Iraq's Kurds uncertain factor in U.S. coalition
Ethnic minority long persecuted by Saddam Hussein
(CNN) -- They've heard it before, this talk of war between the United States and Iraq, of removing Saddam Hussein, of freedom for Iraq. And as before, they stand ready to help.
They are the Kurds, an ethnic minority living in somewhat of a protective bubble in northern Iraq.
Saddam's ironclad rule doesn't fly there. Not much does, except the U.S. and British warplanes that, since 1991, have enforced the no-fly zone meant to protect the Kurds against air attacks from the Iraqi leader's forces.
Two rival Kurdish factions -- the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) -- have been in control in much of northern Iraq since the end of the Gulf War, though their relationship has often been contentious. A 1998 agreement brokered by the United States sought to bring the two factions closer.
The Kurd territory is off-limits to the Iraqi military, and Kurds there did not cast ballots in the October presidential referendum in which Saddam claimed to have won 100 percent of the vote. Still, there are economic ties, particularly with the KDP, which controls the border with Turkey through which Iraqi diesel and crude oil is traded -- that trade provides a major source of revenue for the Kurds.
Kurds in northern Iraq -- unlike residents of the other 90 percent of the country -- can read dozens of newspapers reflecting a wide variety of opinion. They can watch satellite television, surf the Web at Internet cafes and make international phone calls with less government monitoring than Iraqis in other parts of the country.
Yet life for the Kurds is not easy.
Rifle-toting Iraqi soldiers are visible along the line that divides the Kurdish self-rule area from the rest of the country. (Kurd-controlled Iraq) Much of the violence in the region, however, has been internal Kurdish feuding.
Many Kurds live in camps where the best houses are made of mud and straw. Entire families have been forced to move to the Kurdish safe area from other parts of Iraq after refusing to disavow their non-Arab heritage -- an attempt by Saddam to dilute Kurdish influence in strategic areas.
There are some 3.5 million Kurds in Iraq, about 23 percent of the country's population. The 25 million Kurds worldwide have no country to call their own, instead living in pockets of Turkey, Syria, Armenia, Russia, Germany and Iran as well as Iraq.
Saddam's campaign against the Kurds
The heavy price that Iraq's Kurds have paid to get what freedom they have makes it clear why they envision an Iraq without Saddam.
Saddam carried out a campaign against the Kurds in the 1980s in retaliation for their support of Iran, with whom Iraq was at war. Iraqi forces razed hundreds of villages and killed thousands of people.
In that war, Saddam used chemical weapons against the Kurds. On March 16, 1988, Iraqi warplanes bombed the town of Halabja, where about 80,000 Kurds lived. International scientists later determined that the attack involved multiple chemical agents, including mustard gas and sarin.
As many as 5,000 people are said to have died, according to international human rights organizations, and residents of Halabja still bear scars from the attack -- genetic mutations, cancer, breathing problems and chronic eye disorders.
During the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s, Saddam counted the United States and Britain as his allies. Those two countries are now the protectors of the Kurds in northern Iraq.
After the Persian Gulf War, with Saddam still in power, the United States urged the Kurds to rise up and overthrow him but offered no assistance, an experience that left a distrust of the United States among the Kurds.
Saddam's forces quickly crushed the revolt, killing thousands of Kurds and sending some 1.5 million more scrambling through the mountains, headed for Turkey. Creation of the no-fly zone and the Kurdish safe area in northern Iraq followed soon after.
Bush officials urge united front
The Kurds clearly still see Saddam as the enemy and are committed to helping whoever might attempt to topple him. (Iraqi opposition groups)
Jalal Talabani, leader of the PUK, said earlier this year that the Kurds could have 100,000 resistance fighters in Iraq if necessary. The group is armed with tanks, mortars, anti-aircraft guns and surface-to-air missiles.
In recent months, the PUK and KDP have mended fences. The KDP has been allied with Saddam in the past but now has its sights set on deposing him.
The military wing of the KDP has held war games recently, practicing for the battle that may come.
At high-level meetings in August, Bush administration officials encouraged members of several Iraqi opposition groups to forge a united front -- both for the possible battle against Saddam and the transition to a new government that could follow.
"We are ready to join any plan or operation that would bring happiness to Iraq, that would end the nightmare and that will ultimately bring freedom to our brother Arabs in the rest of Iraq," said KDP official Siamand Banaa.