Sometimes in a highly charged political atmosphere the obvious gets overlooked, even something truly important that history will later reflect on with absolute clarity. Despite the endless bad news we’ve heard from central Iraq, there’s a quiet revolution going on to the north. Thanks to years of military protection, the Kurds have succeeded in creating the one thing President Bush seeks in the Arab world: a beachhead of democracy. Don’t expect to hear about this in the media, but the Kurdistan Regional Government is a genuine U.S. success in the war on terror – if we can keep it.
Like most Americans, my first exposure to the Kurds of northern Iraq was the video images of whole families lying dead in the street as a result of Saddam Hussein’s genocidal attacks. I also recall TV footage a few years later showing thousands of Kurds fleeing into the mountains to escape Saddam’s gunships after the first Gulf War. But as soon as the no-fly zone went into effect, and the Kurds were relatively safe from Saddam, most Americans turned their attention to the “highly charged” 1992 Clinton-Bush campaign. The Kurds may have left our radar screen here in the states, but they continued to quietly build their democratic dream.
However, now 15 years later and despite huge advances since 2003, that dream may be in trouble – the Kurds are again being forgotten. Thanks to the media’s obsession with Baghdad violence (and any other American “failures”), we are only getting half the Iraq War story – and not the northern half where the news is not just good. It’s revolutionary.
Recently, I traveled to northern Iraq to take a look for myself at this quiet revolution. I wasn’t there as a tourist but more as a genuine witness to a special moment, one that our mainstream media will never tell you about – at least not with any passion or persistence. I was part of a group that included Gold Star parents, fathers and mothers who lost their children in battle for the sake of a new Iraq. They came there to meet the people their sons had died to liberate, people who had thankfully survived Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship, an era of cruelty we Americans can hardly imagine.
Most of us heard about Saddam’s 1989 gassing of the Kurds (over 12,000 human beings were murdered in one day). We’ve seen those gruesome pictures of dead bodies lying frozen in the place where they choked to death, often mothers with their children by their side. But Saddam’s plan to destroy the Iraqi Kurds was, shall we say, more “comprehensive.” It was all part of what he and his political thugs called the “Anfal” campaign, a systematic effort to demoralize and dominate a whole society. And they were good at it, as I found out traveling to the city of Sulaymaniyah, not far from the Iranian border.
From the outside, the “Red House,” as the Kurds call it, didn’t look like much – a simple three-story building, nondescript in all ways except its dark red concrete. But this evil place was a typical example of the Baath Party’s systematic torture and murder of innocent Kurds, all part of Saddam’s reign of terror.
The Kurds have now set up the Red House as a kind of tyranny museum, a house of horrors full of rooms that use life-sized, plaster statues to graphically demonstrate the true nature of totalitarianism. It’s a serious and good lesson.
Our guide led the Gold Star parents into a wood-lined room where a figure of a man with his hands bound behind his back is hung by his wrists from a pipe high above the floor. The suspended statue graphically demonstrated how a man’s body weight can slowly pull his arms from their shoulder sockets. We also learned how Baath soldiers would at the same time connect electrodes to the most sensitive parts of the man’s body – but their goal was more than causing intense pain. In the adjacent room, the prisoner’s parents were forced to sit and listen to the screams of their son, stripped of all his human and masculine dignity, hanging like raw meat and electrocuted simply for being a Kurd.
This kind of cruelty ruled the day in Saddam’s Iraq. No wonder people rejoiced at his execution. The dictator is dead, yet the stories of his cruel regime live on as a warning. The Anfal campaign sought to destroy a race of people – to crush their spirit, often in the most devious ways.
According to centuries of custom, a widowed Kurdish woman could not remarry without visually verifying her husband’s remains. By killing the men and burying them in anonymous mass graves, the dictator destroyed the lives of thousands upon thousands of Kurdish women who were left without knowing the fate of their men, left with no hope of rebuilding their lives, left with no future. This was one terrible and unreported effect of Saddam’s genocide.
As we walked from room to room in the Red House, I admit it was hard for me to believe my eyes. It’s all so far from our American experience – and from what we hear in the media these days. But our group had an eyewitness along to keep us from turning away in disbelief.
“Yes, yes,” our guide said in a hushed voice, staring at the floor. “They did this to me.” Kowa Krooz survived the hell of the Red House for seven months and 13 days. “It’s important you see your sons did not die in vain,” he told the Gold Star parents. “They saved people like me. I thank God for America.”
Strange to hear those words in person from an Iraqi, the people who are supposed to hate our presence – “Thank God for America.” It’s not something we’re used to hearing on the evening news, but I wish we Americans could know how often those words are said by passionately grateful Kurds.
And there’s much more we need to know – especially our political leaders in Washington.
Of the four key things Congress should consider before abandoning this potentially great ally, the first must be the Kurds’ genuine and prolonged suffering, not only at the hands of Saddam but also for generations before, starting most vividly at the end of World War I when the Kurdish people were promised a homeland only to see their ethnic lands divided in four parts, allotted to four different nations: Turkey, Syria, Iran and Iraq.
Although it’s hard for us to imagine Kurdish hardships of the past (or the true joys of their newfound freedom), we must try to understand and fully appreciate this current historic moment – for their sake, and also for our own. The Iraqi Kurds are too good an ally to lose. Ask yourself how Iran and Syria with their own Kurdish populations are now reacting to the example of a free Kurdistan region – right next door.
Having been there and seen the Kurdish miracle for myself, it is hard for me to imagine that we could miss such a geopolitical and humanitarian opportunity due to mere partisan congressional politics – and lack of American media interest. How could we not know the wonderful good our own soldier’s have accomplished with their blood, sweat and tears? After all, a tyrant is dead and a nation is free, and that’s just the beginning of the good that could come. This isn’t just about American generosity. There is a spectacular strategic benefit from our efforts in Iraq, and that brings me to the second thing we need to know.
