Given the relentless media carpet-bombing of anything to do with Iraq, it is surprising that one significant act by Saddam Hussein earlier this week passed without notice abroad. Saddam sent a pointed warning to the Kurds of northern Iraq. He did so by the simple device of stopping the flow of heating oil to Kurdistan, the three Iraqi provinces that have enjoyed de facto independence for a decade. The Kurdish mountains are bitterly cold this time of year, and the price of heating oil immediately soared as people rushed through the snow to buy up remaining stocks.
Kurdish leaders have no doubts about the message Saddam is sending them. By stopping the heating oil, he is making clear that he is angry that they are about to stage an opposition conference in Kurdish-controlled territory inside Iraq. Some 65 leading opponents of Saddam were due to gather at Salahudin, a mountaintop resort, on Jan. 15 for a meeting that has now been postponed until Feb. 5. "Saddam was furious," one veteran Kurdish leader passing through Washington, D.C., told me. "By making sure we have a cold winter he is warning us that he sees the staging of a meeting of people who plan to get rid of him on Iraqi soil as final proof we have joined his enemies. But he wants us to know that he is watching us and he can still hit back."
Saddam has always been publicly contemptuous of Iraqi opposition abroad, asserting that it has no support within the country. But he has long taken the Kurds very seriously. His first venture in foreign policy was in 1975, when he ceded some Iraqi territory to Iran to persuade the Shah to withdraw support from the Kurdish rebellion against Iraqi rule. Since 1991, Saddam has been compelled to tolerate a virtually independent Kurdistan, but in 1996 his tanks intervened in a Kurdish civil war between their two main parties and captured Arbil, the Kurdish capital, in a single morning's fighting. He then hurriedly withdrew before the United States could intervene.
The Kurds know Saddam could attack again, but they don't think he will. As Hoshyar Zebari, a veteran Kurdish leader, points out, Saddam is not so stupid as to provide the United States with the very excuse for a war it has been looking for by invading Kurdistan. Unfortunately for the Kurds, this logic changes once a war begins. Most members of the Kurdish opposition think that Saddam's overall strategy will be to hunker down in and defend greater Baghdad. But if he first made a limited attack on Kurdistan, it might be enough to send several million Kurds fleeing to Turkey or Iran, as happened during the Gulf War in 1991. Twelve years ago, Iraqis threw flour out of helicopters to give the impression that they were deploying chemical weapons in Kurdistan. Nobody on the ground is going to stick around to check if the white powder falling on them is lethal or benign.
Kurdish leaders fear that Saddam takes them very seriously and may retaliate against them if war comes. But they also worry that they are taken more seriously in Baghdad than they are in Washington, where it is a priority to avoid angering the Turks, with their traditional fear of all things Kurdish. President Bush recently found time to see three Iraqi opposition intellectuals, but not the Kurdish leaders who were in Washington at the same time, such as Barham Saleh, the prime minister of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan.
Such slights, real or imagined, fuel a suspicion in the minds of the Kurds that the United States is happy to use them as a propaganda symbol but is determined to deny them any real influence before or after an American invasion of Iraq. The Kurds view this as deeply unfair. The Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, ruling respectively Western and Eastern Kurdistan, control a state the size of Switzerland and each have armies of 15,000 men (and these can be rapidly reinforced by tens of thousands of tribal militia). They point out that, alone among the Iraqi opposition, they are elected democratically and have strong popular support. The only other powerful anti-Saddam force on the ground, long allied to the Kurds, is the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, a Shiite group based in Iran and Southern Iraq that is also backed by Iran and has about 5,000 fighters.
Because they are the one part of the opposition that is armed, organized, and in the country, the Kurds are bound to play a big role in a post-Saddam Iraq. In private, they deride Washington's effort to build up an anti-Saddam army of 5,000 men (they have only recruited 300 so far), comparing it unfavorably with the tens of thousands of experienced fighters they can put in the field. But there are also limits to what the Kurds can do. Tempting though it might be, they lack the political and military strength to emulate the Tajiks in the Afghan Northern Alliance, who, having told Washington they would do no such thing, captured Kabul in 2001 and made themselves the dominant force in the country. But the Kurds don't see themselves as the sole rulers of Iraq. They currently have a de facto independent state in Kurdistan, protected by a U.S. no-fly zone, and they hope to preserve it in a post-Saddam Iraq under a loose federalism.
If the Kurds are so important and so anti-Saddam, why doesn't the United States like them more? Aside from Turkish objections, there is the fact that they are difficult to control and a fear that they might take the oil city of Kirkuk (long claimed by the Kurds). Having them on board also gives real muscle to the Iraqi opposition, making it difficult for the civilian wing at the Pentagon to promote its own chosen Iraqis to dominate the post-Saddam Iraqi political scene.
The rest of the Iraqi opposition—such as the Iraqi National Congress, favored by Washington's neo-conservatives, the Iraqi National Accord, and the Iraqi Free Officers—exists only in exile. Such groups tend to depend on subsidies from foreign intelligence services. At the first big opposition meeting for many years in London in December, there was a telling sign of how long many of those attending had been out of Iraq: no cloud of cigarette smoke above these opponents of Saddam. It was indicative of the length of time the Iraqis at the London conference had lived in Los Angeles or New York that there was hardly a cigarette to be seen.
Kurdish opposition leaders resent these opposition groups for being divided, dependent on foreign subsidies, and without support inside Iraq. Given the impossibility of organizing an effective underground opposition movement under the eye of Saddam's active and violent security services, such criticisms seem a bit unfair. But they echo a hostility toward U.S.-backed opposition that appears to exist inside the part of Iraq still ruled by Saddam, and that may well survive him. Could the United States get away with marginalizing the armed opposition inside Iraq? If the invasion and occupation went just right and provided immediate benefits for Iraqis, possibly. But if things don't go according to plan, Washington may find that its Kurdish allies have turned into enemies.