Views of War – Arabs Dismayed by U.S. Push

Iraq’s neighbors warn of backlash

Syrians and Jordanians: ‘Democracy does not ride in on top of American tanks’

DAMASCUS, Syria – Arab students at the Fakhresham Language Center
spend hard-won family savings to fulfill the school’s promise:
“Speak English as Fluently as Americans Do.”

They hone their accents in halls festooned with red, white and blue
“Let Freedom Ring” banners that director Moutaz Kalam bought
during a visit with relatives in Denver.

But now these admirers of America in Syria – a country the U.S.
government labels a sponsor of terrorism – cry betrayal at the
prospect of war against neighboring Iraq. Kalam, 32, worries that
students will quit if he sticks with his American imagery, and he
ponders a new “learn the language of the enemy” pitch.

“Be ready for the reaction” to a war on Iraq, Kalam said. “Maybe
your government takes their decision because they think American
people don’t care. But if the outcome is hatred, it’s going to be a
big loss for your nation.”

Such are the signs of backlash across the Arab-

Muslim world, where 1.2 billion people increasingly reject a
once-revered America because it seems to be letting them down. Many
who previously were drawn to U.S. culture and democracy now see
America primarily as a bully gluttonous for oil.

The tilt is not in favor of Saddam Hussein but rather against U.S.
power. Arabs interviewed in Syria and Jordan this past week oppose
war without United Nations approval as unfair. They question U.S.
targeting of Muslim Iraq while America also aids Israel against
Palestinians, tolerates North Korean missile tests and downplays
what they consider the root causes of terrorism. Mostly, they
mistrust America’s promise to ensure democracy in Iraq and beyond
when they are looking down the barrel of a gun.

“Democracy does not ride in on top of American tanks,” said Ali
Orsan, president of the Arab Writers Union, which represents public
opinion leaders in 16 countries. “What’s changing is the
trustworthiness of America. Before, America really was fighting for
democracy. Now, America is fighting for its own interests under the
name of democracy.”

Syrian President Bashar Assad has led Arab-Muslim opposition to a
war, denouncing U.S. “pretexts” for “domination of the region.”
Syria serves as a lifeline for Iraq, allowing oil experts via
Mediterranean ports that bring billions to Hussein’s regime.

America wants Arabs “with beating hearts and nonworking minds,”
Assad said, rallying fellow rulers at a recent summit in Egypt.
This followed Turkey’s refusal to admit U.S. troops headed for war
on Iraq. Anti-war protests in Morocco, Turkey and Pakistan have
intensified. On Wednesday, Turkish troops fired shots over
protesters in the port of Iskenderun, where U.S. troops were
unloading war supplies.

Authoritarian governments in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Jordan, which
quietly support U.S. war preparations, also face popular anger. In
Jordan’s capital, Amman, the opposition Muslim Brotherhood last
week denounced military action in Iraq, demanded that King Abdullah
cut Jordan’s ties with Israel, and called for sharia, or Islamic

Some U.S. advocates of a war contend Arab-Muslim backlash is
inevitable, the result of pent-up rage in dysfunctional societies.
“There will be assaults on America,” said Lebanese-American
professor Fouad Ajami of the Johns Hopkins School for Advanced
International Studies, who has advised White House and Pentagon

But critics contend that backlash could disrupt the volatile Middle
East and that making Americans safer from terrorism ought to take
priority over ousting Hussein now.

Arab governments that U.S. officials rely on for help catching
terrorists “will be constrained by public opinion if it is
increasingly hostile to the United States,” said Ambassador Phil
Wilcox, president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace in
Washington, D.C., and former coordinator of U.S. counterterrorism

Invading Iraq now “will weaken our efforts to identify and
apprehend terrorists,” Wilcox said. “And it will create a climate
of hostility in which new terrorists can breed.”

U.S. diplomats around the Middle East are bracing for action.
Family members have moved. Embassy duck-and-cover drills heighten
awareness of regular bomb threats in Jordan.

In Syria, diplomats anticipate government-organized demonstrations
if war breaks out. After the 1998 missile attacks on Iraq, a mob
barged into the U.S. Embassy compound in Damascus, sacked the
ambassador’s residence, cornered his wife in a safe room, and began
burning her out before Marines came to the rescue.

