The New Kurdistan

REPORTER: Matthew Carney

Few people on earth have tasted as much defeat and betrayal as the Kurds.

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The five million who live in northern Iraq are landlocked in these mountains, and for centuries their powerful neighbours have tried to keep them weak and isolated. To get into northern Iraq, I have been smuggled across two countries. It`s rare for a journalist to get this far. Turkey, Syria, Iran and Iraq do not want the world to know that a new democracy is flourishing in this Kurdish enclave. In 10 years, Iraqi Kurdistan has seen a remarkable turnaround. In the late 1980s Saddam Hussein bombed, burnt and bulldozed 4,000 villages like this one, named Saoenan. His stated policy was to exterminate the Kurds. Kurdish men were taken to concentration camps and 180,000 were slaughtered Only a lucky few survived the horror..

HAMAD: It was an awful, unpleasant situation in the camp. Many died and were just thrown into a hole. After the bodies were thrown into the hole they were covered with dirt without proper burial or washing. When we left, a black dog would go and eat the bodies. The situation went like that for a while, until one day we told them “We are Muslims like you, at least allow us to bury our dead properly and kill this dog, so it won`t drag the bodies out.” After that it was better.

There was more tragedy to come. During the 1991 Gulf War, the Kurds rose up against Saddam Hussein. But after the Americans left Iraq, the Kurds were brutally crushed again, and in panic two million Kurds took flight. These are the images that most people remember of the Kurds, one of the largest refugee flows in recent times. In response, the Gulf War allies established a safe haven or no-fly zone and slowly the Kurds came back. To this day, Saddam is kept out of Iraqi Kurdistan by American and British warplanes. Mardin Hamazarab who was one of the first to return to Saoenan village.

MARDIN HAMAZARAB: when we arrived, we kissed the earth because we had no life in the camps. So when people returned home they were happy to be back in the land of their ancestors even though it was in ruins.

Today the Kurds have rebuilt 80% of their villages and are cultivating their fertile land. The children of Kurdistan can sing their national songs, study from Kurdish textbooks and learn Kurdish history. Many of them haven`t even seen a picture of Saddam Hussein. They have grown up in the de facto state of Iraqi Kurdistan.

MARDIN HAMAZARAB: Yes, now we have a stronger national feeling. We`re free from the Iraqi Ba`ath regime which used to harass us continuously. At night, Iraqi soldiers would surround us, arrest and torture people. Now we have our own government which takes care of us. We live in peace amongst ourselves. No one harasses us any longer. Our lives are much better now.

It`s in the cities like Arbil where the new-found freedoms of Kurdish rule are most evident. While Saddam Hussein claims UN sanctions are killing his people, Iraqi Kurdistan is undergoing a mini-boom. Western-style shopping malls are springing up. This one, Masi supermarket, was built on top of an old Iraqi military barracks. Its shiny aisles packed full of goods are a stark contrast to the shortages in Saddam`s Iraq. Not all Iraqi Kurds are a part of this affluence, but the fact that it is available is a dream for most of them. Just 10 years ago they were living in caves and refugee camps.

MAN IN SHOPPING CENTRE: We have suffered a lot. Thank God things are now much better. We are happy. We are very pleased with the situation. Our country is beautiful.

WOMAN IN SHOPPING CENTRE: It`s really a tremendous change. Of course we are very pleased with it. Before the uprising, no-one such a place could exist in Kurdistan.

The Kurds see themselves as the model for a democratic Iraq. When Saddam Hussein withdrew in 1992 they held elections, formed a parliament, and the first Kurdish democracy was born. Iraqi Kurds have a history of vicious infighting, but for the moment they have embraced the ballot box, with 20 political parties represented here. The two major factions – the Kurdistan Democratic Party, or the KDP, and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, the PUK, have struck a comprehensive peace deal.

DR SALIH BARHAM, PM, KURDISH REGIONAL GOVERNMENT: Definitely this is the most enduring case of Kurdish self-rule since…I mean, from the 20th century on. And this has lasted 10 years. Many people were predicting doom and gloom for this experiment when it started in 1991. In a very tough geopolitical environment, our neighbours are very sensitive and very apprehensive about what we are trying to do. In a situation where we had to endure triple embargoes – one from the government of Iraq, one from the UN, one from the regional countries. In a situation where we had no culture of democracy and civil society institutions, from a situation where we started with a totally devastated economy. To see what we have achieved, I think it is a great success story.

But the society they are building is incredibly fragile. Its existence is totally dependent on America and the United Kingdom maintaining security through the no-fly zones. Minister of Reconstruction Nasreen Sideek knows their democratic experiment will be smashed by Saddam Hussein if the protection is lifted.

