While U.S. attention is focused on winning the battle for democracy in Baghdad, another crucial struggle is emerging in the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk, whose fate is to be decided in a plebiscite later this year. If Kirkuk votes to join Kurdistan, whose residents claim it as their capital, it could trigger an invasion by Turkey and force a showdown between two NATO allies, one of whom is in the midst of a war to preserve, among other things, Kurdish autonomy.

Ankara fears that if the oil-rich Kirkuk joins Kurdistan, the Kurds will have the economic foundation they need for an independent state, which would spur Turkey’s repressed Kurds to rebel in effort to win autonomy or even independence. This is no idle threat. Ankara’s campaign against the Iraq-based Kurdistan Workers Party since 1984 has killed some 35,000 Kurds, destroyed 3,000 of their villages and forcibly relocated an estimated 2 million of them.

At the beginning of the war in 2003, Turkey warned the U.S. it would invade the autonomous Kurdish enclave in northern Iraq, the virtual Kurdistan, if the independence of Iraq’s Kurds spurred renewed rebellion among Turkey’s Kurds. The Kurds constitute about 20 percent of the populations of Turkey and Iraq and have a significant presence in both Syria and Iran. At some 30 million, the Kurds are probably the world’s largest ethnic group without a country.

According to recent statements by Hoshyar Zebari, Turkey’s foreign minister, there are 140,000 Turkish soldiers amassed on the northern Iraq border. If Zebari’s estimate is correct (and this has not been substantiated by the Turkish military), soldiers on the northern border would almost equal the number of U.S. soldiers in all of Iraq.

As cruel as the Turks could be, Saddam Hussein left a legacy of ethnic cleansing and genocide. Middle East expert Nouri Talabany, writing in the Winter 2007 edition of Middle East Quarterly, described Iraqi ethnic cleansing that began with the ascendancy of the Baath Party in the 1960s and continued under the late dictator: Between 1963 and 1988, the Baathist regime destroyed 779 Kurdish villages in the Kirkuk region – razing 493 primary schools, 598 mosques and 40 medical clinics.

“Chemical Ali” – Ali Hassan al-Majid, Saddam Hussein’s first cousin – was largely responsible for carrying out Hussein’s horrific attacks against the Kurds. Al-Majid has been sentenced by an Iraqi court to death at the end of a hangman’s rope. He was convicted for his role in the poisonous gas attacks that claimed the lives of as many as 100,000 Kurds during the 1980s. Saddam Hussein’s genocide campaign was fought with chemical and cluster bombs dropped on the orders of “Chemical Ali.”

Al-Majid was the poster boy for weapons of mass destruction, which liberals have used as the rationale for why Americans should not be in Iraq. Yet, when I asked the families of the Kurds who were eyewitnesses to the attacks and who lost mothers and fathers, sons, daughters and husbands as a result of the WMDs, I was told, “We hear the American media asking, ‘Where are the weapons of mass destruction?’ Tell them to come here; we will show them. These weapons of mass destruction are in our blood and in our souls. We will take you to the mass graves.”

To prevent the return of the Kurds, they burned farms and orchards, confiscated cattle, blew up wells and obliterated cemeteries. In all, this ethnic cleansing campaign forced nearly 200,000 Kurds to flee their villages. In Kirkuk, however, the government forced urban Kurds out by transferring oil company employees, civil servants and teachers to southern and central Iraq. The Baathist government renamed Kirkuk’s streets and schools after Arabs and forced businesses to adopt Arab names. Kurds were permitted to sell real estate only to Arabs; non-Arabs could not purchase property in the city.

In 1996, Saddam passed a law forcing Kurds and other non-Arabs to register as Arabs and expelled from the region anyone who refused to do so. His regime then replaced them with heavily subsidized Arab colonists from the South. In 1997, the government razed Kirkuk’s historic citadel with its ancient mosques and church. Human Rights Watch estimated that, between 1991 and 2003, Saddam’s government expelled up to 200,000 Kurds from the Kirkuk area.

One way to find meaning in the terrible cost in human life that we are paying in Iraq would be to reverse Saddam’s horrific legacy of ethnic cleansing and genocide. The Kurds themselves have achieved a legal way to do so: the democratically ratified Iraqi constitution. Accepted by 79 percent of Iraqis in October 2005, the constitution mandates a municipal census in Kirkuk, to be followed by a regional referendum by the end of this year.

In today’s battle for Iraq, the pro-American Kurds are the only community united behind the U.S. They serve in the elite units of the Iraqi Army, and two Kurdish brigades were recently deployed to Baghdad as part of the U.S.-led “surge.” They are fighting Saddam’s persisting murderous legacy, the crimes against humanity that were part of what justified the U.S.-led liberation of Iraq. It is a liberation that will never be complete unless the Kurds are vindicated.

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