at the National War College in Washington, and this week he spoke with VPR’s Susan Keese:

(Keese) Peter Galbraith has spent most of his career in the cauldron of international conflict. He was staff advisor on Iraq to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1988. That was the year Saddam Hussein killed tens of thousands of Kurds in chemical attacks in northern Iraq. Galbraith, a frequent visitor to the Kurds, managed to get proof out of Iraq that the chemical attacks had occurred.

Galbraith has disagreed with aspects of the way the Bush administration has approached the current war. But he’s optimistic it will lead to a better situation for Iraq’s Kurds and for the Iraqi people in general.

His ideal postwar scenario for Iraq is a loosely united federal system in which Kurds and Arabs govern independent states. The states would look a lot like the one Iraqi Kurds have developed since the last Gulf War.

(Galbraith) “One of the messages I’ve tried to communicate most strongly is that there is a Kurdish state in Northern Iraq. This is a reality and it cannot be changed.”

(Keese) The Kurdish state has emerged under the protection of the no-fly zone established after the last Gulf War. The U.S. created the safe haven after backing out of its promise to support a postwar Kurdish uprising against Saddam.

(Galbraith) “In May of ’92 they held the only democratic elections that have ever held in Iraq. They’ve been running their own affairs since. This is something the Kurds have dreamed about through the entire history of Iraq and for hundreds of years before that.”

(Keese) Neighboring Turks, fearing rebellion among their own Kurds, feel threatened by a self-governing Kurdish enclave. But Galbraith says eliminating the fledgling democracy would take more violence than the Turks are prepared to mount. He says it’s lucky for everyone that the Turks refused to let U.S. ground troops cross its borders to create a northern front.

(Galbraith) “The quid pro quo for allowing the fourth infantry to move in through was that Turkey was going to send in 70,000 Turkish troops into the north of Iraq. The Kurds were not going to take that sitting down. They made it clear that if Turkey sent in its forces that they would fight. And so the United States would have been, at the very time its troops were fighting Saddam Hussein’s forces, of trying to serve as peace keepers between Turkey and the Kurds.”

(Keese) Instead, Iraqi Kurds have become key U.S. allies within Northern Iraq. Galbraith says the Kurds have bitter memories of past betrayals by the United States.

(Galbraith) “They’re very nice people. They’re very hospitable and they live in a really beautiful region. But they find that people are sympathetic and then when it is strategically important to do something against their interest, they are readily sacrificed.”

(Keese) Galbraith has hopes that this time may be different. In a recent press conference, President Bush endorsed a post war federated Iraq very much like the one the Kurds envision. Galbraith says the biggest obstacle to a successful outcome are guerilla forces like the Fellajeen. He says paramilitary ambushes could keep the fighting going long beyond a declared coalition victory.

(Galbraith) “And that in turn might require a much longer U.S. security presence, and that then poses a very big risk for the United States. People who may welcome the Americans as liberators for the first two or three months are not going to want them to stay, and if the new government of Iraq can’t take over that function we could be in a very difficult situation.”

(Keese) Galbraith says a quick war, followed by U.N. oversight while Iraqis build their own government, is the best hope for a good outcome. It’s also the way to heal damaged relations the war has caused with allies such as France, Germany and Russia.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Susan Keese.

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