Northern Iraq, Sanctions, and U.S. Iraq Policy
By Dr Michael Rubin
Analysis of Near East policy from the scholars and associates of THE WASHINGTON INSTITUTE
Number Five Hundred and Forty-Three, July 5, 2001
SPECIAL POLICY FORUM REPORT
On June 27, 2001, Michael Rubin, a Washington Institute visiting scholar and Carnegie
Council fellow, addressed the Washington Institute''s Policy Forum. Dr. Rubin has just
returned from nine months in northern Iraq, where he taught in the region''s three
universities. The following is a rapporteur''s summary of his remarks.
Iraq remains at the forefront of U.S. and international attention. Many contentious issues -
such as sanctions, weapons of mass destruction, and the future political disposition of the
country - remain unresolved. In analyzing the source of Iraq''s problems, it is useful to
compare those portions of Iraq under the control of Saddam Hussein to the three northern
governorates (Dahuk, Irbil, Sulaymaniyyah), which are controlled by the Kurdistan
Democratic Party (KDP), the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), and the Islamic Unity
Movement of Kurdistan - especially as all parts of Iraq fall under the same set of UN
sanctions. The population in the north is approximately 3.5 million, many of whom are
Kurdish, Turkoman, or Assyrian, and almost 1 million of whom are displaced persons
expelled from Saddam''s portion of Iraq.
By refusing to grant visas to many journalists, Saddam''s government consistently seeks to
deny press coverage to northern Iraq. Those who do visit Baghdad-controlled Iraq are
restricted to guided tours with Iraqi government minders and are prevented from traveling
into the Kurdish-controlled north. Foreigners visiting the north, however, are able to move
around freely without prearrangement.
For the past decade, northern Iraq has used the sanctions regime to rebuild a shattered
economy and society. The progress made has been considerable, especially considering that
Saddam''s government destroyed close to five thousand villages in ethnic cleansing
campaigns of the late 1980s.
Much of the redevelopment has occurred with the help of UN Security Council Resolution
986 - the so-called "oil-for-food" program. Thirteen percent of funds from this program are
specifically allocated to the north, although only about half of the money has been spent thus
Lessons for U.S. Policy
Interviews conducted in the north indicate that Iraqis strongly oppose Saddam Hussein and
hope for regime change. However, there is increasing frustration with a perceived lack of
U.S. seriousness toward this end.
- People in northern Iraq do not believe that the United States is serious about countering
Saddam. Instead, they claim that Washington is "rewarding" Baghdad by proposing to
loosen the sanctions. They believe that Saddam views compromise and negotiation as
weakness and will interpret any liberalization of the sanctions regime as a reward for
previous obstructionism. If the United States were serious about countering Saddam, they
claim, it would make a clear statement condemning his actions and outlining the
- Revised sanctions will undermine stability in northern Iraq. Although regional states view
Kurdish autonomy as a threat to stability, the PUK and KDP have for a decade secured their
respective frontiers with Turkey, Iran, and Syria. While the development income of the
northern authorities comes from the oil-for-food program, the PUK and KDP rely on
taxation for administration and civil services like police, teachers, and security. Altering
sanctions to allow Baghdad to bypass the north weakens the PUK and KDP administrations,
which in turn increases the ability of the separatist-terrorist PKK to entrench itself in the
rugged northern Iraqi terrain.
- Initial local optimism about the Bush administration has waned. Northern Iraqis followed
the U.S. presidential election closely. Although initially more comfortable with Al Gore
because he was a known quantity, many Iraqis were optimistic with the election of George
W. Bush. Many Kurds felt that his experienced team of advisors would not fail to confront
Saddam when the Iraqi president broke his commitments. Indeed, many Iraqis (both in
northern and Saddam-controlled areas) were thrilled with the February 16 bombing of
military installations near Baghdad and later astonished when the Bush administration
seemed to backpedal and reconsider its enforcement of the no-fly zones.
- Morale in the Iraqi military is extremely low. A variety of sources have indicated that when
U.S. jets flew over Iraqi troops who had encroached into the "safe haven" last December -
surrounding the northern town of Baadre - 138 Iraqi soldiers threw down their weapons and
surrendered without a shot being fired. The Iraqis simply do not want to die for Saddam.
However, they cannot abandon him until an alternative exists.
- Regime change can only incur through insurrection. People who have served or have
relatives still serving in the Iraqi military discount the possibility of a military coup because
of the tight control exerted over the military by both intelligence and Ba''ath party
functionaries. In order to move any division, the military commander, the Ba''ath Party
commissar, and the intelligence officer all have to sign any order to relocate troops.
Ammunition follows separately. Northern Iraqis insist that low morale on Saddam''s side
makes insurrection a real possibility, so long as outside forces are able to assist with material
and air support.
- Support for the Iraqi opposition is dependent upon U.S. commitment. At
present, many northern Iraqi politicians as well as people in the street do not support the
external opposition because they say U.S. support for the Iraqi National Congress (INC) is
half-hearted at best. They argue that change in Iraq has to occur from inside Iraq. If
Washington were to make it clear that it wholeheartedly supported the INC - with the PUK
and the KDP acting as integral members of such an umbrella organization - popular
sentiment toward the INC (or any other opposition group) within northern Iraq could change
- Iraqis view federalism as the most viable alternative for a post-Saddam Iraq. Although
Kurds in Iraq insist that they do not have separatist ambitions (they still observe Iraqi Army
Day, for example), they do say that they will no longer consent to live under a centralized
Arab rule. They also insist that the Shi''is, after more than two decades of Saddam, will
likewise not risk living under centralized Sunni rule. The alternative would be a
confederation of one or two Kurdish/Turkoman, Arab Sunni, and Arab Shi''i provinces, with
oil income divided on the basis of population (as it is under the current oil-for-food
program). Turkey would not be in favor of this kind of reorganization, fearing that a
formalized Kurdish autonomy could have destabilizing regional effects. However, northern
Kurds say they would return to guerilla warfare rather than allow Baghdad to control their
local affairs. Re-imposing a centralized Iraq on the north could therefore undermine stability
and encourage warlordism along the Turkish frontier.
