Debate continues among Americans over a possible war against Iraq. While peace activists have been quick to oppose the use of force against Iraq, others, including many Kurdish Americans, support a military action to topple the Iraqi regime.
Kurds have lived in western Asia for thousands of years. This non-Arab ethnic group has been conquered by a series of empires, from the Mongols, to the Arabs, to the Turks and has faced various levels of repression by modern day Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria.
But their history in Iraq since Saddam Hussein came to power in 1979 has been filled with especially brutal violence, the destruction of villages, the use of chemical weapons, the death of hundreds of thousands of people. That is why many Iraqi Kurdish Americans support the use of force to change the regime in Baghdad. "There is a war there anyway," Payman Halmat said. "Everyday, Saddam's forces kill thousands of people. It is complicated. In one way, war is not good. But in this situation, if they overthrow Saddam Hussein and whoever around him, I am for the war."
Payman Halmat now lives in the United States, but she grew up in Sulaymanyiah, in northern Iraq, and worked there as a teacher. Her husband also was a teacher in Iraq. When he and some of his students established a local radio station, the Iraqi authorities began an investigation.
"They called him and asked him questions, and they did not let him go anywhere," she said. "They called him back and forth. Finally, he was able, through friends and relatives in America, to get accepted in a university. During that time, he came out of Iraq."
Although the Halmats have lived in the United States for about 25 years, Payman Halmat says the misery that Kurds suffered under the Iraqi regime is still vivid in her memory.
"The Kurdish people were not having any hope, and they were living in fear," Ms. Halmat said. "They were always expecting Iraqi intelligence or secret service to come and get them, from work, from stores, from homes, from anywhere or to be killed. They [Iraqi soldiers] were shooting anywhere, anybody, especially in the dark, when they saw a moving shadow. It did not matter if that was an innocent person, or a child. So, people were staying in their homes, closing their doors early in the evening."
The situation has improved somewhat. Since the 1991 Gulf War, Iraqi Kurds have had their own regional government in the north... what many see as the first step toward an independent Kurdistan. When Kurdish-American Sarah Omar returned home for a visit last summer, she found that life there was easier than in the past.
"Actually, the north of Iraq is very different from the rest of Iraq, freedom wise," she said.
Many Kurdish Americans, like Tanya Gilly, see a military action against Saddam Hussein as an opportunity to extend that freedom throughout Iraq. "I believe the Iraqi people has been oppressed for too long, suffered too much, which is why it is time for us to start feeling some of the freedoms that the rest of the world feels," Tanya Gilly said. "It would be nice for the Iraqis, for my relatives especially, to do walking down the streets and not to worry about whether they are going to be caught by security forces just because they may have conducted some 'suspicious' activity."
Payman Halmat agrees that war is the only way to bring peace and prosperity to Iraq, especially the northern area.
"I hope people live in peace, fearless in their own homes," she said. "I hope that Kurdistan will be better place for us to go back visit without fearing being executed or tortured. I am American citizen, I love this country, but Iraq is still part of me."
But a war would be bad for the Kurds, according to Wafaa Salman of the Institute of Near East and African Studies. Ms. Salman, an Iraqi Arab, opposes any military action against Saddam:
"I feel whether Kurds or non-Kurds, Iraqis who are for the war, they are not seeing the bigger picture," she explained. "They do not even seem to have learned from the mistakes or the experience of the past. If war in fact now erupted, the Kurds, being with already divided leadership and how much they have suffered already in the past, will be suffering as much if not more than anybody else in the region."
Ms. Salman says if international organizations play a bigger role in exposing human rights violations in Iraq, that can ease the suffering in the region. But for Iraqi Kurds living here in America, the dream of freedom is a strong motive for supporting the war.