US confidence that it can turn the Middle East upside down by forcing `regime change' on Iraq and then remain in control of events is a perfect example of the optimism that distinguishes the New World from the old. But even at this point, there appear to be some rather serious contradictions in Washington's grand plan. One of the most puzzling of these is the Kurdish question. With Saddam out of the way, are the long-suffering Kurds, long overlooked by Sykes-Picot, Curzon and the rest of the border makers, really expected to accept no more than autonomous status within Iraq? In a speech on 6 March President Bush spoke in broad terms of a federal structure for post-war Iraq, with Kurds as well as Shi'a and Sunni receiving a measure of autonomy.
The public statements of the leaders of the two main Kurdish groups would appear to reassure Washington that there would be no attempts at secession from the Kurds. Both the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP, led by Massoud Barzani), and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK, led by Jalal Talabani) are speaking of autonomy as their sole aspiration. But having developed a para-state under the protection of the US-UK northern no-fly zone in the last decade, are the proud and warlike Kurds really likely to accept reintegration into a Baghdad-centred state in which they are a minority? Those Kurds who recall Saddam's use of chemical weapons at Al Habja during the Iran-Iraq war, among other horrific episodes, may be less than keen on such a retrograde step. And it's hard to see how the Kurds could place much faith in US assurances of protection and fair treatment. After the Gulf War in 1991 Washington encouraged the Kurds to rise, then failed to support their rising: Chnoor Meho, a Kurdish teacher, recalls "the US left us like a flock of sheep with a wolf walking in our midst". In 1996 a rising across northern Iraq culminated in tanks entering the de facto Kurdish capital of Irbil, yet coalition warplanes patrolling overhead did not intervene.
The experience of Yugoslavia would suggest that when a fragile multi-ethnic state is suddenly freed of the bonds that held it together, a more or less violent land grab ensues. And the experience of the Kurds would suggest that they ought to rely on no-one but themselves to establish security, sovereignty and independence.
If the Kurds of northern Iraq do indeed defy the US and snatch statehood from the rubble of the Iraqi state, the region will be in for a lengthy spell...