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Kurds in middle of Mideast tug-of-war

September 1, 1996
Web posted at: 12:00 p.m. EDT (1600 GMT)

From Reporter Denise Dillon

(CNN) -- The assault on the Kurdish population in northern Iraq is the latest in a series of attacks against separatist forces there.

The Kurds are an agricultural people, squeezed between Iran, Iraq and Turkey and struggling to build a state of their own. So far, they have little to show for their efforts.


Iraqi President Saddam Hussein has steadfastly rebuffed the Kurdish challenge, violently suppressing them on a number of occasions.

In 1988, he deployed thousands of soldiers against Kurdish separatists -- then followed with a blistering chemical attack.

And just months after the Gulf War ended, in 1991, Iraq's beleaguered military was dispatched again to the north to suppress rebel Kurds.

It was that attack that prompted the international community to step in, imposing stiff restrictions on Iraqi military activity in the north of the country.

'No-fly' zone

Iraqi forces

The sanctions of the so-called "no-fly" zone north of the 36th Parallel block Iraqi aircraft and troops from entering the region.

Baghdad has always challenged such restrictions -- but now it appears Hussein is willing to risk a military confrontation with the Western coalition. And that's put Washington into a quandary.

Marshall Wiley, a former U.S. government representative in Iraq, said the United States in a difficult position, having recognized the territorial integrity of Iraq but objecting to Baghdad's aggression toward Kurds in the north.

Why now?


Saturday's attack on the Kurds was Saddam Hussein's biggest military offensive in five years. Why did he decide to move now? There's no clear answer at this stage, but observers offer several theories.

Some analysts say he may have acted for nationalistic reasons, to snub the United States and its allies for his effective loss of sovereignty over his own soil in the no-fly zone.

Amatzia Baram, an Iraq scholar, told CNN he believes Hussein attacked the Kurds to shore up waning support in Baghdad. (224K AIFF or WAV sound)icon

Col. William Taylor, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, see another motive: an effort by Hussein to divide the Kurds and counter an alliance by certain Kurdish factions with Iran.

"The Kurdish minority ... has been cozying up to the Iranians ... and given the traditional hatred between the Iranians and the Iraqis, maybe Saddam Hussein sees this as a threat to his dominance of the Kurdish area north of the 36th Parallel," Taylor said.

Kurds play pawn

Kurd children

After fighting a war throughout much of the 1980s, Iran remains a bitter enemy of Iraq. And with the Iranians reportedly training and supplying some Kurdish factions, Hussein's moves against those Kurds may be calculated to prevent an Iranian-backed insurgency in his own country.

By forming an alliance with one of the Kurdish factions, Baram said, Hussein has essentially secured himself an invitation to the Irbil, the capital of Kurdistan, making it difficult for the United States or its allies to contest the move.

It's unclear where the conflict will go from here, but amid the confusion, one thing remains constant -- the Kurds still have nowhere else to go.


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