The coalition of “the willing” that President Bush has sought
simply isn’t shaping up in the rocky hills where Bedouins herd
sheep or the working class, urban living rooms where 24-hour
television news blares, or the cafes where intellectuals sip

Consider the Kattan family in their basement apartment here, where
creamy white curtains and a massive chandelier lend regal elegance
to the room in which brothers Oday, 7, and Layth, 9, play with
their baby sister, Judi. Al-Jazeera images of Palestinians fighting
Israeli tanks flash.

Young Layth has concluded that “Americans just want to get oil out
of Iraq to America.” He asks: “Why does your American government
help Israel to kill Palestinian women and children?”

His mother, Louay, 36, nodding at the television, laments that war
on Iraq will bring more images of blood and destruction into her
home – unsettling her children with what feels like an attack
against Muslims, she said.

Husband Mohamad, 36, a construction engineer, warned that the
outcome of war “will be worse for the United States than Iraq.
This will unite Arabs,” he said, and held up two parted fingers.
“Victory for Muslim people.”

Many Arabs distinguish between American people and their
government. Images of U.S. anti-war demonstrations – more massive
than what governments permit here – made an impression. Some also
know that Muslims live happily in America.

“We love the American people, when they visit us and when we visit
them,” said Muslim preacher Waleed Haq, 43, perched on cushions at
his riverside central mosque recently after leading the evening

Yet the Bush administration’s “public diplomacy” to mobilize
opposition to Saddam Hussein is failing. When Jordanians refer to
“that crazy man,” they mean Bush. Down the steps from hillside
apartments, in Amman’s Theater Internet Cafe, dread of the damage
Bush could cause drowns out talk of local affairs. Here, men from
around the Middle East, visiting Muslims from London, and
occasional Iraq-bound activists converge for $1-an-hour Internet

“This stupid man! He will kill millions in Iraq! He thinks he the
policeman for all this world,” fumed owner Essam Awayes, 27,
serving tea at his counter beneath a portrait of Jordan’s King

Awayes said he once loved America.

“I always saw American movies. I wanted to go and see if it was
true how people were living. I always thought American people were

He worked awhile for IBM in Jordan before moving for better money
to Dubai on the Persian Gulf.

“Now go to America?” he said. “No. Not now. Because they elected
this crazy man.”

Some Arabs now are considering whether they should join Iraqis
fighting Americans. Out on Syrian’s basalt-streaked desert steppe
near the border with Iraq, Bedouin herders Ahmad and Kald Alden set
up a “Bagdad Caf” to augment their earnings from sheep. They give
out hand-painted flat rocks as business cards. They once sold many
trinkets to tourists who flocked to Roman ruins at Palmyra. U.S.
talk of war on Iraq has killed their business.

If only Bush and Hussein would stop here for coffee, said Kald, 30.
“I’d sit them down at a table in the back for a private peace

The Aldens are devout Muslims, adhering strictly to the Koran –
“like a constitution for us,” said Ahmad, 31, ducking into the
cafe after adjusting a rattling oily generator that powers their
water pump and light.

“In the Koran it says we should fight those who fight us.
Otherwise, do not be the aggressor against those who are peaceful.
The Israelis are fighting us. We must fight them. And if the
Americans fight the Iraqis, we have to fight back. We have to
defend ourselves.”

So Ahmad may cross the desert and enter Iraq to fight off American
aggressors, he said. “If not me, my brother.”

The problem he sees is that “America’s real intent is not only
Iraq,” he said. “It wants to control the region. So, if U.S.
troops attack, we have to help defend Iraq. Syria will be next.
Then, the whole Arab world.”

A Nation With No Country

NORTHERN IRAQ – For 11 years, U.S. fighter jets kept these
honey-colored mountains safe from Saddam Hussein.

But now the 3.5 million Kurdish people thriving here pose dangerous
problems for a possible U.S. war on Iraq, and for the country that
would remain if Hussein falls.

The U.S. air patrols have inspired Kurds – such as woodcutter Burus
Olmez – in their decades-long push for an independent Kurdistan.
Olmez, 28, who enters Iraq from a village in Turkey to load logs
and trade in cigarettes and sugar, looks forward to increased
commerce under Kurdish rule. In Turkey, he must work as a “village
guard” against Kurdish separatists, a job he hates.

“I don’t want to kill anybody,” he said recently, leaning on a
concrete security post that once bore Hussein’s eagle insignia.

“We want all Kurdish people to be free.”