NASREEN SIDEEK, MINISTER FOR RECONSTRUCTION & DEVELOPMENT: These 10 years has been like living a dream, but that dream is also like a nightmare, because we don`t know – we could wake up from it. Because there is no guarantees yet. The interest on protecting the Kurds has been totally left only to two nations only, instead of the whole world respecting it and protecting it. So that`s unpredictable.

Iraqi Kurdistan`s prosperity is also dependent on the UN`s Oil-for-Food program. The program was introduced in 1996 to alleviate the suffering caused by international sanctions on Iraq. Under the program, Iraq can sell some oil through the UN. This revenue is meant to provide the Iraqi people with food, health care and infrastructure. It`s been a godsend for the Iraqi Kurds, who receive about $2 billion a year. But Saddam Hussein, who gets about $8 billion a year for Iraq proper, says the program is not working.

NASREEN SIDEEK: It`s really an issue of managing and leadership. We are interested in making it work because it`s the only source for our people.

Saddam Hussein claims sanctions are killing Iraqi babies, but here in Iraqi Kurdistan, it`s a very different story. Dr Zahiyan Abdullah has compiled infant mortality statistics in Iraqi Kurdistan. During the 1990s, death rates have fallen by a third. Over the same period in Saddam`s Iraq, infant mortality rates have doubled. The difference is astounding, considering the two areas are subject to exactly the same sanctions.

DR ZAHIYAN ABDULLAH: In `92, the figure was 6.8%.

REPORTER: For infant mortality?

DR ZAHIYAN ABDULLAH: For infant mortality, yeah.

REPORTER: And then in 2000, what was it?

DR ZAHIYAN ABDULLAH: In 2000 it decreased to 2.3%.

REPORTER: So that`s quite significant?

DR ZAHIYAN ABDULLAH: It is significant, yes.

REPORTER: So, why is that? Why do think this has happened?

DR ZAHIYAN ABDULLAH: Because the conditions of the hospitals are better than before, and also the education of the people, the druggists, the care which is given to the patients now, it is better than before.

REPORTER: So the food-for-oil program is really working for you?

DR ZAHIYAN ABDULLAH: Yes, the food-for-oil program also has a great role in this.

Dr Abdullah`s findings are supported by UNICEF reports and offer compelling evidence that Saddam Hussein is not using his food-for-oil money for the welfare of his people.

NASREEN SIDEEK: Iraq has the power to decide to use all the money of each phase to the health sector, for example, or to the infrastructure sector, or any sector. I mean really, Iraq is one party of oil-for-food program. The oil-for-food program can`t be implemented unless the Iraq Government approve it and is willing to do it. So they have the power to choose to solve the misery and the suffering by bringing in anything they want.

REPORTER: So it`s propaganda? I mean it`s the best propaganda tool Saddam has.

NASREEN SIDEEK: Unfortunately he`s using children.

Saddam has another source of money that could stop Iraqi children from dying. It`s here in these oil trucks on the border of Iraqi Kurdistan and Turkey. This line goes for 8km. It`s an illegal oil trade with Turkey that makes Saddam Hussein up to $10 million a day. It`s the first time it`s been filmed by a Western journalist. It shows that the UN sanctions are a failure. But for the Kurds there is a catch. As it comes through their territory, they make about $1 million a day taxing Saddam`s oil.

NASREEN SIDEEK: If that is cut, then all these offices that are running the programs of oil-for-food program and that are maintaining it afterward, and all the institutions that has been established to secure the region and apply the rule of law and day-to-day public service will not have any funding and then they will stop. So, it will be devastating for the region.

In the meantime, these students have freedoms unimaginable in Iraq. Fifty independent newspapers and eight Kurdish satellite TV stations to choose from and Internet access. Zani Pir`ah came to Kurdistan from Baghdad six years ago.

ANI PIR`AH: To know what the real freedom is, to how what is the human being, how the human being is appreciated nowadays. I really only saw this on some TV and some European magazines that the human being has some rights and he have to ask for them. But when I was in Baghdad, no one knows that there is rights for us. We thought that they just have to force us to do what they want. But when I came back here, I felt that I have my rights and I can ask the government for them.

The young people – part of the elite – are growing up in a different culture to their parents. Self-rule has given them a new confidence and a Western mindset.

RABAZ KAMAL, STUDENT: We don`t want to be like Middle Eastern thinking people. We want to think this way. We don`t want to be like Arabs. We don`t want to be like the Persians. We just want to be Kurds. We are Kurds and we want to grow through our nationality and we want to get our own independent status.

