There is no hierarchy among the suffering

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IF THE Americans can take the trouble to bomb Iraq, why are they not prepared to use armed force to resolve the crisis in Bosnia? It is a common and reasonable enough question, and it has a simple, if incomplete, answer: Bosnia is not Iraq. It is a favourite theme of the Foreign Secretary, Douglas Hurd, when defending the West's policy towards the former Yugoslavia, that no two situations are alike.

The more reasonable of America's critics will no doubt agree. But they might also go on to argue that, while the United States is failing in its role as champion of the New World Order in the case of Bosnia, in the case of Iraq it is doggedly pursuing a vendetta against a weakened dictator whom it failed to depose at the end of the Gulf war. There may be some slight truth in that judgement, but it barely stands as a serious critique of current American foreign policy.

This is not the time to argue the merits or otherwise of active foreign intervention in Bosnia. There may well have been a moment when such intervention might have changed the course of events in the former Yugoslavia, although not automatically for the ultimate benefit of its inhabitants. But if there was such a moment, it has almost certainly long since past. In Bosnia, the world is confronted with the horrors of a civil war in which the members of one party, the Muslims, have been the particular, although not the only, victims.

America's reluctance to become embroiled in the Bosnian civil war should not be used, however, as an argument with which to oppose its altogether more aggressive stance towards Iraq. If the US and its allies have indeed failed the people of Bosnia, that is no excuse for them now to abandon the people of Iraq. Specifically, they must not abandon the Kurds.

There is no hierarchy of suffering. It is no consolation to a Bosnian who has been driven from his home or forced to watch the massacre of his family to know that others, in far off places, have suffered as badly or worse. Yet there can be no doubt that among the long list of suffering nations in the latter half of this century, the Kurds of Iraq have suffered more than most. Tens of thousands have been slaughtered by Saddam's regime, and many more have been otherwise 'ethnically cleansed' by being forced from their homelands.

To summarise the current situation: the estimated 3.5 million Kurds of northern Iraq enjoy de facto self-rule, and for the first time in their history they are governed by a democratically elected government - a coalition of the main Kurdish parties. The Kurdish parliament, also chosen by popular vote, sits at Arbil. Iraqi Kurdistan has its own police force, embryonic army and judicial system.

But the region is almost destitute, in part a consequence of international sanctions imposed on Iraq during the Kuwait crisis and maintained ever since. It is free of Iraqi government troops, but is the occasional target of Iraqi terrorist bomb attacks and random shelling. The official Kurdish leadership recognises the international borders of Iraq and seeks the installation of a democratic regime in Baghdad. It does not seek the creation of an independent Kurdistan. It has no claims on neighbouring Arab lands, nor do its Arab neighbours have claims on the traditional homeland of the Kurds. It is the only part of Iraq that is free.

If the West dropped its guard and were suddenly to ease the pressure on Saddam Hussein, all this could disappear by the end of the week. Only constant warnings to Saddam, such as the recent bombing of Baghdad (whatever its declared motives), will prevent the Iraqi dictator from embarking on a reconquest of the north. The US raid on Baghdad followed a week of intensified allied air activity in the no-fly zone above the 36th parallel, which was ordered in response to indications that Saddam might be preparing just such a reconquest.

The Western allies abandoned the Kurds to their fate in March 1991, after a short-lived but extremely successful rebellion had ousted Iraqi government forces from the north of the country in the aftermath of the Gulf war. John Major's belated plan for the establishment of safe havens in the north helped to salvage something from the situation. Iraqi forces once again withdrew, and the Kurds have been living ever since under allied air cover.

The difference between then and now is that in 1991 the Americans were suspicious of the presumed separatist tendencies of both the Kurds of the north and the Shia of the south. They were particularly worried that Iran's co-religionists in the south would break away to form a pro-Tehran Islamic state. At the end of the Gulf war, the Kurds found it impossible to get a hearing at the White House or the State Department.

All that has changed. The Clinton administration now gives full support to the Iraqi National Council, which comprises all opposition groups - including the Kurds. The Kurds, far from being regarded as separatists, are viewed as a potential balancing force between Shias and Sunnis in any post-Saddam regime.

The danger, as ever, is that US support for the Kurds may prove to be a poisoned chalice. The Americans see Kurdistan as part of a wider strategy of containing Iran, whose brand of aggressive Islam is viewed by Washington with something approaching paranoia. It is no surprise that Iran has reacted badly to the US-Kurdish rapprochement. Tehran has done its best to spoil the party, and recently directly tried to dissuade some of the smaller Kurdish groups from incorporating themselves into the mainstream Iraqi Kurdistan Democratic Party, headed by Masoud Barzani and based at Arbil.

The Kurds have no choice but to enter alliance with Washington. But they do so with their eyes open. The last time they received direct help from the US was in the early Seventies, when Barzani's father took weapons and money from Henry Kissinger, the Shah of Iran and the CIA to fight Baghdad. This trio ditched Barzani in 1975 after a treaty was signed between the Shah and the then vice president, Saddam Hussein. Mulla Mustafa Barzani died in exile and Kurdistan was overrun.

It might be that the US is once again doing the right thing for the wrong reason. In adopting an aggressive attitude towards Baghdad, President Clinton may indeed be trying to dispel the wimp factor created, in part, by his inaction over Bosnia. Certainly, he seems to be trying to appease the congressional right wing, which used to think Saddam was a Good Thing as long as he was bashing Iran, but rapidly switched to regarding him as a Bad Thing once he challenged George Bush.

This time, unlike in the Seventies, the US backing is overt. European and other American allies have a duty to, and an interest in, keeping Washington honest. The Kurds have earned what they have created in the past two years. If the West lets them down and Saddam returns, it would almost be better to be a Bosnian.