This yearning for freedom is forcing a very tough play for the
United States – balancing the goal of replacing Hussein, Kurdish
ambitions and the concerns of neighboring Turkey, a key ally that
opposes Kurdish independence.

The Kurds are the world’s largest group without a country – 25
million people in all, scattered across Iran, Iraq, Syria and
Turkey. Nobody has ever controlled the Kurds. They are mostly
Muslims, ethnically distinct from Arabs, Turks and Persians, known
for their intricate language and fine, hand-tied carpets.

Entrenched in ancient stone hamlets, Kurds control vast oilfields,
as well as water sources such as the Tigris River that the Middle
East desperately needs. And Iraqi Kurds have amassed armies with an
estimated 80,000 troops.

Their leaders are grateful for the U.S. protection they’ve received
since the 1991 Persian Gulf War, and pledge support if disarmament
efforts fail and America launches war on Iraq.

But Iraqi Kurds insist any war must give them freedom from a
central government in Baghdad.

“We want to make sure we are not oppressed,” said Qubad Talibani,
representing the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, one of two main
Kurdish factions. “We are not satisfied with what we have.”

Neighboring Turkey bristles, concerned that independence could
cause chaos in Iraq and incite the 13 million Kurds in Turkey who
also want to be free.

The United States labors to keep Turkey calm. Turkey’s modern
military bases are critical for a war on Iraq. F-16s poised on
runways at Incirlik, northwest of the Turkey-Iraq border, fly the
patrols over northern Iraq. An underground hospital is ready to
treat victims of chemical attacks. U.S. cargo planes hauled in
supplies and bombs last week, and nurses gave anthrax vaccinations,
as diplomats negotiated for Turkish approval to use bases for a war
on Iraq.

Turkey meanwhile has sent tanks and camouflage-clad troops to the
Turkey-Iraq borderlands. And it backs the Iraqi Turkomen Front in
northern Iraq. This group, with a 500-member militia and a
Washington lobbyist, asserts interests of non-Kurdish Turks in the

Mishmash of policies, treatment

U.S. officials face additional complications from internal Kurdish
feuding. Rival factions in Iraq – the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan
and the Kurdistan Democratic Party – run separate governments. A
civil war between these factions in the mid-1990s claimed 5,000

The Kurds also clash with other Iraqi groups. There are Shiite
Muslims supported by Iran, Sunni Muslims for and against Hussein,
royalists wanting to bring back a king, and an exile-run Iraqi
National Congress. All try to curb the Kurds.

Kurdish factions act “as if they are de-facto governments,” said
INC director Entifadh Qanbar in Washington, warning that Iraq seems
destined for “maximum fragmentation” if Hussein is removed.

This month, squabbling between Kurds and other opposition groups
postponed a unity conference that U.S. diplomats helped organize.

For decades, U.S. policy toward the Kurds has been a mishmash.
Americans treated Iraqi Kurds as allies when that was convenient.
Kurds in Turkey were ignored.

On one hand, the United States supplies combat helicopters that
Turkey’s military uses to enforce martial law in Kurdish regions.
Turkish forces emptied more than 3,000 Kurdish villages in the
1990s, uprooting an estimated 400,000 Kurds. Then they installed
some 46,000 “village guards” to squelch support for the banned
Kurdish Workers’ Party, or PKK.

Turkish authorities continue to detain and torture Kurds, using
electro-shock and other methods, said Sezgin Tanzikulu, a
human-rights lawyer in the southeastern city of Diyarbakir, walking
near a helicopter base where U.S.-supplied helicopters fly in and
out daily.

Over the past 11 months, Kurds in southeastern Turkey filed 159
cases alleging abuse by military gendarmes or civilian police,
Tanzikulu said, adding that most abuses aren’t reported.

Freelance journalist Yilmaz Akinci, 25, recalled how a gendarme
collared him as “one with an illegal face,” put a gun to his
head, and said, “You know, I can easily kill you.”

International human-rights organizations accuse U.S. officials of
tolerating abuses in Turkey.

At the same time, U.S. Air Force patrols over northern Iraq –
dozens of fighter jets scream overhead enforcing a no-fly zone
against Iraqi forces – guarantee safety across an area the size of
Maryland. As a result, Iraqi Kurds savor what they call a golden

They’ve built thousands of schools, including a new university.
Leaders conduct parliamentary debates and recently drafted a
constitution declaring Kirkuk, just outside the safe haven, a
Kurdish capital. Kirkuk is the site of one of the world’s largest

This month, covert U.S. agents headed through southeastern Turkey
toward northern Iraq. U.S. officials decline comment on what they
may be doing.

