REMEMBER those gut-wrenching pictures two years ago of Kurdish villagers fleeing the wrath of the defeated Saddam Hussein, tearfully abandoning their homes, children freezing in the snow?
The nation's horror at the sight of that first televised exodus drove President George Bush into doing what his advisers warned against: intervening in the complex internal affairs of Iraq, with all its ancient ethnic hatreds and vengeful savagery. U.S. air cover sealed off most of the Kurdish portion of northern Iraq, creating a haven for the targets of genocide.
Let's see how our intervention, so ardently derided by geo-pragmatists as prelude to some awful national "dismemberment," is working out.
Kurdish tribes and clans have stopped bickering and elected a parliament, forming a united front with Iraqi Shiites and Sunnis against Saddam.
Cooperating with Turkey to the north, where 10 million Kurds live, Pesh Merga fighters behind Massoud Barzani successfully took on the Marxist terrorist Kurds. This helps remove Turkish fears of a territorial threat from an autonomous region that might turn into an independent country called Kurdistan.
With about $50 million in U.S. farm equipment and seed grain, the nascent democracy has begun to feed and shelter its four million people. Two universities have been opened.
But the Kurds in the mountains are by no means out of the woods. Saddam has canceled the currency, sealed off crossing points and raised the price of produce to pull the food out of the Kurdish area. Life is hard. The freed Kurds need help, but they are no longer being wiped out.
Quietly, two weeks ago, a delegation of Kurds, Sunnis and Shiites including Massoud Barzani came to Washington. Accustomed to being shunted off to a third assistant nobody in the Bush administration, they were received by Vice President Gore, Secretary of State Warren Christopher and national security adviser Tony Lake.
"We accept their verbal assurances," Mr. Barzani tells me, that the troubling Clinton desire to "depersonalize" the conflict with Saddam means only that any successor regime will be expected to comply fully with the cease-fire terms; that there is no chance for normalization with Saddam or a similar dictator; and that the U.S. seeks a democratic alternative to the present regime. (I'd like to see that in writing, but the "memcon" recording the policy is needlessly classified.)
Beyond the continuance of our air cover, what do the Kurds need to stay free and develop their nation? No U.S. troops. Only emergency economic aid of $150 million this year; and what they don't talk about publicly, antitank and antiaircraft weapons in case Saddam attacks and the world is afflicted with Bosnianitis.
And they need a way to get oil out of their ground. Although oil-rich Kirkuk, which will one day be the capital of Kurdistan, is still under Saddam's occupation, both Taqtaq and Zakho in Kurdish control cry out for mobile refineries.
If State will get the U.N. to permit the needed suspension of the Iraqi sanctions, and will prevail on Turkey to allow overland transportation, the Kurds are confident financing can be found to begin making their region self-sufficient.
The soft-spoken Mr. Barzani, 46, son of the legendary Mullah Mustafa and father of eight, is not pushy; he observes the taboo about talking of independence. But on the urgent need for economic and diplomatic aid, even after all the top-level meetings in Washington, "I have no answers for my people."
The Kurds deserve answers. They are no longer ignored: Ray Bonner's on-the-scene reporting in the New Yorker, and Graham Fuller's analysis in the current Foreign Affairs, underscore the value of democratic movements in the Middle East. (Only the U.S. Army War College, Maj. Gen. William Stofft commanding, refuses to correct its infamous monograph that casts doubt on reports of the poison-gassing of the Kurds.)
The Kurdish view of Bosnia? "The West should act decisively to stop the war criminals," says Mr. Barzani, whose people were saved by the West from a war criminal. "And why don't the Arabs help? Not just because the people being killed are Muslims, but because they are human beings." He shakes his head. "If we had
the force, we would use it against the Serbs."
William Safire is a columnist for the New York Times.