The Kurdish region of northern Iraq has itself become a true beachhead of democracy in the Arab world. The Bush administration should be pointing to the Kurdistan Regional Government as the Iraq war’s surest triumph. The troubles to the south are not the only story: Americans need to know that a strong and flourishing democracy in northern Iraq not only gives terrorists one less place to organize, it gives America a genuine alliance with a people who are passionate about freedom and positive about the West, a shining hope to a freedom-starved Middle East. Everywhere I went the tri-color Iraqi Kurdistan flag flew proudly with its bold sun symbol right in the middle. I couldn’t help but think how appropriate that sun symbol is. After years of darkness, liberty has taken hold in the hearts of the Kurds, and their peaceful Kurdish democracy has become a singular beacon in the war on terror, despite the murderous strife going on in Baghdad.
This foothold of freedom did not happen overnight but by dint of hard work and sacrifice. Once the Kurds were given the opportunity – starting with the no-fly zone in 1991 – they chose democracy and never looked back. They worked to build a stable government, protecting human and religious differences in much the same way Americans did after the Declaration of Independence, and based on essentially the same moral and social contracts found in the U.S. Constitution. They created their own police force, their own judiciary, their own parliament and executives. Who could forget those purple fingers waving defiantly above those happy, smiling faces as the first free election in Kurdistan, Iraq, chose a regional president and prime minister!
Freedom is working, but you’d never know it to watch the American media. Why? Because Kurdistan is also safe! No terrorism to report. To date, no coalition solider has died or even been wounded in the northern territory controlled by the Kurdistan Regional Government.
So the media looked elsewhere for their bloody images of chaos and despair, allowing blunt mass murder to become a viable political tool for the terrorists. Are you shocked to hear this? Don’t be. Remember the media’s penchant for violence. Sadly, they are not about reporting “good news,” or for that matter anything that sounds like President Bush made the right decision to rid the world of Saddam Hussein. The liberal left is not kidding when they say Iraq is “worse off” in the absence of totalitarian control. They really think that. Needless to say, no one asked the Kurds.
The third thing to remember is our historic obligation. Consider the following: In the late 1970s the United States “supported” Kurdish autonomy in northern Iraq as a diplomatic means to pressure Saddam Hussein in his negotiations with Iran. Once settlement was reached, we abandoned the Kurds and Saddam’s era of maniacal torture began. During the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, the Western world barely noticed when Saddam launched his deadly Anfal campaign.
Later in the 1990s, the United States encouraged the Kurds to rise up after the Gulf War and help overthrow Saddam. The Kurds took us at our word, but when Saddam attacked them viciously, America was nowhere to be found. Saddam’s killing continued, forcing the Kurds to again leave their homeland and flee to the mountains. Hundreds died daily from starvation and overexposure, women, children and elderly. It was not until then-Secretary of State James Baker visited the Kurdish region, and the U.S. Congress stood their ground, did the no-fly zone get created. Congress must stand its ground once again today.
However, thanks to the 2006 election, which gave liberal Democrats congressional control, the Kurds again face a defining moment. Will they be remembered – or will they be forgotten? Sadly, despite the example they are setting as a democracy in the Middle East, despite their religious tolerance and despite their real loyalty in the war on terror, the Kurdish people are once again in danger. The Kurdistan Regional Government is understandably apprehensive as it watches the leftward drift within the new Congress and among Democrat presidential candidates. Will America remain loyal to its own vision of Iraqi freedom, or will we once again turn our attention away and abandon an innocent people?
Lastly, we must not forget our troops, either. Americans must know our solders did not die in vain, and especially that their lives were not “wasted” as Democrat presidential candidate Barack Obama recently claimed (and later had to retract). Our military needs to know that we are genuinely with them. After all, they are the best America has to offer. And their sacrifice freed a unique and deserving people. We must not let that sacrifice falter in its purpose.
This truth became very real to me as I toured the Kurdistan region of Iraq, watching the faces of those Gold Star parents. The greatest disservice we do to these parents is to give up before the job is done and thus discount the ultimate price their children paid. Those lives must remain precious to us. Those faces must never be forgotten.
My transforming moment – my real connection to these larger truths of the war – came early in the trip when we met a Kurdish woman, still wearing the mourning color of black, who walked out to greet us holding a framed picture of her missing husband and three sons who were all taken “somewhere” and killed during the Saddam era. In sympathy, one of the American Gold Star mothers held out a picture of her soldier son who died not long before. The Kurdish woman, raising her hand to God with the picture of the young U.S. soldier in her palm began to cry – saying over and over in Kurdish, “Your son is my son.”
I hope and pray that the reverse is also true, that their sons are our sons – and that America cares enough to remain faithful until Iraq is strong and fully united against terrorism, and until the enemies of freedom in the Middle East are finally and thoroughly defeated.
Let the Muslim world continue to witness this “shining hope” of freedom in the Middle East – a democracy that works, an economy that thrives and a nation that could one day stand as a historic example of how Islam did ultimately and finally reject “killing the innocent” as a method of war.
I know most of the Gold Star parents want nothing less. After all, that’s what their children – our children – were fighting for. We can repay that sacrifice only one way: Victory.
Recently a candidate for governor in Oregon, State Sen. Jason Atkinson was elected to the Oregon Legislature in 1998 as a Republican, soon rising to be majority whip. He is a management consultant, motivational speaker and the author of “What We All Wish Politicians Understood.”