Kurds teetering on brink of abyss: The author, Labour spokesman on development and co-operation, recently returned from a fact- finding trip through northern Iraq

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The United Nations has got itself into an absurd tangle over northern Iraq. It has imposed an economic embargo on the Iraqis because Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait and later refused to destroy his nuclear and chemical weapons. It will not exempt the Kurdish area in north Iraq even though it is Baghdad, not Kurdistan, which is in defiance of UN resolutions.

A winter programme of aid costing dollars 90m ( pounds 60m) is being funded by the UN to overcome the effects both of its own embargo and the internal embargo of Kurdistan imposed by President Saddam. And in order to deliver the aid, it painstakingly negotiates with the Iraqi President for its passage, allowing him to impose delays and a series of humiliating conditions, when he has made clear that his intention towards the Kurds is one of genocide.

As a result of these trip-wires set by Baghdad, the UN aid lifeline is pitifully inadequate. In Sulaymaniyah, the second city in Kurdistan with a population of 1.3 million, the UN has so far provided its monthly rations - nine kilos (20lb) of rice, nine kilos of flour, three kilos of cooking oil, and half a kilo of sugar - for only one-quarter of the population. When the Kurdish leaders wanted to distribute the limited supplies equally round all the population, the UN officials refused. They also refused to take the advice of the Kurdish governor of Sulaymaniyah as to who was in greatest need and should therefore get the highest priority.

Whilst hiccups like this in the UN aid system can cause consternation, it is still true that UN food relief is the only thing that has saved Kurdistan from mass starvation this winter. After the Gulf war, Baghdad was told to allow Iraqi food supplies to pass through to the Kurds in the north.

In fact, less and less was let through, and when President Saddam imposed his own blockade on Kurdistan in November 1991, the supply was stopped completely. Only when the UN put pressure on Baghdad was the trickle started again, but only at the level of 7 per cent of the rations which the Iraqi government was allowing to the rest of its people. That daily diet of one flat round of dry bread per person, washed down with water or tea, is what most of the population is now living on.

It is not enough. Children faint in school from lack of food. Women trying to earn a paltry income from labouring, collapse under the strain. Mothers in desperation hand over their babies at night to the mosque because they can no longer keep them alive. Epidemics of malaria, typhoid and hepatitis have begun to take hold.

Even the professional groups are being priced out of the market by the extreme shortages. A teacher or doctor earns enough each month to use a kerosene heater for some four to five hours a day (half the time needed in winter) and for nothing else.

The mayor of Sulaymaniyah said his family consumed 70 barrels of kerosene last winter. This winter he, like other families lucky enough to get it, has been allocated a half of one barrel. Even if there were extra kerosene available, it is prohibitively expensive. A barrel of kerosene now costs about five times a doctor's monthly earnings in Arbil, the capital city of Kurdistan, but in the Iraqi-held cities of Kirkuk or Mosul, 60 miles away, it costs less than 1 per cent of the Arbil price. Indeed, to tempt freezing and starving Kurds to defect to Mosul, President Saddam is now offering cheap kerosene to them - though there are no reports of takers.

Kurdistan today is on the brink of the abyss. With exposure to temperatures of minus 20C and with malnutrition rife, it is inevitable that thousands who are ill, elderly or babies will die this winter. Unemployment among males of working age is about 90 per cent. There are virtually no drugs or antibiotics, and little oxygen is left in hospitals. Even basic shelter is now hard to come by.

President Saddam's armies destroyed 4,500 Kurdish villages after the Iran-Iraq war. In consequence, families are forced to live in rubble. I found hundreds of people squatting in the shadowy and gruesome cells of the former Iraqi secret service compound at Sulaymaniyah and, at President Saddam's former jail in Dihok, one woman living in the cell where her husband had been hanged.

Worst of all, the 3.5 million Kurds in the north of Iraq face renewed subjugation by President Saddam at any time. In the recent build-up of tension over anti-aircraft missile batteries in both the northern and southern no-fly zones, nine Iraqi divisions, including two of the Republican Guard, were moved provocatively towards Kurdish lines between Dihok and Arbil. Iraqi artillery shelled Chamchamal, a Kurdish town 40 miles west of Sulaymaniyah. And in Sulaymaniyah itself Iraqi agents produced a flurry of bombings which have killed 10 people in the last few weeks.

Only allied air power, using the Incirlik air base in southern Turkey, stands between the Kurds and another mass exodus to the mountainsides. So long as President Saddam is prevented from using his fighter bombers and helicopter gunships, he cannot reconquer Kurdistan against resistance from 200,000 peshmergas, the tough though lightly armed Kurdish paramilitaries. But Turkey is keeping the Western powers and the Kurds on a short lease by requiring the Incirlik agreement to be renewed by a parliamentary vote every six months, a cycle that inevitably causes enormous insecurity in Kurdistan as each six-month period ends.

(Photograph omitted)

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