U.S. and the Kurds / Washington Has Forgotten Them

SULAIMANIYA, Northern Iraq - It began as a natural alliance, a political love affair. But after four years of American presence in Iraq, the amicable dialogue between the U.S. and the Iraqi Kurds is growing increasingly discordant. Beyond the culture gap, Iraqi Kurdistan is beginning to feel betrayed by its American allies.

"Between you and me, no one beats the Americans when it comes to rudeness and sheer gall," my driver comments, upon seeing a convoy of four cars without license plates ahead of us on the road from Sulaimaniya to Erbil - the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan. "Look at their driving," he says. The last car, acting as a rear guard, keeps other cars from bypassing. The convoy leader, meanwhile, pushes the cars ahead of the convoy off the road, to the shoulder.

Etiquette, however, is the least of the Kurds' grievances. Senior politicians and opinion-shapers in the Kursdish community generally agree that the Americans were once valuable allies in the fight against former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. They also agree that the Americans are starting to turn their backs on the Kurds' cause. The latest example of this was seen in the words of U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rica. Referring to the rights of the Iraqi Kurds, Rice said that the Kurds' best security guarantee comes not from the United States, but from the Iraqi constitution.

The Kurds - along with the warring Sunni and Shi'ite factions - are quite certain that Iraq is no longer a unified entity. "There is a civil war going on, but no one will admit to it," a party newspaper editor tells me. "We're all pretending in order to gain favors from [U.S. President George] Bush."

The journalist explains that Kurds cannot travel to Iraq's other districts. "The Shi'ites have their own standing army, and the Kurds too. And that's in addition to all the private militias."

The Kurds dream of seceding, but this is unlikely to happen. Any sign of Kurdish independence triggers a Turkish, Iranian and Syrian backlash. Tehran, Istanbul and Damascus are afraid of an Iraqi precedent that would agitate their domestic Kurdish communities.

And so, Washington is striving to make Kurdistan dependent on the Iraqi government and neighboring countries by withholding assistance for a separate Kurdish industrial infrastructure. The assumption is that the Kurds will accept this and not revolt.