The evacuation of several thousand Iraqi Kurds from northern Iraq by the US military in December 1996 constituted the last gasp of Operation Provide Comfort. This operation was launched in the spring of 1991, in the wake of the Gulf war and Kurdish uprising against Baghdad, as hundreds of thousands of Kurds, fleeing Iraqi depredations in the valleys below, escaped to the high mountain ranges that mark the Iraqi-Turkish border. In October 1991, the Iraqis withdrew, freeing the Kurds to carve out an autonomous region. This territory was nominally protected by an allied Military Coordination Center based in the Iraqi border town of Zakho and by allied fighter jets and AWACS planes patrolling the no-fly zone above the thirty-sixth parallel from the US airbase at Incirlik, Turkey.

Five years later, in August 1996, the Iraqi military succeeded in puncturing the protected zone with impunity when the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) sought Baghdad’s assistance in its conflict with the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). Though Iraqi troops soon pulled back from Erbil (seat of the Kurdish regional government), they left fear and amn (security) agents behind. The tactical alliance between the regime and the KDP, despite the “disappearance” of thousands of the KDP in 1983 and the killing of tens of thousands of Kurds in the Anfal campaign in 1988, offered the US a way out of an increasingly untenable situation in northern Iraq.

In the fall of 1996, the US evacuated its Kurdish employees from the north, along with their families, a total of 2,150 persons. Shortly thereafter, a group of 600 CIA-backed Iraqi dissidents followed. Most were resettled in the US following a transitional stay in Guam.

In December, the US military evacuated what promised to be the last group of Kurds, primarily employees of US-funded non-governmental organizations (the “principals”) and their families, a total of 3,779 persons, all of whom were seen to be at risk if and when Baghdad returns to the north in force. Politically and logistically, the operation unfolded without a glitch, but on the ground at the Khabur River border crossing many mini-dramas played themselves out as hundreds of Kurds who did not appear on official US evacuation lists hustled to be included. To the dapper US colonel on the bridge and his aides operating from the nearby camp outside of Silopi fell the thankless task of weeding out the impostors from the eligibles. On the Iraqi side of the border, a brisk trade in fake identity papers developed, as some “principals” chose to leave some of their relatives behind, selling their spots to the highest bidders. Some NGO representatives reported receiving anguished phone calls from persons on their list still in northern Iraq, desperate to know why they had been turned back at the bridge. When these representatives examined their lists, they discovered that individuals using the same names had already been flown to Guam. Officials from some of the larger international NGOs, few of whom had been personally acquainted with the many drivers, guards and cleaners their agencies had employed, also had considerable difficulty in making successful visual identification of their former staff — a key FBI criterion for receiving a ticket to the US. Those not positively identified were sent back across the bridge, usually screaming, kicking and throwing themselves to the ground. In Guam, the US authorities soon discovered that a CiA-paid Kurd involved in the evacuation apparently had waved through a large number of Iraqis who had paid significant sums of money to be placed on the evacuation list. Sources in the US government report that once immigration authorities in Guam started checking, as many as 300 of the evacuees turned out to have arrived on false pretenses. Their fate is uncertain; currently in detention, they may face deportation to a third country yet to be identified.

In almost all cases, families were ripped apart by the evacuation because the fairly strict US adherence to the standard of the nuclear family eliminated siblings and other close relatives from consideration. Not surprisingly, intra-Kurdish politics entered the fray. Some travelers from PUK-controlled areas reported having been harassed and threatened by KDP operatives in control of the border area. One NGO employee, a former PUK peshmerga (guerrilla fighter), had his portable computer and extensive documentation of Iraqi human rights abuses and chemical weapons attacks taken away from him and his family by the KDP before they were allowed to cross the border.

Following the December evacuation, only NGOs not funded by the US government stayed behind in northern Iraq, about half of the original groups present. They continued their operations in a climate of growing insecurity. Rejecting US assessments of the Iraqi threat, European governments refused to consider evacuating the Kurdish employees of European Union-funded organizations and programs. These NGOs were sucked into a paralyzing schizophrenia, besieged by their Kurdish staff wanting to be evacuated, and pushed by their leaders and donors in Europe to continue their mine-clearing operations, educational programs and reconstruction efforts. The evacuation of a significant segment of the Kurdish professional class, characterized by at least one Kurdish leader as a “brain drain,” has not only impaired the international effort to rebuild Kurdish villages and infrastructure, but deprived Kurdish society of much of its capacity to develop itself.

On the final day of the operation in December, Turkish Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan announced that starting January 1, 1997 there would be no more Military Coordination Center, no more US aid to the Iraqi Kurds and no more patrolling of the no-fly zone from Turkey. The US government declared that it was making new arrangements for the continued monitoring of Iraq’s compliance with the 1991 ceasefire resolutions ordering the destruction of its weapons of mass destruction programs. Despite the subsequent decision by the Turkish parliament to renew the agreement allowing the US to carry out overflights from Incirlik, the new US policy directives spelled the end not only of the reconstruction effort in northern Iraq, but of international protection of the Kurds. On Friday, December 13, as the last group of families straggled across the Khabur bridge to seek their fortunes in America, the waters of the river beneath flowed calmly into the mighty Tigris a few miles on, and to Baghdad beyond, where the Iraqi dictator sat pondering his next move.

How to cite this article:

Joost R Hiltermann "The Demise of Operation Provide Comfort," Middle East Report 203 (Summer 1997).
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