But the dilemma for the government is how to keep this generation in Iraqi Kurdistan. It`s estimated up to 25% of their educated young men have left for the West. It all looks so normal, but everyone knows there is no security. Saddam Hussein has 200,000 troops stationed only 30km away.

RABAZ KAMAL: We are in a state that is not secure. Maybe Saddam will come back. Maybe Turkey will come, Iran will come. It makes you be in a state where you are not sure of your education, not sure of your future. You cannot make up a family because you are not secure. That`s why people try to go abroad. That`s why. And another factor is because, for example, I am at university. It`s OK, I can graduate and get a job, but it is not as good as I can get in another country outside of my country. That`s another problem – the economy out there. The third is that, you know, when people see the European style life, in Europe and Australia and America, we are humans and we feel like them, we just want to be like them and we want to be better than now.

The Musheer family represent the fate of all Kurds if Saddam comes back. They were subject to an ethnic cleansing program in Iraq proper four months ago. They were told to sign a nationality correction form, forcing them to give up their Kurdish ethnicity and register as Arabs.

WAHAB MUSHEER: I`m a Kurd. Because I`m a Kurd, my pride won`t let me change my nationality for self-interest. I`d rather suffer than change my identity.

When Wahab refused to sign, his whole family were immediately expelled from Iraq. His house and other possessions were confiscated and they were dumped at the first Kurdish checkpoint. They now live in this tent, waiting for proper housing.

WOMAN: I was about to lose my mind, then my neighbours comforted me. The Kurds have been subjected to such atrocities for years.

Saddam Hussein has recently cleansed about 100,000 Kurds in this way, and as for the Kurds who sign the national correction forms, they are removed from their homes and settled as Arabs in southern Iraq. The best opportunity for the Kurdish leadership to ensure security for its people and international recognition for its quasi-state is for America to strike Iraq and remove Saddam Hussein. Success in Afghanistan has made this more likely. In preparation, the US has made high-level visits to Iraqi Kurdistan to discuss with Kurdish leaders a strategy of using their forces and territory. The idea is to use the Kurds as they did the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan. Kurdish militia leader Jalal Talabani says he already has 40,000 battle-hardened troops to lead the fight against Saddam Hussein.

JALAL TALABANI, KURDISH MILITIA LEADER: I think the Kurdish people are more stronger than the Northern Alliance, which in reality, the name is not Northern Alliance, the name is the United Front. We are more stronger. We have more and more than they have. The second, the Kurds are not alone. You know, we have other Arab forces especially in the South Seas which are waiting for any move to liberate their area, and the US forces. Iran and Turkey both have their own policy towards Iraq, but the US is the country which is deciding – if they want to attack Iraq, they can. No-one will prevent them.

For his part, Saddam Hussein is also increasing his threats against the Americans and the Kurds.

SADDAM HUSSEIN, PRESIDENT OF IRAQ: You`re not going to negotiate with me? This is sheer stupidity. I`m not going to listen to you telling me you`re not going to negotiate. For that I`m going to make sure I cut your tongues out.

This is the front-line seen from a safe distance. It`s here the Kurds claim Saddam has deployed an additional 200,000 troops since September 11. But the Kurds are wary of being used by the US to bring down Saddam Hussein. In 1991, George Bush Senior called on the Kurds to rise up. They did, but America did not support them.

GEORGE BUSH, US PRESIDENT (1991): I can report to the nation that aggression is defeated, the war is over.

Instead, the US negotiated a peace with Iraq, leaving Saddam with conventional weapons, and with those weapons he smashed the Kurds. It`s a betrayal they`ve not forgotten. This time they want guarantees of a prominent role in a post-Saddam Iraq before they commit to the Americans.

MAS`UD BAZANI, LEADER KURDISH DEMOCRATIC PARTY: For us, the alternative is much more important than whether an attack takes place or not. This hadn`t been discussed. Unless we know the alternative, we`ll follow our own plan. If we are not certain there`s a better alternative and the Kurdish question will be resolved properly, of course we won`t follow others blindly.

DR SALIH BARHAM, PM, KURDISH REGIONAL GOVERNMENT: I cannot see any Iraqi government able to ignore the Kurdish dimension in Iraq. We are on the map, we are part of the equations, an important integral part of the equations affecting the Iraqi situation and I believe no regional or domestic, or, for that matter, international power, can ignore the Kurdish reality of Iraq and the need to incorporate Kurdish aspirations into whatever is being contemplated about Iraq.

There are some in America who have reservations about removing Saddam Hussein. A dismembered Iraq could lead to a stronger Iran, and Turkey, a key US ally, believes an independent Iraqi Kurdistan could stir the nationalist aspirations of its 10 million Kurds. If America needs any evidence about the gruesome effects of Saddam Hussein`s weapons of mass destruction, it`s to be found in Halabja, where 5,000 Kurds were killed by chemical weapons in 1988. Dr Kareem Adel, a Kurdish doctor and his team, are the only people studying the long-term effects of the attacks.

