Senators introduce resolution hailing ‘important partnership’ with Iraqi Kurdistan on 30th anniversary of OPC

“Kurdistan is fortunate to have bipartisan support in the US Congress, and we are grateful to the senators and representatives who have co-sponsored this resolution.”
The US Capitol building in Washington, DC. (Photo: AFP/Jewel Samad)
The US Capitol building in Washington, DC. (Photo: AFP/Jewel Samad)

WASHINGTON DC (Kurdistan 24) – On Thursday, two US senators—Chris Van Hollen (D, Maryland) and Marco Rubio (R, Florida)—introduced a Senate resolution hailing the “important partnership between the US and Iraqi Kurdistan,” as they marked the 30th anniversary of Operation Provide Comfort (OPC.)

Both men sit on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC), where Van Hollen is a member of the subcommittee on the Near East, South Asia, Central Asia, and Counterterrorism. Rubio, In addition to his role on the SFRC, is Vice Chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.

Notably, one of the senators is a Democrat and the other a Republican, underscoring the broad support that the Kurds enjoy in the US Congress.

As the conclusion to the resolution explains, it reaffirms “the strong partnership between the United States and the Iraqi Kurds, which exists in complementarity with the United States’ strong partnership with the Government of Iraq,” and “the enduring respect and support of Congress for Iraqi Kurdish friends of the United States who courageously stand with the United States in shared opposition to extremism and terrorism.”

The Senate resolution follows on a similar measure adopted earlier this year, by the House of Representatives, and introduced into that chamber by Rep. Michael Waltz (R, Florida) and six other congressmen.

Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman, the Representative of the Kurdistan Regional Government in Washington, warmly welcomed the resolution.

“Kurdistan is fortunate to have bipartisan support in the US Congress, and we are grateful to the senators and representatives who have co-sponsored this resolution,” she told Kurdistan 24.

“We hope that others will join them in celebrating the US-Kurdistan strategic partnership, which was formed at the momentous time 30 years ago,” when OPC began.

Indeed, the Biden administration has accorded greater importance to relations with the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) than any of its predecessors has.

In April, on the occasion of the 30th anniversary of the start of OPC, two senior US officials, from the White House and the Pentagon, addressed a webinar, hosted by the KRG mission in Washington.

Both Brett McGurk, National Security Council Coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa, and Dana Strohl, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for the Middle East, spoke and described US ties with the KRG as a “strategic partnership.”

Read More: Biden administration: We have a ‘strategic partnership’ with the Kurdistan Region

Background to Operation Provide Comfort

The resolution that the senators introduced on Thursday begins with a recounting of the Kurdish uprising that followed President George H. W. Bush’s unilateral declaration of a ceasefire to the war with Iraq on February 27, 1991.

The Kurds then rose in revolt. But the US had miscalculated. Iraq’s Republican Guards remained a lethal force, and Saddam Hussein turned his “tanks and helicopter gunships on the defenseless citizens of Iraqi Kurdistan,” the resolution states.

“Overwhelmed by the superior firepower of the Hussein regime, and having already experienced the genocidal death of approximately 200,000 Iraqi Kurds, the wanton destruction of approximately 4,500 Iraqi Kurdish villages, and deadly chemical bombardment, hundreds of thousands of Iraqi Kurdish men, women, and children fled to the northern and eastern borders of Iraq, fearing that the regime would use poison gas against them, as during the Anfal campaign and in Halabja only 3 years before,” it continues.

It describes the horrific losses the Kurdish people suffered then. “In the early days” of the crisis, “the daily death toll of fleeing Iraqi Kurds exceeded 1,000, with victims having no time to gather any possessions or winter protective gear” and, as a result, “succumbing to exposure, malnutrition, and disease.”

In response to “the unfolding human catastrophe,” the US launched OPC, the Senate resolution explains, describing it as “the largest humanitarian operation of its kind ever.” It brought those who had fled, back to their homes, and established the no-fly zone—which lasted until March 2003, when the US began the second war, which overthrew Saddam and his regime.

Indeed, in April, as he addressed the KRG’s webinar, then-Secretary of State James Baker recounted “the incredible humanitarian nightmare,” which he witnessed then. At that point—early April of 1991—the main focus of the Bush administration in the Middle East had already reverted to what it had been before Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait: peace talks between Israel and the Arabs in Madrid.

However, Baker’s aide, Margaret Tutweiler, who headed public affairs at the State Deparment, advised Baker of the extent of the evolving crisis, and Baker diverted his plane, which had been headed for Israel, so he could visit the Iraqi-Turkish border.

“It looked like an atomic bomb had gone off,” Baker recalled 30 years later, in the KRG’s webinar. “The desolation was incredible’—no food, no water, no warmth, as all the trees had been felled for firewood.

“So I picked up the phone, and I called President Bush,” who had been “my close friend for 40 years,” Baker explained, and I told him, “You’ve got a huge humanitarian nightmare developing here, and we have got to do something, and he quickly agreed.”

Baker also recognized that only the US military had the capability of delivering aid on the scale that was needed, so he later called the Secretary of Defense, Dick Cheney.

“Dick,” Baker said, “to the extent that there are any bureaucratic problems here, we really got to cut through them, and he agreed with that, and he cut through all of the bureaucratic red tape that we might otherwise have experienced.”

OPC followed.

As the long-time Kurdish leader, Masoud Barzani, recounted at the KRG’s webinar, out of the tragedy, “a golden opportunity for the people of Kurdistan” emerged, because of OPC.

Read More: Masoud Barzani hails OPC, even as he warns of current dangers

“The people of Kurdistan were able to manage their own affairs, to establish institutions, hold elections, and establish a parliament and a regional government,” Barzani said, while “Kurdistan became a haven for all who were persecuted and fighting for freedom in Iraq.”

However, “there are still significant dangers that threaten the Kurdistan Region,” Barzani added, and “I ask that this support, this backing, continues and that the protection of the people of Kurdistan be your priority.”

And he concluded, “Once again, I express my gratitude to you.”