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Interview: Robin Wright Discusses Her Recent Trip To Iran And Iraq And Her Observations Of The Two Countries

Weekend Edition Saturday: November 23, 2002

Iranians, Iraqi Kurds Await Outcome of Arms Checks

SCOTT SIMON, host:

Iraq faces a fast-approaching deadline to disclose its full complement of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons. The effect of some of that nation's lethal arsenal is still being felt in neighboring Iran which engaged in a devastating eight-year war with Iraq during the 1980s. Saddam Hussein also used chemical weapons against the Kurdish population in northern Iraq, which is now reportedly working closely with US intelligence to prepare for the event of a military strike against Baghdad. The Kurds are not only expected to help bring about regime change in Iraq should there be war, they may also play a critical role in divining that nation's political future. Robin Wright, chief diplomatic correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, has just returned from an extended trip to northern Iraq and Iran. She joins us in the studios.

Thanks very much for being with us.

Ms. ROBIN WRIGHT (Los Angeles Times): Thank you.

SIMON: Remind us, if you can, because this has often just been a phrase that Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons in Iran against Iranians and against the Kurds. What does that look like today?

Ms. WRIGHT: Fourteen years after the war ended between Iran and Iraq, Iranians are still suffering in the thousands from chemical weapons. One of the interesting things to happen is over the past five years, a second wave of victims has emerged, people who had low-dose exposure, who weren't necessarily troops, may have been civilians living not far from the front but far enough away that they didn't consider themselves exposed; and they are now reporting to hospitals in droves. Everything from losing their teeth--they fall out--to blisters on their body, difficulty in breathing. And one of the leading specialists in Iran told me that many Iranians may still be out there. They may not have diagnosed as many as half or more of the people who were exposed to Saddam's chemical weapons.

SIMON: And may I hazard what kind of numbers we're talking about? Can you give us an estimate?

Ms. WRIGHT: Well, the CIA, at the end of the 1980s, said that at least 50,000 had died in Iran from chemical weapons used by Iraq. The numbers are now more than double that.

SIMON: What does this separate society that's come about in northern Iraq look like?

Ms. WRIGHT: The one good news story to come out of Iraq these days is Northern Kurdistan, the enclave that borders Iran, Turkey and Syria inside Iraq that is under the protection of US and British warplanes, and has been since 1991. With the help of the oil-for-food program administered by the United Nations, which brings some revenue into the North, the Kurds have begun to build a nascent democracy. And you'll find dozens of Internet cafes where people go in for a dollar an hour and hook up to the outside world, unlike Baghdad where you need a police permit to get access to the Web. In the North, you have opposition newspapers and television stations that do rip-offs of Saturday Night live and do parodies of the local politicians. There is quite a vibrant civil society, the kind of unions and women's groups that have emerged. So in many ways, it's an indication of what Iraq might be like after Saddam Hussein, or at least could be like. It's quite inspiring.

SIMON: At the same time, we also read that there are Kurds who are specifically worried about what the effects of a US-British war could be like if it occurs in the next few months, that it could somehow endanger their gains and make them a target.

Ms. WRIGHT: Well, Saddam Hussein, in 1996, surprised the world by moving into the North, and there are many Kurds today who fear that, again, he might pre-emptively attack the North, and that's why they've asked guarantees from the United States that if he does anything militarily that the United States will provide protection not just from warplanes, but on the ground as well. And there's a deepening US involvement in the North already since the UN resolution. American intelligence agents have been through the region, military troops looking at four airfields in the North, for example, setting up ties with Kurdistan, setting up a listening post to look at the rest of Iraq. This is the first time that the United States has been back inside Iraq operating.

SIMON: At the same time, a lot of Kurds must have painful memories, do have painful memories of 11 years ago when they thought they had pretty solid guarantee of support from the US government, `If you rise up and take control of your future now, we'll be there for you.' And a lot of Kurds have said openly they feel that the US reneged on that promise.

Ms. WRIGHT: The Kurds are the largest ethnic group in the world without a state, and the United States has traditionally been its only ally. The Turks, the Syrians and the Iranians have all opposed any kind of greater Kurdish state or even a lot of autonomy for the Kurds inside of Iraq. The United States has helped the Kurds dating back to the mid-1970s. But at every juncture, the United States abandoned it abruptly, leading to thousands, even tens of thousands of Kurdish deaths. Most recently, in 1991, when the first President Bush called for an uprising both in the North and in the South and the Kurds in the North did just that. But the United States allowed Saddam Hussein to use his helicopter gunships against both of the groups, and as a result, tens of thousands again died and almost two million people fled to the borders of Iran and Turkey out of fear that Saddam Hussein would again use chemical weapons.

SIMON: So what faith do the Kurds put in US word now?

Ms. WRIGHT: Jalal Talabani, the head of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, said that Kurdish leaders feel that this administration is more serious about dealing with Saddam Hussein, and he also said, `We don't have much choice.'

SIMON: Were you able to tell if al-Qaeda is very active in northern Iraq?

Ms. WRIGHT: Al-Qaeda's single operational headquarters in the world where they are visible is in northeastern Iraq. They came there from Afghanistan, many of them, shortly before September 11th. They now have a very active operation that is challenging the Kurds and, to a lesser degree, Saddam Hussein. There are some Kurds even who believe Saddam Hussein is in cahoots with them. But the Kurds have lost a lot of fighters in trying to confront them.

SIMON: What impact is the Kurdish question making, near as you can divine it, on the Iraqi groups that are going to be meeting in London, the Iraqi opposition groups who are trying to plan for, obviously, a post-regime-change Iraq?

Ms. WRIGHT: The Iraqi opposition is clearly deeply divided, and the Kurds, in some way, resent those who are in exile overseas, even though they're part of the Iraqi opposition and will be part of the meeting in London. They feel that on the ground they've created a model that would be useful, and I think there's also a certain fear that their contribution, their achievements, may not be taken sufficiently into account in whatever comes up. I think the Kurds also fear that there may be some kind of government in exile created, and they're deeply opposed to that. They think that the goal now is to oust Saddam Hussein, and why not wait for all of the Iraqi people to decide.

SIMON: Ms. Wright, thanks very much.

Ms. WRIGHT: Thank you.

SIMON: Robin Wright, chief diplomatic correspondent for the Los Angeles Times.

And it's 18 minutes past the hour.

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