September 6, 1996 in City

Deal With The Devil Burns Kurds

William Safire New York Times

“The son is not the father.”

The agonized Kurd who called to tell me this knew of my longtime admiration for the late mullah Mustafa Barzani. That shrewd mountain warrior embodied the dream of the Kurdish people - 30 million, spread over five nations that repress them - for freedom in Kurdistan, their ancestral homeland.

Barzani was not above dealing with any secret source of help - Russian, Arab, Israeli, Turkish, Persian - to advance the cause of autonomy for his people. But he trusted only the Americans - who let him down at the behest of the Shah of Iran.

This head of the Barzani clan did not live to see the murder of three of his sons by Iraqi President Saddam Hussein nor the use of poison gas to kill thousands of Kurds at Halabja. He was spared the shocking sight of the exodus of freezing refugees when Saddam punished the rebellious Kurds after his defeat in the gulf war.

His son Massoud Barzani, now 50, was given the chance by the United States to create an autonomous Kurd enclave in northern Iraq. But Massoud and his political rival, Jalal Talabani, fell to bickering and power-grabbing. They say “the Kurds have no friends”; now, that includes each other.

Four months ago, Massoud Barzani sent his closest confidant to Washington to wheedle a few million dollars out of the United States, ostensibly to pay “monitors” to keep the Kurdish factions from one another’s throats.

But nobody paid attention.

When the Barzani delegation, including a young son, dropped by, I put this advice to them in a column: “The Talabani faction should cut ties to Iran and the Barzani faction to Saddam. Give the visiting U.S. envoy a bare-bones budget for overt aid and present a united front against Baghdad.” President Clinton was urged to openly subsidize these non-terrorist Kurds with “a few million.”

But when the Clintons would not provide their envoy with loose change for local lubrication, Barzani sulked. After a force of Iranians slipped into Iraq for two nights in late July to help bolster the Talabani faction, leaving behind arms, Barzani complained in a fax to a U.S. National Security Council staffer, Steven Grummon, but got no response. As a result, he listened to Turks who want to do business with Saddam and who promised to keep paying off the Barzani clan with “tariffs” on smuggled oil for its help in hunting down Turkish Kurds.

That’s when Massoud Barzani, feeling isolated and out-gunned, committed the biggest blunder of his life. He turned for military help against fellow Kurds to the man dedicated to wiping every trace of Kurdish life off the face of the Earth.

“A limited encounter with the devil,” his clansmen now try to explain - even as they realize the enormity of his sin. Saddam Hussein was given an excuse to assert authority in northern Iraq through a puppet faction. Taking quick advantage of Barzani’s invitation, the dictator seized and executed 96 non-Kurdish opposition officers and activists in the village of Quoshtapa. In one stroke, Saddam successfully had intimidated the Saudis and Jordanians, seduced the French and strengthened ties with Russia and China.

This week’s U.S. military response was “proportionate,” which is to say only tit for tat, the need for which could have been averted for the cost of three $1 million cruise missiles.

Awake at last, the U.S. State Department has focused on mediation between the Kurdish factions. Barzani, surprised and one hopes chastened by the revulsion of Kurds everywhere at his deal with the devil, sent a fax Wednesday to Secretary of State Warren Christopher: “We have always stood by the American initiatives for a peaceful settlement in Iraqi Kurdistan.”

If mullah Mustafa Barzani were alive, here are the orders I believe he would give his errant son: Be nobody’s puppet. Double-cross Saddam immediately, killing his executioners in Irbil, and say that was your plan all along. Make a deal with the Americans for tactical air cover and anti-tank rockets in return for a merging of forces with Talabani. Together, turn away from Iran - for now.

I can see the old warrior now in the CIA safe house as he cracks pistachio nuts for his guest and calculates the way to help his people escape from the latest episode of foolishly misplaced trust.


Thoughts and opinions on this story? Click here to comment >>

Get stories like this in a free daily email