Regime change easy part of US ambitions

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 23 March, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 23 March, 2003, 12:00am

The United States promised that overthrowing Iraqi President Saddam Hussein would be the start of a process of reshaping the Middle East. It is an ambitious proposal fraught with the potential for disaster.

For one, the US alone cannot bring democracy, stability and economic development to the region. Such a task can be achieved only through international co-operation and for now, that is lacking.

In the region itself, territorial ambitions are likely to hamper such a goal. Already, the threat of conflict appears likely in northern Iraq, where Turkey has reportedly moved troops to ward off Kurdish nationalism.

By ignoring the authority of the United Nations in declaring war on Iraq, US President George W. Bush has frozen out - in the short term at least - potential partners for his plans. The prospect remains, therefore, that after the removal of Mr Hussein, the American leader will need as concerted an effort to convince the international community of his wishes as it took to unsuccessfully win support for war.

Gathering a coalition for the reconstruction of Iraq will not be difficult. A number of nations, Japan among them, have joined the US and Britain in promising financial help. More difficult will be finding nations willing to make Mr Bush's goals a reality.

The main difficulty will be convincing the monarchs and dictatorial regimes of the Arab world that democracy is what they need. The task will be made even more problematic by the social and political fissures that have been opened by America's insistence on war against Iraq.

Resolving the question of a Palestinian state may be the US' ultimate aim - the inference has already been made by the Bush administration - but it is by no means the only problem involving minority groups.

Just as historically challenging are demands by Kurdish activists for a separate state. Turkey's reported moving of thousands of troops across its border, under the guise of preventing Iraqi refugees from entering, is a telling sign of concern.


The Kurdish people have lived in the region on the borders of Iran, Iraq and Turkey for at least 3,000 years. Although they have a separate cultural identity and are predominantly Muslim, they do not share a common language.

Only in the wake of World War I, when the victorious allies were redefining the region that had been partly occupied by the Ottoman Empire, was the idea of a separate Kurdish nation considered.

In 1920, the Treaty of Svres promised Kurds independence. The assurances were derailed by Mustafa Kamal Atatrk's struggle for a modern Turkey with new borders. Kurdish nationalists, mostly based in Turkey, have since been agitating - sometimes violently - for the fulfilment of that ambition.

Kurds in the region number about 22 million. Half are in Turkey, where they comprise 20 per cent of the population. More than six million live in Iran, four million in Iraq and one million in Syria.

Their efforts for political representation have been trampled in Iran, Iraq and Turkey. All governments have used military means to suppress separatism and in Turkey and Iran, cultural identity.

A reason is that the region suitable for a potential nation known as Kurdistan is rich in oil and mineral deposits. None of the involved nations is willing to give up sovereign rights to such wealth to a minority group. All have used military force to put down campaigns for self-governance or creation of a Kurdish nation.

Mr Hussein's regime has killed hundreds of thousands of Kurds to suppress their claims. After Kurds supported Teheran during the Iran-Iraq war, the Iraqi leader began a campaign of revenge that amounted to genocide. At least 5,000 Kurds were killed by chemical weapons in the town of Halabja in 1998 - an incident used by the Bush administration as justification for Mr Hussein's overthrow.


The international community gave the region's Kurds a taste of self-rule at the end of the first Gulf war in 1991. An enclave of 50,000 square kilometres was created in northern Iraq, but infighting between rival groups, with the backing of Baghdad and Teheran, has made for tense and sometimes violent rule.

Mr Hussein's removal from power will bring the Kurdish question to the fore internationally and it is in anticipation of this occurrence that Turkey has apparently reacted militarily. For the same reason, Iranian and Syrian officials are doubtless also watching events in Iraq with concern.

With the Iraq war only days old, the US has its eyes firmly on toppling the Iraqi regime. It should not be so blinkered by ambition, though, as the potential for conflict elsewhere posed by its actions are great.

In the case of the Kurds, the US can readily use its friendly relations with the Turkish government to insist that the war is not used as an excuse to take advantage of the ethnic conflict. America must make the same point clear to Iraqi Kurds.

The Bush administration's ambitions for the future of the Middle East are in many ways naive. For the sake of US-style democracy, free-market economic principles and dissolving the threats posed by anti-American extremists, issues such as Kurdistan are being ignored.

Removing Mr Hussein using the might of the most powerful military force the world has witnessed will be the simplest part. Installing a short-term US military administration that will direct humanitarian needs and formulate a strategy for Iraq's reconstruction and development will be only slightly more difficult.

The problems will begin when the time comes for implementation of those proposals. The efforts will be costly and the US and its military allies, Britain and Australia, cannot shoulder the financial burden. Differences with other nations created by the sidelining of the UN have to be overcome so that a united reconstruction effort can be carried out.

But satisfying ethnic divisions and political ambitions will be far more difficult to achieve. For this reason alone, the US must consult widely and not act with unilateral haste in attempting to make its plans a reality.