ARBIL, Iraq, (Reuters) - Iraq's breakaway Kurds appealed on Saturday for aid to prevent a repeat of the 1991 exodus of refugees across the mountains during which thousands died from cold, starvation, or government forces' gunfire.
Many ordinary Kurds have already stocked up on essentials, and are closely following news of U.S. preparations for a possible war against Iraq to decide when to quit their homes and head for their only traditional ally -- the mountains.
"Any assistance, any help from anybody, any agency, any regional government is welcome," Hoshiyar Siwaily, deputy minister for humanitarian aid in one half of the Kurdish-run region, told reporters. "This is a cry for help."
More than one million Kurds fled to the mountains and tried to cross the border to Iran and Turkey at the end of the 1991 Gulf War as Iraqi government troops moved in to crush their uprising against President Saddam Hussein's rule.
Thousands struggling to reach safety perished in the snow when Iraqi helicopter gunships strafed towns and villages.
U.S. and British planes eventually policed a no-fly zone imposed by their governments to protect the area from Iraqi air attack, and this enabled Kurdish forces to retake much of the north of Iraq and govern the rugged region for more than a decade, winning fragile autonomy from Baghdad.
FOOD, FUEL, MEDICINE AND SHELTER
Kurdish authorities say they now have the organisation in place to prevent another exodus if war starts -- but Siwaily said they still need international donors and neighbouring countries to give them food, fuel, medicine and shelter.
Some three million people now live in the breakaway region and Kurdish leaders and international aid agencies say that in the event of war as many as another million might try to cross the minefields into the area from government-held territory.
"If we can't provide for the basic needs of people crossing into our region, they might try to cross into neighbouring countries," said Siwaily. "But if we can provide for their basic needs, we can contain the problem."
Iran and Turkey have begun setting up camps along their borders to accommodate hundreds of thousands of refugees. But neither country had offered any help to the Kurds to stop them having to leave their homeland, Siwaily said.
"We have not yet seen any sign of that from neighbouring countries," he said.
In the last 12 years, the Kurds have become more prosperous than fellow Iraqis still under Baghdad's rule through unofficial cross-border trade and smuggling.
But they still rely on Baghdad for many basic needs. Under the U.N. oil-for-food programme, Iraq's Kurds receive a monthly ration administered by the World Food Programme, but flour, the staple item, was not distributed last month.
"They say there is a milling problem, but we know the Baghdad government is stock-piling flour for emergency reasons and preventing it from reaching our area," Siwaily said.
The Kurds assume that if war broke out, all supplies from Baghdad would be cut off immediately.
A delegation from the two parties that control northern Iraq met U.S. and EU officials in Ankara this week to discuss the problem, but have yet to receive any offer of help.
There is already a small U.S. presence inside the region and U.S. officials are negotiating with Ankara for permission to send tens of thousands of troops through Turkey into Iraqi Kurdistan to open a northern front against Baghdad.
Despite the added security U.S. troops might bring to the region, many Kurds are already preparing to leave the main cities of Arbil and Sulaymaniyah, both less than half an hour's drive from Iraqi government front lines. Some have already left.
"It's much safer here," said Galawish Kurshidbek, a woman in her sixties who left Arbil for the town of Rawanduz, high in the mountains on the road to Iran. "Saddam's army cannot reach here. Even in 1991 when they attacked Arbil, they couldn't get this far."
People have begun storing petrol for the journey and buying essential food stocks.
Those who can afford it are renting houses in mountain towns and villages or planning to send the women and children to relatives in remoter areas. Some with little money to spare are buying tents, determined not to suffer the hardships of 1991 again.
"I sell three or four tents a day now; two months ago, I would sell one only every two weeks," said Idris Derwish Akrawi, sewing strips of yellow canvas together and making the most of the extra business. "I need to make more, but I have put one aside for me and my family."
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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