Kevin McKiernan / Boston Globe – 2006-03-09 08:56:49
WASHINGTON (March 6, 2006 ) — What if the Bush administration wasn’t entirely convinced before the Iraq war that Saddam Hussein had WMDs, but simply invoked those ”mushroom cloud” images to rally necessary public support? One source of such speculation lies in the administration’s puzzling pre-war failure to supply Iraqi Kurds, Hussein’s closest and most likely targets, with gas masks and other promised protection.
While the White House has publicly maintained that the decision to go to war was not made until early 2003 — and only as a last resort after the failure of both inspections and diplomacy — I knew a full year before that Kurdish leaders were quietly tipped off to war plans just weeks after the events of Sept. 11, 2001.
The Washington, DC, representative of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, which controlled the eastern portion of the Kurdish region, told me early in 2002 that he and other Kurdish leaders had been summoned to the Pentagon in October 2001 to meet Donald Rumsfeld, the secretary of defense. One of the topics of conversation was the 1988 gassing of the Kurds by the Iraqi regime.
By the time of that Pentagon meeting, Kurdish diplomats had been in Washington since 1991, when a no-flight zone was established to protect Iraqi Kurds. But for those 10 years, Kurdish leaders had been denied all but low-level contacts with US government officials.
With that inside information, I began scouting abandoned Iraqi airfields in northern Iraq to look for likely landing spots for US troops and supplies. I found one near the town of Harir, a long military runway that Hussein’s air force had used for refueling during the Iraq-Iran war. Sure enough, according to local witnesses, foreigners speaking English had been seen examining the landing strip in January 2002, the month before.
I then interviewed Dr. Abdullah Saeed, the director of public health for the Kurdistan Democratic Party, which controlled the western part of the Kurdish region. Dr. Saeed told me that several Americans — he assumed they were CIA, but had no way of knowing — had visited him about the same time and had promised that the Kurds would soon be supplied with antitoxins for nerve gas, face masks, and other protective gear.
That was welcome news, Dr. Saeed said, because there were more than 3.5 million Kurds and, unlike Israelis and Kuwaitis, they had no such safety equipment.
If cornered, Hussein was expected to retaliate with chemical or biological weapons. Kurdish targets, some as close as Brooklyn is to Manhattan, could be easily reached with old-fashioned artillery shells.
In December 2002, Senators Joe Biden and Chuck Hagel visited northern Iraq on a fact-finding trip for the Foreign Relations Committee. The senators expressed concern that the Kurds still had no protection, stating in separate interviews they would try to convince the administration to expedite the promised shipment.
In February 2003, with the US attack now imminent, Kurdish leaders Jalal Talabani and Massoud Barzani published an impassioned letter to President Bush, complaining they ”have yet to receive any of the protective equipment promised by your officials to deal with the very real risk of chemical and biological weapons attacks on the cities of Iraqi Kurdistan.”
When the Bush appeal was made public, Hero Ibrahim Ahmed, the wife of Jalal Talabani, who later became president of Iraq, told me that she had personally filmed victims of Hussein’s earlier gas attacks in 1987-1988. ”No one was interested at that time in my videos,” she lamented.
In late spring 2003, Bush proclaimed ”mission accomplished” and I came home from Iraq. As I took my unused gas mask off my belt, my thoughts returned to Mrs. Ahmed’s assertion that the Kurds had received no WMD protection because the West ”just didn’t care.”
No one could doubt that the Kurds presented an easy target for expected retaliation by the Iraqi regime, but I had to believe that once the support of the Kurds had been enlisted by Rumsfeld, then their survival became a genuine concern to war planners.
The alternative scenario was just too disturbing: that the Pentagon knew all along that the Kurds, an exposed population of almost 4 million, would have no need for masks. Could the White House have conducted the war with actual knowledge that there were no WMD in Iraq? Was that why no one saw fit to protect the Kurds?
Kevin McKiernan has covered the Iraq war for ABC News and he wrote and directed the PBS film ”Good Kurds, Bad Kurds.” His new book is ”The Kurds: A People in Search of Their Homeland.”
© 2006 The Boston Globe