Cover Story

'In the belly of a shark'

While the White House makes its case against Saddam Hussein's Iraq, the country's northern provinces, already acquainted with democratic transformation, ponder what the war on terrorism will mean for them

Issue: "Will Kurds stand alone?," June 1, 2002

IRBIL, Iraq—Every morning at Syria's northern border a convoy sets off from Kameshli, a frontier town with dusty streets and fleabag hotels. Trucks built to carry cabbages instead take luggage while minivans bear Iraqi refugees eager to return to their home villages in northern Iraq.

They make their way across the region's alluvial plains, green with spring. At the Tigris River the refugees board outboard-powered boats in twos and fours, with luggage, and cross into Iraq. It is a fast passage, with a hostile Turkish border in view upstream and Saddam Hussein's troops only a few miles downstream. On the Iraqi riverbank a sign reads "Welcome to Kurdistan." A reception center is under construction at this isolated border crossing for the returnees-who numbered as many as 400 a day last month.

The Kurdish homeland is divided among Turkey, Iran, and Iraq. Two hundred years ago there were twice as many Kurds as Egyptians; today the Egyptians outnumber Kurds two to one. War and persecution repeatedly slashed population for the Kurds, the largest ethnic group without a nation in the Middle East. Despite the losses, ethnic Kurds make up 15 percent of Middle Eastern people.

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When Iraq's president, Saddam Hussein, targeted Kurds for annihilation, thousands died from chemical weapons attacks on this region in the late 1980s. Over 100,000 disappeared under Anfal, a planned campaign to destroy Kurdish villages. U.S. and British forces stepped in to protect the region with a no-fly zone after the Gulf War.

Under that protection, administrative governments run by the Kurds are creating economic opportunity and freedom. For that, Kurdish leaders would like to be consulted about Bush administration plots to remove President Saddam Hussein and hasten a post-Saddam Iraq.

The journey home is a sentimental odyssey for those who have settled outside Iraq, an extended homecoming usually to see family before returning to Finland, Germany, Holland, or the United States. Some return because they finally have earned enough money in the West to afford a trip home. Some make the trip because they hear a clock ticking toward war. They want to see changes in Kurdish northern Iraq before the next phase of the U.S. war on terrorism-should it come to their homeland-changes everything again. In some cases, surprisingly, they are coming back for good.

Fawzi Hariri is one who has come home to stay. For over 20 years he lived in London, working part-time with the exiled Iraqi National Congress (an umbrella group of factions opposed to Mr. Hussein) and full-time as an executive with British Airways. He returned last July following his father's assassination in the city of Irbil.

Franso Hariri was a popular leader in the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP), a resistance fighter, author, and soccer champion. He survived repeated clashes with Mr. Hussein's regime (and two other attempts on his life) to become governor of the Irbil province after the Gulf War. Four Islamic militants armed with heavy machine guns ambushed him outside his home on the way to work on Feb. 18, 2001. Today his son, at 43, leaves each morning under heavy guard from the same house for his new job with the KDP, as deputy head of international relations. "You may say I picked the worst time to come, but I decided to continue the family line," he told WORLD.

The KDP and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) have controlled most of Iraq's three northern provinces-Irbil, Dohuk, and Sulaymaniyah-since Mr. Hussein withdrew his military forces and government personnel from the area after the 1991 Kurdish uprising. The KDP and the PUK fought one another from 1994 through 1997. In 1998 they agreed to a ceasefire and to unified government. The cease-fire has held, but reunification measures have not. The two parties govern carefully separated regions but allow travel and commerce between them.

Like his father, Mr. Hariri took up his new post as a minority among the minority, an Assyrian Christian working alongside predominantly Muslim Kurds. "We were an endangered species," he says in reference to Kurdish Christians. "But the last 10 years have reinvigorated our existence." Under the KDP churches are being rebuilt, some with government aid, and Christian holidays are once again celebrated-something forbidden in the rest of the country under Baghdad's control.

The region has over 20 licensed political parties; five have representatives in the KDP government. They include minorities from the Assyrian, Turkmen, and Yazidi communities.

Westerners, including Americans, also have been welcomed into the administrative mix in Kurd-controlled areas. Security concerns dictate that they work in small numbers and not advertise their identity. What few Americans are here find it best to work in training capacities, equipping locals to carry on the real work while at the same time keeping their own profiles discreet. A therapist from California has for eight years trained Iraqis to teach the handicapped. Surgical groups from Texas-based Northwest Medical Teams make annual trips to perform cataract operations and other procedures alongside local medical workers.

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