‘No friends but the mountains’

U.S. military planners count Kurds as allies in any war on Iraq.
They have identified thousands as candidates for possible combat
training, said Lt. Col. Dave Lipan, a Pentagon spokesman. The Kurds
offer access to strategic runways and turf within 100 miles of

But first, Kurdish leaders demand a U.S. guarantee of protection
should Hussein launch a pre-emptive attack against them. They
remind U.S. officials how, in the aftermath of the Persian Gulf
War, the first President Bush urged Kurds to rise up against
Hussein. The Kurds did so. The United States failed to help. Iraqi
forces crushed the Kurds, sending refugees north into Turkey and
reinforcing an ancient Kurdish proverb: “We have no friends but
the mountains.”

That could happen again, said Farhad Barzani, a Kurdistan
Democratic Party envoy in Washington and nephew of its leader
Massoud Barzani. “Without moving a single soldier, the Iraqis can
shell us with chemical weapons,” he said. “We think America
should publicly say: ‘If Iraq attacks, we will respond immediately.

U.S. officials won’t comment on whether they would protect Iraqi

But U.S. Ambassador to Turkey Robert Pearson has told Turkey’s
rulers Kurds would be contained after a regime-toppling war.

“We oppose any independent Kurdish state in northern Iraq,”
Pearson said in a Denver Post interview at his residence in

Instead, U.S. officials talk of a democratic system designed to
give all factions equal opportunity in a post-Hussein Iraq – a
model for the rest of the authoritarian Middle East. The details of
how much control a central government could have still are under
debate. State Department bureaucrats guide “future of Iraq”
brainstorming sessions involving some of the 100,000 Iraqi
immigrants in America.

Analysts warn that any U.S. reliance on Kurds or other factions
will have strings attached – as in Afghanistan, where warlords who
helped the United States now seek favorable treatment.

The stakes, experts say, are much higher here.

“The Kurds could destabilize the whole Middle East,” said
political scientist and former government consultant Michael Gunter
at Tennessee Technological University. He emphasizes the Kurds’
presence in four countries, and global dependence on Mideast oil.

Today’s talk of eliminating Hussein and then delivering “a nice
democratic baby” is unrealistic, said Gunter, a former consultant
to the U.S. government on Kurdish issues who in March 1988 met with
Turkey’s now-imprisoned Kurdish separatist leader, Abdullah

Nor will America’s past “use-them-when-we- need-them” approach to
Iraqi Kurds suffice given U.S. interests in oil and regional

“The solution would have to be some type of long-term American
involvement. You need the United States in there. But you’d also
need cooperation from Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria. If you think
you are going to get that, you probably believe in the tooth
fairy,” he said. “It’s not easy to be optimistic about this. …
This problem will come back and burn us if we walk away.”

Bottom line: U.S. air protection already has created a de facto
“Kurdistan” in Iraq, said former U.S. Ambassador to Croatia Peter
Galbraith, who has visited Iraqi Kurdish territory nine times over
the past two decades.

After any war, Kurdish forces “are not going to meekly go back
under Baghdad control,” said Galbraith, now a professor at the
National Defense University, a government think tank.

“We can’t use force to bring them under Baghdad control. They are
going to be our allies. Besides, that wouldn’t be just. We are just
going to have to come to terms with it. So is Turkey.”

Negotiating postwar arrangements

Now in the run-up to a possible U.S. war, Kurdish leaders are down
from the mountains, jockeying in Washington, London and Turkey’s
capital, Ankara, for favorable postwar arrangements.

Consider the scene one recent evening in Ankara, beyond clusters of
black Mercedes at a grand hotel. In the glowing atrium, Turkish
generals with medals on their lapels commanded prime, padded chairs
while intelligence agents skulked about murmuring into cellphones.

In strode a burly man with a mustache, Sanaan Kassap, leader of the
Iraqi Turkomen Front that asserts Turkish interests in northern
Iraq. The group seeks U.S. funding under the 1998 Iraqi Liberation
Act, said Mustafa Ziya, the front’s coordinator. The act provides
millions of dollars for Iraqi opposition groups.

