One understandable gut response would be to say that the Kurds have forfeited the right to any kind of international protection. The UN safe haven is supposed to be there to protect the Kurds from Saddam; now that one group of Iraqi Kurds has invited Saddam to attack another group of Iraqi Kurds, the international community had best clear out, or risk being embroiled in a Rubik's cube of a civil war.
But this would be shortsighted. Two principles should guide our action, one self-interested (the overriding need to contain Saddam), the other humanitarian (an effort, where possible, to protect and succour innocent Kurdish civilians).
The Kurds' capacity for being clawed by their neighbours and political overlords is matched only by their capacity for clawing at one another. There are 22 million Kurds, by far the largest stateless nation in the world. They were among the greatest losers from the early 20th-century European taste for drawing lines, through sand and mountains, where no borders had existed before. As imperial Britain and France contended for political influence, and oil, they created a Middle East map which dismembered the Kurdish-populated territory into four main chunks: Iraqi, Iranian, Syrian and Turkish. Britain, in particular, insisted on millions of Kurds being joined to Iraq against their will, because Britain controlled Iraq and the Kurdish area contained the Mosul oil wells. Intermittently, ever since, as it has suited us, the West has encouraged the Kurds to rebel, or exhorted them to remain quiet.
Five years ago we were in the business of drawing lines once again. After the Gulf war, at US instigation, the Kurds revolted against Saddam. The Iraqi army showed a greater taste for killing Kurdish civilians than fighting to hold on to Kuwait. The UN declared a safe haven for Kurds in northern Iraq, and later a somewhat larger no-fly zone, barring Iraqi fixedwing aircraft.
The international legality, and the precise terms, of these pledges to the Kurds have always been in doubt. But a wary calm survived for three years. Saddam, licking his wounds, stayed away. A considerable international relief effort was mounted through Turkey. But the West, uncertain what it wanted to do with its de facto Kurdish statelet, made little corresponding political effort to prevent the Kurdish factions from falling to their second favourite occupation, fighting each other.
The resulting situation, tragic and menacing, is also frankly bizarre. One of the Iraqi-Kurd groups - the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) - has enlisted supported from Iran (despite the fact that this enables the Islamic republic to bash more effectively its own Kurdish rebels). In retaliation, the PUK's sworn enemies, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), have sought the military aid of Saddam, the man who used chemical weapons against Kurdish women and children. Both groups have variously worked and then quarrelled with the Turkish Kurdish separatist group, the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), which yesterday threatened retaliatory action against the Saddam-supported KDP.
Out of this deadly alphabet soup, the West must now try to fashion some kind of coherent policy.
Bill Clinton, with Republicans queueing to accuse him of being soft on Saddam, is evidently anxious to zap someone or something. A cruise missile or stealth aircraft strike against Iraqi military targets might be one option. The British government believes that Saddam must be punished to prevent him gaining strategic territory and prestige. Either we stop him now, the Government seems to be saying, or he will keep on pushing us until we are forced to do something even more difficult and dramatic. The French are doubtful. Many Middle East governments, including those that supported Operation Desert Storm, see little reason to come to the aid of one Kurdish group (particularly a group supported by Iran).
What is more, it remains unclear whether there is international legal backing for military action by the West. The Kurdish "safe haven" does not encompass the city of Arbil; but the no-fly zone does. If the Iraqi forces fall back, Saddam might regain de facto control of much of northern Iraq through his new Kurdish clients, without formally crossing any line in the sand.
This is not August 1990 all over again. The strategic case for chasing Saddam out of Kuwait was overwhelming. There is no such clarity this time. But the longer history of international dealings with Saddam suggests that the Government is right. It is important to face Saddam down at the earliest opportunity. If he fails to move his forces far way from Arbil - not just to the outskirts - the West should threaten, and if necessary, carry out punitive strikes on Iraqi military targets. But these should not just be electoral air-raids, designed to satisfy US public opinion. We must be ready for a prolonged confrontation if necessary. We must, even at this late and seemingly hopeless stage, engage in robust diplomacy to try to reconcile the Kurdish factions. And we should be making urgent plans to assist the Kurdish civilian population.