Before the war in Iraq began, Sami Abdul Rahman took refuge in a velvet chair in Kurdish headquarters in Irbil and said, "Sometimes I feel we are in the belly of a shark." At that time he enjoyed the protection of a U.S. no-fly zone over the region. But enemies surrounded him. Ansar al-Islam had plotted several assassination attempts on Kurdish leaders. Saddam's forces were massed barely an hour away.
Kurdish people, Mr. Rahman said, "will never give up until they enjoy their national democracy and human rights like other people of the world." Just months away perhaps from democracy in Iraq, Mr. Rahman, along with his two sons, died on Feb. 1 in a bomb blast at Kurdish headquarters in Irbil, which killed at least 109 people and wounded nearly 300. Four other prominent Kurdish officials, all U.S. allies, were killed in the twin explosions that gutted office buildings for the Kurdish Democratic Party and, about five miles away, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan.
The bombings in northern Iraq opened a new front in the war with insurgents and terror groups in Iraq. It was the largest attack in the Kurdish provinces, until now a bastion of security and prosperity removed from Sunni Triangle violence. It was the worst bomb blast in all of Iraq in six months. "It's very painful to see all this," said Kurdish militiaman Hoger Nader. "I feel the blast broke our backs and destroyed our nest."
Vulnerability for the Kurds is mirrored in Washington, where President Bush and his critics are fighting as if it were February 2003 all over again about the justification for war in Iraq.
The president last week authorized an investigation-the fifth currently underway-into intelligence failures relating to Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. Democrats have seized on the comments of former CIA weapons chief David Kay, who claims the United States will not find stockpiles of mass destruction weapons in Iraq. Mr. Bush has agreed to an airing of "all the facts" on prewar intelligence. Just one year ago Secretary of State Colin Powell, flanked by intelligence chief George Tenet, appeared before the UN Security Council to present a case for war against Saddam Hussein based on "solid sources, solid intelligence."
At the same time, Mr. Bush gave the go-ahead in an Oval Office meeting with United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan to send a UN team to Baghdad to broker a democracy roadmap between the U.S. coalition and majority Shiites. That, too, represented a reversal for the president, who has stiff-armed the UN's postwar efforts.
If the president finds himself politically exposed on the Iraq issue, the Kurds are discovering they are mortally endangered. It was Saddam's genocidal campaigns against the Kurds, unleashing chemical weapons on the region of 4 million and burning hundreds of Kurdish villages to the ground, that convinced many that the Iraqi dictator was capable of employing weapons of mass destruction.
"We in Iraq have seen Saddam Hussein develop, manufacture, and use these weapons against us with impunity," said Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari. "The system of hiding, of concealment was very sophisticated in Iraq. So I really believe some of those weapons could be found."
Kurdish support is also key to the U.S. plan for a federal government in Iraq with regional caucuses leading ultimately to nationwide elections. Shiites, led by Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, want immediate national elections leading to a strong central government. Already the ayatollah has persuaded moderate Shiite Ahmad Chalabi, a leading member of the Iraqi Governing Council, to back away from his earlier endorsement of the U.S. election plan.
Mr. Chalabi, together with fellow council members Abdul Aziz Hakim (a Sistani Shiite) and Adnan Pachachi (a Sunni) traveled to northern Iraq to meet with Kurdish leaders last month ahead of meeting with Mr. Annan in New York and President Bush in Washington. Kurdish leaders agreed to support future Iraq unity, but not on the terms favored by the Shiites. The two top Kurdish officials, Massoud Barzani and Jalal Talabani, fear the Shiite proposal could lead to radical Islamic government and could terminate Kurdish control over northern Iraq, where elections and fundamental freedoms have been the norm for several years preceding U.S. liberation.
Many in northern Iraq believe it is the divisiveness of these issues, and the close alliance with the United States, that led to last week's attacks targeting Kurdish leaders.
For Mr. Rahman, age 72, the fight for freedom spanned more than four decades. He was a Kurdish freedom fighter in the 1960s. But when Saddam Hussein's Baath party first came to power in the 1970s, he became a cabinet member in charge of northern affairs. By 1980 he had again defected from Baghdad to help launch a new resistance movement, sensing that Saddam would betray Iraqi Kurds in the Iran-Iraq war. He was right, and lived to flee with his kinsmen after the regime launched chemical weapons attacks on Kurdish villages. With the Gulf War, more betrayals followed; this time from the first President Bush, who failed to provide the Kurds protection from Saddam following the liberation of Kuwait.
Over the last 10 years Mr. Rahman became a well-respected senior official in a regional government composed of Muslim Kurds, Assyrians, Turkomans, Christian Chaldeans, and other minorities. "We practice clean governance in an area where that is a rare case," he said in 2002. "The change we want in Iraq is democratic change." Mr. Rahman's outspoken advocacy for government by the people made him an enemy of Islamic militants like Ansar al-Islam, a group suspected of carrying out the bombings.
Attending the Feb. 3 funeral service for Mr. Rahman were surviving Kurdish leaders including Iraqi Governing Council member Massoud Barzani and the foreign minister, Mr. Zebari. Observers said they were unhappy to see the pro-U.S. democrats together in one place. Another bomb could have ended their cause. "The message from these leaders, however, was clear," said Douglas Layton, a U.S. health contractor in the region.
"They will not be cowed by terror and they will press ahead with their dream of a just political future or give their lives trying."