DR KAREEM ADEL: The problem with this woman is a mass in the abdominal cavity around the descending colon or rectum.

REPORTER: So it`s cancer?

DR KAREEM ADEL: Yes, it`s cancer.

Their preliminary results are staggering. Congenital abnormality rates are four to five times higher than post-atomic populations of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and that`s just the start.

DR KAREEM ADEL: Increased incidence of the cancer among the people in Halabja, especially among young age groups, like those cancers like cancer of the lungs, cancer of the skin and blood cancer or malignancy, especially among the children. And breast cancer among the females. And we have two types of infertility – primary one and secondary. Most of them are secondary. They was fertile before 1988, but after that they become infertile, after 1988. This is the piece for the miscarriage for the woman for the repeated miscarriage.

The tragedy for the Kurds is that there has been no international assistance for Dr Adel`s team. While the debate goes on about whether Saddam has weapons of mass destruction, Halabja and 250 other villages Dr Adel has identified could provide the world a full understanding of the destructive power of these weapons.

DR KAREEM ADEL: I proposed it during my seminars in Paris, Geneva and Oxford to do analysis for the soil and the water of the town, to know if there is an effect on the people or not. They said that analysis had been done by their defence department in every country.

What really angers the Kurds is the US HAS the evidence to convict Saddam Hussein of genocide, but nothing has been done. For 11 years, America has kept 5.5 million pages of documents detailing Saddam Hussein`s campaign of cruelty and slaughter. This, for example, is a list of Kurds that have been executed. It`s probably one of the most documented cases of genocide in the 20th century.

One of the two prime ministers of Kurdistan – Dr Salah Bahram – personally took the documents to the US after they were seized from Iraqi archives during the Kurdish uprising of 1991. He, like many Kurds, questioned whether the Americans, despite all their tough talk, are really serious about bringing Saddam Hussein to justice.

DR SALIH BARHAM: Those documents literally speak volumes about the suffering of the Kurdish people. I think it`s always not a good idea to be bitter, but definitely I`m disappointed by the double standards of the international community about what happened in Iraqi Kurdistan, and the willingness of some quarters of the international community, unfortunately, to forget and choosing to be indifferent about what happened only 10-15 years ago. It is painful.

But the most immediate threat to the Kurds is here in these remote mountains near the Iranian border with Iraqi Kurdistan. Unknown to the world, a new al-Qa`ida network has been established. I was the first to film the Kurdish troops fighting this threat – Jund al-Islam, or the Soldiers of Islam. Jund al-Islam announced its arrival in the most brutal of fashions – by mutilating and decapitating 20 Kurdish fighters 12 days after the terrorist attacks on New York. They declared a jihad against the Kurds` new-found democracy, and ordered the implementation of a Taliban-like system. Nabaz Kurda is the senior commander fighting against them.

NABAZ KURDA, PUK COMMANDER: In the areas under their control, they won`t allow schools. They don`t believe people should be literate. They don`t believe people should be free, even listen to songs.

After the massacres, the Kurds moved about 5,000 troops into the area to curb Jund al-Islam`s growing influence. In a few short months Jund al-Islam has taken 10 villages, controlling about 4,000 Kurdish civilians.

NABAZ KURDA: According to our information, very reliable information, documents we have about them, the group is led by Afghans, their leaders are all members of al-Qa`ida. They spent some years in Afghanistan. This group includes Arabs such as Jordanians, Palestinians, Iraqi Arabs. The group is made up of such people and they follow an organised program. They came to Kurdistan on Osama bin Laden`s orders in order to establish a base for al-Qa`ida. As we are against terrorism and won`t allow such elements in Kurdistan, we`ll certainly get them out of here.

If President Bush is looking for evidence to link Saddam Hussein to Osama bin Laden, he might find it here. The Kurds claim that Saddam Hussein is cooperating with al-Qa`ida, supplying Jund al-Islam with weapons and training. Iraqi Kurdistan is one of the most enduring legacies of the Gulf War of 1991. When action is taken against Iraq, the Kurds do not want to become once more the victim of international power plays, but rather an oasis of democracy in a region characterised by dictators and instability.

DR SALIH BARHAM: That is where I think the international community has a moral responsibility beyond the political imperatives of the day. A moral responsibility to helping the Kurdish people in Iraq and to ensuring that we will not be left alone to facing tyranny again and that the international community has a stake in making sure that this success story stays and be widened.