Cliff May

Halabja, Iraq - Twenty-two years ago, in this dusty town hard up against the mountainous border with Iran, Saddam Hussein's military used chemical weapons to murder 5,000 Kurdish men, women and children.

The Halabja massacre was only the most infamous atrocity of Operation Anfal, a name Sadam took from a sura of the Koran that details permissible conduct against enemies of Islam. Of course, most Kurds are Muslims. But they are not Arabs. Kurds have had their own distinctive culture and language since long before armies from Arabia embarked on the first jihads -- wars of Islamic conquest -- in the 7th century.

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The goal of Operation Anfal was genocide. At least 150,000 Kurds were slaughtered, many having first been herded into concentration camps where mass executions were conducted. More than a million Kurds were driven from their homes.

Kurds have not forgotten that, in 1991, Americans established a "no-fly zone" over Iraq's Switzerland-sized Kurdish region, to provide them some protection from Saddam's predations. They regard America's 2003 military intervention in Iraq as their liberation. Iraqi Kurds now enjoy substantial self-rule. Kurds living as minorities in Syria, Iran and Turkey do not.

Six months after the collapse of Saddam's regime, the Kurds erected a memorial on the edge of Halabja. It includes haunting photos; those of mothers clutching babies to their breasts as they died in the streets are perhaps the most heart-wrenching. A sign, in fractured English, gets its point across nonetheless: "Live and victory for all nations. Death for all kinds of racism."

One result of this experience: Kurds see Americans as their allies and friends. "We appreciate the sacrifices Americans have made to liberate Iraq and bring the possibility of freedom," Masoud Barzani, president of the Kurdish Regional Government, tells me and other members of a delegation of journalists and think tank analysts.

Many Kurds also have empathy for -- and even feel an affinity with -- Israelis and Jews. Unusual as this is within the "Muslim world," it makes sense when you think about it: Like Kurds, Jews are an ancient Middle Eastern people. Like Kurds, Jews have been targeted for genocide. Like Kurds, Israelis face an uncertain future among neighbors who range from merely hostile to openly exterminationist.

At a university in the Kurdish capital of Erbil, students meeting with our delegation express admiration for Israelis' courage - somewhat to the chagrin of their American professor.


Cliff May

Clifford D. May is the President of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.