- When Saddam dies, Iraq need not fall apart. When regime change does occur in Iraq,
fighting will be limited to Baghdad and its environs. If the PUK and KDP are allowed to
continue functioning and are not undermined by smart sanctions or a rollback of the no-fly
zone, the north will remain stable when Saddam falls, although the KDP may try to grab
Sinjar and the PUK Kirkuk from Iraqi government forces. Fighting may occur in
predominantly Shi''i southern Iraq, but this would subside quickly while the real power
struggle occurred in Baghdad.
This rapporteur''s summary was prepared by Mohamed Abdel Dayem.
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"Life and Society in the Kurdish Safe Haven:
Ten Years After the Uprising in Northern Iraq"
Meeting Summary: Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars Current Social
Issues in Iraqi Kurdistan Presented at a Middle East Seminar titled: "Life and Society in the
Kurdish Safe Haven: Ten Years After the Uprising in Northern Iraq" Michael Rubin,
Fellow, Carnegie Council on Ethics in International Affairs and Visiting Fellow, The
Washington Institute for Near East Policy
July 2, 2001
By: Michael Rubin
Northern Iraq has been effectively free of Saddam Hussein for a decade. Currently
administered in separate sections by the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and the Kurdistan
Democratic Party, Northern Iraq is a region in social flux as its residents seek to build a civil
society out of the devastation wrought by decades of uprising, war, and a dictatorial regime
in Baghdad. Simultaneously, as the only region in Iraq free from Saddam's grip, Northern
Iraq provides an interesting case study as to the challenges to be faced in Iraq when regime
change does occur in the portion of Iraq controlled by Saddam.
As civil society in Northern Iraq has matured, there has been a development of divergent
social trends. Regarding women's issues, apparent incompatibility between nascent feminism
and rigid interpretations of Islamic traditions challenge the university-age generation of
women. For example, some women argue that Northern Iraq should no longer abide by
Qu'ranic interpretations that mandate that the inheritance daughters receive be just one half
of each brother's share. However, many male students counter this argument by questioning
the feminists' loyalty to Islam and warning that such reforms threaten to bring an "age of
ignorance" upon Northern Iraq.
Likewise, the shattering of the region's long isolation, especially with the introduction of
satellite television reception (still banned in the rest of Iraq) has led to an upsurge in honor
killing, as girls are exposed to female models outside of their traditionally conservative
region. While many women seek to ban honor-killing all together, some of their male
university peers counter that punishment exists if it turns out the perpetrators of the honor
killing were wrong (something that will not help the female victims).
Northern Iraq's increasing exposure to the outside world also challenges family relations.
There is increasing access to imported pornography, a trend some Kurdish officials blame on
earlier Baathist attempts to loosen the traditional morals of the Kurds. Among even educated
men, there is an immaturity regarding sexual issues which is reflected in the jokes told when
no women are presentóin both subject and nuance, these jokes would be akin to something
junior high age children might tell in America. This may be a reflection of the continued
separation of the sexes. From the time they leave primary school, men and women operate in
different spheres. While some socialization does occur in the universities (when classes again
become mixed sex), there is significant peer pressure not to allow platonic friendship to
develop with women. Even after marriage, men and women operate in different worlds,
coming together only for dinner and sleep. Despite the male dominance in the working
world, the women still preserve a strong family role; husbands often jokingly refer to their
wives as "the interior minister."
The division between the sexes is apparent in certain family issues. The responsibility for
birth control is the woman's, so long as the male wants to limit family size; many do not.
While birth control pills are available, condoms are not. Abortion is legally available when
the woman's health is in danger according to the director of one of the maternity hospitals.
"Back alley" abortions occur, according to some of my women students, though most of my
male students were not aware of this and considered all abortions against religion.
Prostitution is very rare, though it does occur, especially among the so-called Anfal
widowsówomen whose husbands disappeared during Saddam Hussein's 1988 ethnic
cleansing campaign but whose bodies were never found. Because the women have no proof
of their husband's death, they cannot remarry and often live in abject poverty. Many students
were aware of AIDS, but attributed its cause to loose Western morals, especially relative to
adultery; drug abuse and homosexuality were considered less important factors.
Other social divisions exist in society. There is a gap between the wealthy and the poor,
though almost everyone manages to feed him or herself. This gap is exacerbated by the
continuing influx of internally-displaced people whose property has been confiscated by the
Baghdad regime. Many of these people were expelled from the city of Kirkuk; they often
complain that they have become scapegoats for any social ill that befalls Northern Iraqi
Another social division occurs between the many Kurds who have been in Iraq their whole
lives and those who grew up in Iran, after their families fled Iraq following the 1975 Algiers
Accords which allowed Baghdad to crush the Kurdish uprising. Many women from one
group will actively criticize the style of clothes worn by the other, their choice of music, or
their style of dance.
In the universities, the recent freedoms have created challenges for a generation of
administrators and professors who have as their only models Iraqi and Iranian styles of
management and teaching. Memorization and recitation still dominate pedagogy, with
analytical thinking discouraged. However, as universities wire to the Internet and receive an
influx of those educated abroad, there is increasing friction between the Iraqi and East
Bloc-educated old guard and the younger generation, a battle the younger generation is
bound to win.
None of these observations relate to high politics, but they give some hint as to the social
situation faced as societies emerge from the grasp of authoritarian rule in the Middle East.