Every day, withdrawal from Iraq becomes a little less "unthinkable." Among politicians and pundits, the idea is still largely confined to the usual lefty suspects: Dennis Kucinich, Ralph Nader, Arundhati Roy. But the public is further along. According to this week's Washington Post/ABC News poll, 40 percent of Americans want to get out now, up seven points in the last month. Among Democrats, it is 53 percent. As one aide to John Kerry recently told The New York Times, the presumptive Democratic nominee feels pressured to do "what would be politically advantageous, declaring a timetable for getting out."
So far, mainstream politicians have ignored the calls for withdrawal. During the primaries, none of the leading Democratic contenders emphasized why Kucinich was wrong. And, today, Kerry is doing his best to avoid debating Iraq with Nader; he wouldn't even admit the two had discussed the issue during their meeting last week. That's a mistake. Leaving has become a real option--no more implausible than finding large new infusions of foreign troops or, for that matter, American ones. It deserves a more serious response than George W. Bush's "Americans are not the running kind." And, since the advocates of withdrawal are a fairly moralistic bunch, that response should begin with one, largely moral, question: What would American withdrawal mean for the Kurds?
Why single out the Kurds? First, because no group in Iraq has suffered so many U.S. betrayals. In 1975, Henry Kissinger helped Baghdad and Tehran resolve a long-standing border dispute. As part of the deal, the United States and Iran suddenly withdrew their backing for the Kurdish rebels in Iraq. The rebels were crushed, and tens of thousands of civilians fled across the border. Thirteen years later, the horrors had only increased, with Saddam Hussein murdering roughly 100,000 Kurds in his ghastly "Anfal" campaign. When Senator Claiborne Pell tried to impose sanctions on Iraq in 1988, the Reagan administration scuttled his legislation. And, when George H.W. Bush took office the following year, he doubled U.S. agricultural loans to Baghdad--money Saddam partially diverted to his military. Finally, at the close of the Gulf war in 1991, Bush famously called on Iraqis to rise up, only to watch as Saddam butchered them by the tens of thousands. Most of those killed were Arab Shia, but more than a million terrified Kurds became refugees again, escaping into Turkey or Iran.
The second reason we owe a special obligation to the Kurds is that, in the rest of Iraq, we are trying (with great difficulty) to build a democracy. In Kurdistan, we are protecting one that already exists. It's a lot easier to advocate withdrawal if you suspect Iraqis don't really want Western-style democracy anyway. But, in the Kurdish north, they want it with a vengeance. The two major Kurdish parties are both, by Middle Eastern standards, secular and liberal. Protected from Saddam by a no-fly zone, they contested a free election in 1992 and today co-exist peacefully in a regional parliament. That parliament has voted to punish honor killings and disregard aspects of the Iraqi transitional law that undermine women's rights. As Barham Saleh, prime minister of Eastern Kurdistan, recently told The Wall Street Journal, "If Iraq turns into an Islamic state, or an [Arab] nationalist state, we'll have no way to accept such a country."
It is hardly a coincidence, then, that the Kurds don't want the United States to leave. One of the key arguments for withdrawal is that the Iraqis are demanding it. But, while a February ABC News poll found that 60 percent of Arab Iraqis opposed the U.S. military presence, only 12 percent of Kurds did. Indeed, 82 percent of Kurds wanted us to stay.
It's not hard to understand why. If the United States leaves, the two most likely outcomes are an Iran-style Shia theocracy or a Lebanon-style civil war between ethnic militias. Either one would be disastrous for the Kurds. Iraq's Shia Islamists do not exactly welcome cultural diversity, especially when it is secular, liberal, and non-Arab. The leading Shia parties have never truly accepted the provision in the Transitional Administrative Law guaranteeing Kurdish voters an effective veto over a permanent Iraqi constitution. According to the ABC Poll, only 5 percent of Arabs, compared with 58 percent of Kurds, want a federal political system; 90 percent want to centralize power in Baghdad.
If Shia Islamists took power, one of the first things they would likely do is secure control of Kirkuk, the oil-rich city Kurds call their "Jerusalem." Kurds share the city with largely Shia Turkmen and with Arabs, some of whom were given Kurdish land by Saddam. Last August, after fighting between Kurds and Turkmen left a dozen dead, Shia in Baghdad angrily marched on the offices of a Kurdish party. This March, with tensions rising again, fighters from four Shia militias took up positions in Kirkuk. Two thousand members of Moqtada Al Sadr's Mahdi Army marched through the streets. To gauge how Sadr's forces might treat Kurds in the event of a U.S. withdrawal and a fight for Kirkuk, consider what they did to another non-Arab minority four months ago in the gypsy town of Qawliya: They burned it to the ground.
To be sure, the Kurds have their own militia, the peshmerga. But Shia militias enjoy the backing of Iran; Sunni groups can expect help from Saudi Arabia or Syria. The Kurds, by contrast, have no regional allies. Whether a post-occupation Iraq turned to theocracy or plunged into civil war, Iraq's Shia and Sunni would not let Kurdistan secede--it contains too many Arabs and too much oil. And Iraq's neighbors, particularly Turkey, which has its own restive Kurdish minority, would not either. Some in the withdrawal camp suggest replacing U.S. troops with a U.N. force. But anyone who thinks U.N. peacekeepers can protect Kurds against armed fundamentalist militias should do a Google search with the terms "Rwanda, 1994" or "Srebrenica, 1995."
A U.S. withdrawal would mean, in other words, the likely destruction of the decent, liberal society the Kurds have created under U.S. protection for the last 13 years. And that could well leave thousands more dead Kurds on America's conscience. Whatever you think about America's unhappy Iraq adventure, nothing we have so far done--including Abu Ghraib--would be as shameful as that. Before the percentage of Americans advocating withdrawal tops 50 percent, mainstream politicians need to say so.
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This article originally ran in the June 7, 2004, issue of the magazine.