Image: Members of Kurdish community celebrate in London
Hugo Philpott  /  Getty Images file
Members of the Kurdish community celebrate in the Tara restaurant in North London last month after the northern city of Kirkuk was captured by coalition forces.
msnbc.com
updated 3/20/2004 12:29:19 PM ET 2004-03-20T17:29:19

At the Halabja School in north London, Koshar Ali sits with her infant son and calmly recalls the nightmare she lived through 15 years ago in the city now memorialized in the name of her child's school.

Ali's hands and legs are permanently scarred from carrying a little girl burned by chemicals during Saddam Hussein's 1988 gas attack on her hometown in northern Iraq. The child died, along with 5,000 other Kurds that day, but Ali was brought to England for medical care and lived to see the day that Saddam and his henchmen lost control of Iraq.

"Nobody wanted Saddam. There was no freedom, not even for Arabs. We wanted to see him go, and we knew he wouldn't go unless America took him," Ali says.

Human Rights Watch labeled Saddam's persecution of the Kurds as genocide. His brutality included a campaign in which Iraqi forces destroyed at least 2,000 Kurdish villages and murdered 50,000 to 100,000. Kurdish groups say the figures are much higher.

For Kurds who found asylum in Britain, the Iraqi leader's ouster is seen as a dream come true.
They have spent years yearning for their homeland, meeting in community centers and weekend schools. Kurdish is taught to the younger generation.

Britain is home to an estimated 110,000 Kurds, the majority in the London area.

Diyari Kurdi, a member of the Kurdish National Congress, lost his younger brother, grandmother and 24 other relatives to Saddam's forces.

Sipping steaming tea from a clear glass at the Navenda Komela Kurdan, which translates as the Kurdish Community Center, Kurdi says that even if the United States led the war to fulfill its own strategic and economic purposes, the Kurds, whose peshmerga [guerrilla fighters] fought alongside coalition forces, will reap the benefits.

The Arabs who complain that America came in [to Iraq] -- where were they when the Kurds were being killed?" he asks. Despite the fact that Kurds are Muslim, no Islamic country came to their aid, he says.

The U.S.-proposed plan for postwar Iraq envisions the United States and Britain running the country as “occupying powers” for at least a year and probably much longer.

Kurdi asserts that the majority of Kurds would support an extended U.S. presence in the country, a sentiment not shared by most of Iraq's Shiites and Sunnis.

Not safe to return yet
He notes the success of the Kurdish regions of northern Iraq, which gained a degree of autonomy after 1991 when the allies established a no-fly zone to protect the minority from Saddam's forces.

"The area under Kurd control has less problems than the south of Iraq: It is safer. There is more democracy, less looting, and more food and supplies because of the agreement we had with border countries under the oil-for-food program," Kurdi says.

But the majority of Kurds living in the diaspora still worry that the situation is not safe enough to return yet.

Web sites run from inside northern Iraq are now recruiting skilled Kurds living abroad to contribute to the reconstruction process. Eight hundred have signed up so far, but that number may swell once the country is stabilized.

The 55 most wanted Iraqi regime figures, as named by the U.S. military, must be caught and prosecuted in a war crimes tribunal, Kurds say. Until the culprits are behind bars, they will continue to worry that the Baath Party could wage a resurgence.

London's Kurds also say that they cannot judge the situation in Iraq until a national government is formed.

Kurdish leaders Jalal Talabani of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and Massoud Barzani of the Kurdistan Democratic Party are expected to be part of the transition leadership that will also involve leaders from the Iraqi National Congress, Iraqi National Accord and the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq.

Kurds are pleased with their level of representation in the run-up to the creation of an interim government but say their people must have a democratic, federal government within a united Iraq.

If a popular vote is implemented, they fear that the Shiite majority will establish a hard-line Islamic government similar to that in neighboring Iran.

Karwan Rashid, 29, who fled Halabja for the Iranian mountains the day before the 1988 chemical attack, says Kurds will return as soon as they feel safe. "Everyone left for political reasons, not economic."

Turkish threat
Kurds remain suspicious of Turkey, fearing that Ankara is fueling ethnic tension by supporting the ethnic Turkomen community in northern Iraq.

Wuriya Majid, 30, from Sulimaniyah, Iraq, says, "Turks are giving them [Turkomen] the idea to fight the Kurds, but there was no problem between us before. They want to create a problem."

The majority of Kurds live in Turkey, where they have complained of mistreatment and discrimination. Overall, 20 million to 25 million Kurds -- representing the world's largest nation without a state -- live in Turkey, Iraq and Syria, and thousands more live overseas.

Kurds have long sought an independent state, and Turkey fears that any power Kurds gain in oil-rich northern Iraq could fuel a Kurdish rebellion within Turkey, where 13 million to 15 million Kurds live.

London's Kurds believe that their track record of democracy and their alliance with the United States and Britain will help their cause and set an example for the region.

"We believe this democracy will be a mirror for the neighborhood. It is a good sample for Iraq and the whole Middle East," says Kurdi.

He adds: "There is still a lot of work to do to build the country. But so far I can see a good future."

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