Dr. Fouad Baban has spent much of the past 14 years documenting the effects of Saddam Hussein's 1988 gas attacks on the Kurdish people. He has traveled to 200 villages, spoken with hundreds of survivors and examined the sharply increased rates of lung cancer, birth defects and kidney disease. But the voluble doctor considers himself a specialist not just in diseases of the body. As a Kurd, he has also made a study of the mind of Saddam Hussein. "We know the patient, and we know what he is capable of," Baban told me one afternoon in his ranch-style home in Sulaimaniya, in eastern Kurdistan. "He would not hesitate to do it again." Europeans and Americans may argue over the wisdom of attacking Saddam as the next stage in the war on terror. But in Iraq itself, the Kurds have more concrete concerns. Their worry is not whether George W. Bush is going to act (most believe he will) but how the Iraqi dictator will respond. Most Kurds believe that if cornered and given the chance, Saddam would retaliate probably against them. "We are in a precarious position," said Hoshyar Zebari, international relations chief of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP). "If anything goes wrong, we would be the first to suffer."
But now those reservations have put a kink in U.S. planning. The military success in Afghanistan relied on the former opposition, the Northern Alliance, to do most of the ground fighting. In Iraq, as one Kurdish official said, "the historical parallel is not very useful." Saddam Hussein is not only a tougher foe, but Kurds have much more to lose should things go wrong.
Many of the 85,000 peshmerga, or local fighters, have been battling Baghdad on and off for 40 years. "Saddam was afraid of us before he was afraid of the Americans," boasted Hamid Afandi, director of peshmerga affairs in western Kurdistan. But the fighting has been localized. Now, with Iraqi tanks dug in less than 20 km from the commander's office, Afandi and other Kurdish officials are eager to distinguish between self-defense, which he insists Kurds can handle, and provoking Saddam by leading the charge on Baghdad. Analysts also point out that the Kurds lack heavy artillery and would be powerless against an Iraqi counterattack. Moreover, despite being situated at the crossroads of Bush's "axis of evil," life has not been so bad lately. Thanks to a no-fly zone imposed by U.S. and British fighter planes after the Gulf War, they have been enjoying a quiet renaissance outside the control of Baghdad. Oil smuggling and the U.N. "oil for food" program have brought billions of dollars into local coffers. (The U.N. program in Kurdistan has actually spent less than half of the $7 billion it has earned.) Road and bridge construction is underway at a frantic pace, and city shops are crammed with DVDs and smuggled electronics. This is still Iraq, of course. Saddam's spies are everywhere, bandits roam the hills, and the Iraqi army looms on the horizon. A particularly unsavory group of Islamic extremists known as Ansar al-Islam, many of whose members trained with al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, has occupied 10 villages along the Iranian border and is launching attacks on Kurdish military positions. In April they barely missed assassinating the prime minister of eastern Kurdistan. To protect themselves, Kurdish officials now travel in convoys of heavily-armed pickup trucks, some mounted with antitank cannons. Still, compared to their ethnic kin in Turkey or Iran, or tribesmen in Afghanistan, Iraq's Kurds have it good and they know it. They also know that it could all go up in smoke if they join an effort to topple Saddam that the U.S. is unwilling to finish, as happened in 1991. The resulting lack of enthusiasm is one reason Pentagon planners have backed away from the Afghanistan model and upped projections for the number of American troops required for a ground war (200,000, by latest estimate). Kurdish officials also recognize that if the U.S. wants to use their territory to launch an assault, they can't exactly object. In exchange, they are trying to obtain security guarantees as well as the promise of a central role in any post-Saddam government. Such negotiations are taking place in private, however. When your adversary is one of the few world leaders to have already used chemical weapons, it's best not to make too much noise.