Across the lobby, leaders of the Kurdistan Democratic Party watched
warily. They’re feuding with the Turkomen Front over its 500 armed
“guards” in Iraq, said Safeen Dizayee, the KDP representative in
Turkey. The Turkomen “totally disregard our regional Kurdish
administration,” he said, and the militia is “a security risk.”

Iraqi Kurds want independence, but without support from the United
States they will settle for autonomy within a federation of Iraqi
groups, Dizayee said. “I mean, we are actually independent now.
But if we declared it, how long would we survive? We have to be
pragmatic. It’s the right of the Kurds to be independent. But the
geopolitical situation does not allow that.”

Iraqi Kurdish leaders have proposed expanded turf, while a central
Iraqi government would guide foreign, military and economic

Turkish officials reject this.

“A federation can lead, in the long term, to a dismantlement of
Iraq,” said a diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“There is no experience of ‘a federation’ in the Middle East. If
there is instability in Iraq, it could be worse than it is under
Saddam Hussein.”

And instability in a postwar Iraq could spread to Turkey.

Interviews with Kurds in southeastern Turkey reveal the push to
create a Kurdistan under U.S. protection in Iraq – and the arrival
of a new Turkish government – are raising expectations for better

‘We are second-class’

These rolling hills where scarf-clad women pick cotton and rusting
oil trucks whoosh past bullet-pocked shells of former shops long
have been a hotbed of anti-Turkish sentiment. The name of every
town has been changed from Kurdish to Turkish. Parents give their
sons and daughters Turkish names, and teachers punish children who
speak Kurdish.

Turkey’s 15-year crackdown to suppress any sympathy for the banned
PKK cowed many Kurds.

Yet at the roadside village of Svik, sharecroppers proudly told how
they refused Turkish offers of $190 a month each to serve as
“village guards” against separatists. That money would have
bought medical care for sick and deformed children, and paved
Svik’s muddy streets.

“Any true Kurd would refuse,” said Bedirhon Gokhan, 42. “If we
could, we’d make a Kurdistan. We want all the Kurdish people to
live together. If the U.S. war against Iraq will help us live
together, we want this.”

The Kurdish-run People’s Democracy Party, successor to the PKK, now
wins more than 50 percent of votes in southeastern cities. Kurds
join because “they see that in Iraq, as in Iran, Kurds can teach
Kurdish in school,” said Aydin Unesi, a gas station manager who
directs the party in the town of Batman along the Tigris River.

Kurdish schools and newspapers in the Iraqi safe haven are “an
example for us,” he said. “Kurdish people in Turkey, we want

Some party members envision new arrangements for Kurds to cross
Turkish, Syrian, Iranian and Iraqi borders. “They are Kurds. We
are Kurds. Why not?” said Sehnaz Turan, 28, a party administrator
in Diyarbakir. “I know those outside Turkey have better
conditions. They are free to express the culture, the language. We
haven’t seen freedom in practice yet here.”

Turkish Kurds already press for cross-border commerce.

Thousands of oil trucks line up at the main border crossing at
Habur. There drivers wait for weeks as Turkish border guards parse
out permission to enter Iraq and buy oil, then return and sell it
for a profit.

This defies United Nations sanctions against Iraq, but long has
sustained Turkish Kurds. “People depend on it here,” said butcher
Bayram Yakut, 30, pouring tea as trucks rolled past his shop just
north of Habur. “We want the door open.”

Turkish soldiers posted in the borderlands say they will block any
Iraqi Kurdish refugees who might flee north to Turkey in a war.

A U.S. war may prompt an extension of martial law in southeastern
Turkey, said Selahattin Demirtas, 29, a lawyer leading a
human-rights group in Diyarbakir.

“If Turkey’s government would give equal rights to the Kurds,” he
said, “then people would accept being part of Turkey.”

Turkey’s ailing economy adds urgency to the Kurds’ call for

Huddled in burlap-and-plastic tents by a roadside near Batman, a
group of migrant $1.90-a-day cotton pickers complained they can’t
get medical attention. Rain pattered on the tent roofs and mud
oozed around them. They went to big cities looking for jobs, “but
we are second-class,” said Mehmet Titiz, 45, a father of six.

Even the childrens’ hands were calloused from picking. Parents said
they are ashamed that their children don’t attend school. They
would also prefer to give their children Kurdish names and listen
to radio news in Kurdish, said Mehmet Guli Tepe, 41, gesturing
helplessly at his skinny 12-year-old boy.

“We can’t keep living like this.”