Diplomats and reporters largely ignored a September settlement between warring Kurdish factions in Iraq, but it could lead to both a power shift and new religious freedoms for a persecuted Christian minority.
Last month representatives from relief, mission, and advocacy organizations met with Jalal Talabani, president of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and one of the signatories to the settlement, just after a Sept. 18 State Department ceremony formalized peace between Mr. Talabani's PUK and Massoud Barzani, president of the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP). Mr. Talabani specifically asked for a meeting with Christian leaders while he was in Washington.
"I told them that their religious freedom will be guaranteed; it is one of the principles of democratic society," Mr. Talabani later explained to WORLD. "Guaranteeing this right will help to prepare our people for democracy."
The settlement ends decades of guerrilla fighting between Kurdish factions and, for the first time since Saddam Hussein took power and began a campaign to eliminate the Kurds, unites them within northern Iraq. It calls for a democratic and autonomous government that will function as a regional authority in the Kurd-controlled areas of northern Iraq, which were effectively put off-limits to Mr. Hussein after the Gulf War.
Mr. Talabani said he hopes the agreement will also put pressure on another Kurdish faction, Turkey's Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), to end guerrilla fighting inside Turkey (with weapons he says are provided by the Iraqi government) and eventually lead to opening the border between Turkey and Iraq. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who met with Mr. Talabani and Mr. Barzani after the signing, pledged U.S. support and humanitarian relief.
Evangelicals who met with Mr. Talabani, who is Muslim, said the remarks about religious freedom were surprising.
"He had good answers to hard questions, and this will help a great deal on the issue of religious freedom," said Douglas Layton, who heads Servant Group International, a Nashville-based relief and church-planting ministry that is the only American organization currently working in Iraq's Kurdish region.
"He made a verbal promise to institute a policy of assuring religious freedom for all," said Rich Cizik, Washington spokesman for the National Association of Evangelicals. "That was the significance."
The pledge is particularly significant across the Kurd-controlled areas of northern Iraq. One year ago, Christian believers there feared for not only their freedom but their lives. In Irbil, where the regional parliament is expected to open next summer, a Christian bookstore worker was murdered. Another worker at the church-run store was forced into hiding after both the store and his home were broken into. In Dahuk, a nearby town that is also the site of a Kurdish refugee compound, a Muslim mob attacked evangelicals and overran a church of 350. Christians received death threats. One family of Muslim converts to Christianity was forced to leave the country.
Under terms of the agreement, which provides for a central bank and an interim parliament until general elections are held next July, Mr. Talabani told WORLD his party would reserve five seats in the new parliament for Christian minorities. He did not say how that would take place under general elections.
Kurdish leaders believe the move toward pluralism will enhance their security at a time when Mr. Hussein is threatening to renege on UN sanctions agreements, and when there is growing evidence that Iraq's chemical weapons production is continuing. A written statement from the KDP said that "both parties agreed to work for a united, pluralistic, and democratic Iraq that would ensure the political and human rights of the Kurdish people on a federal basis," while at the same time maintaining "the nation's unity and territorial integrity." Mr. Layton said that Mr. Barzani of the KDP also made a commitment to preserving religious freedom.
Mr. Layton believes the commitment made to evangelical Christians in the United States means they in turn will play an important role in how the peace agreement shapes policy: Informed Christians, he said, "can serve as a watchdog over the commitments our nation makes." He noted that "the Kurds, for their part, have promised religious freedom and we can hold them to their commitments as well." And implicit in standing with the Kurds is standing against the government of Mr. Hussein.
For all the formal signing and talk of central banks, Mr. Talabani remains a man without a country. The Kurdish people have lived in Turkey, Iran, and Iraq without national borders of their own since the turn of the century. Foreign representatives of the PUK and KDP have offices in Washington and London, respectively. Kurdistan has no formal standing in the United Nations. But in this decade Kurds have received growing worldwide attention and appreciation for the strategic role they play in Iraq.
When Saddam Hussein herded Kurds further into the mountainous regions of northern Iraq after the Gulf War, he may have seen it as a final offensive sealing their extinction. Thousands had been killed in wholesale executions and prior chemical weapons attacks, and lack of food and shelter led to more deaths. Already, Mr. Hussein had used chemical weapons against the Kurds in 1988 during the Iran-Iraq war. A nerve gas strike on the northern town of Halabja left 5,000 Kurds dead within minutes. A UN report said Iraqi abuses of Kurds following both wars left "virtually no Iraqi Kurd untouched."
UN forces allied against Iraq stepped in at the end of the Gulf War to protect the Kurds, issuing a "no-fly zone" over northern Iraq to prevent further gas attacks. That continues today as a U.S.-led surveillance operation, based out of the U.S. air base at Incirlik, Turkey, and known as Operation Provide Comfort.
Last month's Kurdish settlement, however, strained U.S.-Turkey relations. On Sept. 26, the Turkish government announced it was sending an ambassador to Baghdad for the first time since 1992. Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit said in a statement that Turkey would upgrade its diplomatic relations with Iraq in response to U.S. participation in the agreement between Mr. Barzani and Mr. Talabani. It said Turkey had not been consulted in the negotiations and did not support the larger standing for Kurdish government inside Iraq.
Iraq did not respond officially to the settlement.