'We Need To Be In Baghdad'

The ethnic Kurdish northern third of Iraq has been independent of Saddam Hussein's rule for a decade, thanks to a U.S. and British enforced no-flight zone. But as America gears up to force a regime change in Baghdad, Kurdish groups fear they could be left out of the political process. The Kurds are the largest Iraqi opposition force, with up to 70,000 soldiers on the ground. But because neighboring Turkey fears that a powerful--or even independent--Kurdish entity in Iraq will incite separatism among its own Kurdish minority, Washington has been cautious about including Kurds in its plans for war or even the subsequent peace. Barham Salih, prime minister of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, one of the two political groups controlling Iraqi Kurdistan, spoke to NEWSWEEK's Owen Matthews about the Kurds' uneasy position. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: Do you want independence for Kurdistan?

SALIH: The Kurds have chosen--our future lies within Iraq. We are ready to be at the forefront of a democratic, federal Iraq. We want a real say in the country's future. We will not allow others to decide the future of this country, which history has made us part of.

Is Iraq a viable state?

Iraq is already divided along ethnic lines--Kurds, Sunni and Shiite Arabs, and it is growing more polarized because of the ethnically divisive policies of [Saddam's] regime. If they want [Kurds] to be Iraqis, they must deal with us as full-fledged citizens of Iraq. Iraq cannot be united unless all its constituent elements feel included. We have a lot to contribute--our success in building civil society and self-government. [Iraqi Kurdistan] is a bright spot of freedom in the heart of the Middle East. For 80 years we have been excluded, and they ask us to call ourselves Iraqis. This is a bit much, I think. Now the tables are turning--the perennial victims of Iraq, the Kurds, may turn out to be its saviors.

Are you concerned that the United States might support another Arab strongman to replace Saddam?

What we have heard from the U.S. is that they support a democratic vision for Iraq. I personally heard the vice president say that the U.S. will not risk its servicemen to replace one dictator with another. The Humpty Dumpty of Iraqi dictatorship cannot be put together... Iraq has been a miserable failure. To ensure reform we need fundamental change. Another dictator will just continue the pattern of internal repression and external aggression. Unless we have a democratic and pluralistic regime, Iraq will be at war with itself and its neighbors.

The United States has failed to support Kurdish uprisings against Saddam in the past. Do you trust U.S. assurances now?

That the Kurds are distrustful is natural--we have been left in the cold so many times we are very concerned that it will happen again. We have had so many bitter experiences. We are living on the margins of history; we have been fighting for survival. We inherited a totally devastated land [after the failure of the 1991 uprising] and look what we have achieved with limited resources... This is a success story we can take pride in. We are reluctant to risk what we have achieved here.

The U.S. Congress has allocated funds for an exile Army, with troops reportedly already recruited from the Kurdish area. How does this fit in with your own forces?

We have consulted with the U.S. on this. There are shady things going on--this should be about freedom. Mercenaries won't do the job. The U.S. has to go into partnership with the Kurdish freedom fighters.

Turkey is nervous that your forces will take the oil-rich city of Kirkuk and declare it the Kurdish capital. Will you?

Kirkuk is a symbol of Iraq's failure as a state. It's also symbolic of the suffering of the Kurdish people of Iraq. In order for Iraq to be peaceful we need the injustice which befell Kirkuk [when non-Arabs were expelled by Saddam] to be reversed. All the people of Kirkuk should be allowed to return--Kurds, Turkmen, Assyrians. Ethnic cleansing should not be allowed to stand. Kirkuk should be a city of Kurdistan, but inhabited by many peoples.

The Kurds seem to be becoming more assertive than in the past.

We are now seeing the future of Iraq being decided, so we have to articulate our position. Since we are part of this country, we have to play a central role in shaping its politics. We will not be safe until there is a democratic regime in Baghdad. We cannot afford another 80 years of tyranny. Our current situation is not sustainable. This is a dead end, even though we have achieved a remarkable success here by every indicator. For this to be sustained there has to be a democratic regime. We need to be in Baghdad--that is the only way forward. We can have a civil society based on democratic process in the heart of the Islamic Middle East where people are not shy to say, "Yes, we are friends with the U.S." Our time has come.