Primitive, illiterate and untutored?

The Kurds ought to be one of the left's great causes. But opponents of war, who say Saddam's fall wo

In 1920, the great powers promised the Kurds their own state, in Article 64 of the Treaty of Sevres. In 1930, the Foreign Office sent the League of Nations a memo which, with well-bred condescension and ill-disguised irritation, described the expectation of a brown-skinned people that the pledge be honoured as a "conception which is almost fantastic". The treaty had a get-out clause. It recorded in the smallest of print that the league must be convinced that Kurds were "capable" of independence. The FO explained that Kurds were little better than the "sullen peoples" of Kipling's White Man's Burden: "half-devil and half-child".

"Although they admittedly possess many sterling qualities, the Kurds of Iraq are entirely lacking in those characteristics of political cohesion which are essential to self-government. Their organisation and outlook are essentially tribal. They are without traditions of self-government or self-governing institutions. Their mode of life is primitive, and for the most part they are illiterate and untutored, resentful of authority and lacking in any sense of discipline or responsibility. [In these circumstances] it would be unkind to the Kurds themselves to do anything which would lend encouragement to the sterile idea of Kurdish independence."

The sterling quality that was most admired was courage: it could always be exploited. In the early Seventies, the Iraqi Ba'athist regime was getting too close to the Soviet Union for America's liking, and fighting Washington's placeman, the Shah of Iran. Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon encouraged the Iraqi Kurds to revolt. Saddam Hussein responded to the pressure and came to terms with the Shah. American, Israeli and Iranian military advisers did a midnight flit from Iraqi Kurdistan. Saddam sealed the borders and exacted a terrible revenge. The US had killed millions from Cambodia to Chile, but this betrayal of America's allies still stood out as an example of realpolitik at its most degraded.

The Congressional select committee on intelligence said that "the president, Dr Kissinger and the Shah hoped that [the Kurds] would not prevail. They preferred instead that the insurgents simply continue a level of hostilities sufficient to sap the resources of [Iraq]. The policy was not imparted to our clients, who were encouraged to continue to fight. Even in the context of covert operations, ours was a cynical exercise."

Nothing is as unreal as realpolitik. In 1991, America had to attack the same Saddam whom it had allowed into Iraqi Kurdistan. With Baghdad within a short tank journey of the allied forces, George Bush Sr called on the "Iraqi military and the Iraqi people to take matters into their own hands". The Kurds (who represent about 20 per cent of Iraq's population) and the Shia (about 60 per cent) took him at his word and rose up in spontaneous revolution. Turkey and Saudi Arabia, with Kurdish and Shia peoples of their own to repress, were appalled. Officials in the US and Europe remembered they had always supported monarchs or dictators from the Sunni Arab minorities. Bush "signalled" to Saddam that he was free to kill America's dupes, and Saddam did just that. In 1996, the Iraqi National Congress (INC), a loose coalition of Saddam's opponents, thought they had American support for a rebellion. The Kurds, wisely, didn't believe a word of it, and then, unwisely, began fighting among themselves. The CIA pulled out at the last minute, leaving the rump of INC forces to fight, and be defeated, alone. The CIA has clung to the hope of finding a reliable dictator in the Iraqi military, even though all its coup plots have failed. Until last month, the US State Department was telling its officials it was a disciplinary offence to have a perfunctory chat with the Iraqi opposition.

With enemies like these, you would expect the causes of the Kurds, the largest nationality on earth without a state of their own, and the Iraqi Shia, a majority as oppressed as South Africa's blacks under apartheid, to be dear to the left. In the Eighties, they were. The gassing of Halabja in 1988, and the massacres and forced deportations that followed, were denounced by the Labour MP Jeremy Corbyn as the crimes of a "fascist" Saddam. (Actually, he's more Stalin than Hitler, but we'll let that pass.) There must be "no trade, no aid, no deals while the present repression continues against people in Iraq", he declared. The invasion of Kuwait turned Saddam from an American ally to enemy. With a nimbleness that might have impressed Kissinger, the shameless wing of the left matched the volte-face. It stopped supporting sanctions as a weapon against "fascism" and began denouncing them as an instrument of the repressive American empire. Opponents of the war are now warning with the clairvoyant certainty of the seventh sons of seventh sons that the fall of Saddam will bring chaos. Their predictions may or may not be accurate; it is impossible for those without the gift of prophecy to say, but their tone is unmistakably imperial. Kurds and Sunni and Shia Arabs lack the "sense of discipline or responsibility" to live together. It would be "unkind" to allow them to govern themselves.

The peoples of Iraq know a great deal about western perfidy in all its guises. And yet the opposition is preparing to fight.

The Kurds are at the forefront and are, for once, in a position of relative strength. About the only good outcome for Iraqis of a Gulf war that devastated the country but left the tyrant in power was the creation of the Kurdish safe haven in the north. If America wants the support of 70,000 or so guerrillas, it will have to guarantee Kurdish autonomy in postwar Iraq.

Latif Rashid, from the London office of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), left me in no doubt that the Kurds will take up arms if Washington sticks to the west's traditional policy and tries to replace Saddam with a more amenable Sunni dictator. Dilshad Miran, from the Kurdistan Democratic Party, was as adamant on the need for concessions. His party is not yet formally supporting America. The official line is "because we have yet to be asked". Unofficially, all Kurdish leaders say co-operation will depend on the US backing a democratic, federal Iraq.

They may also require the borders of Iraqi Kurdistan to be pushed south to the oil-producing region around Kirkuk, which Saddam ethnically cleansed of Kurds. The Kurds can expect to take heavy casualties if the Iraqi army doesn't fold quickly. Chemical weapons may poison them again. Neither the KDP nor the PUK will sell themselves cheaply this time.

The Kurdish cause has been undermined by lethal divisions that Iraq, Turkey and Iran have exploited. On 9 September, the PUK and KDP formed a united front. They agreed to settle outstanding differences and call a meeting of the Iraqi Kurdish assembly on 4 October. The news was greeted in America as evidence that the Iraqi Kurds were falling into line with Bush Jr's demand for a coherent opposition. Indeed, it was, but unity will also allow the Iraqi Kurds to make the most of what cards they have. When I ask why they believe US assurances, after the Kurds' wretched history, both Rashid and Miran give the same answer: the "stability" that the west has been so anxious to protect in the Middle East has produced nothing but dictatorships, wars and terrorism. Perhaps, they wonder, even Washington now realises that stability is not worth having. Both parties have assured the Turks, whose persecutions of the Kurds match Saddam's, that they will not create an independent Kurdish state in northern Iraq, not least because they know that Turkey and Iran would destroy anything which nourished their subject Kurds' hopes of independence.

In short, the Iraqi Kurds have done what they can, diplomatically and politically. They are demonstrating their military power by taking on Ansar al-Islam, a fundamentalist group of Kurds and Arabs that is backed by Iran and may be supported by Saddam.

Kurds cannot run an Iraq that is 80 per cent Arab. Ahmad Chalabi, a Shia and member of the leadership council of the INC, is far more trusting than his Kurdish comrades. He believes that his friends have triumphed in a ferocious struggle in the Washington bureaucracy between the Pentagon on one side and the civilians in the CIA and State Department on the other. For reasons that defy simple explanation, the military supported the INC's vision of an Iraqi democracy under civilian control while the civilians were all for a military dictatorship.

Chalabi noted that, in Bush's speech to the United Nations, the president made great play of the need to enforce minimum human rights standards in Iraq. Bush has also endorsed the Iraq Liberation Act 1998, in which Congress committed the US to support Iraqi democracy. "I say to my friends, 'The promises the Americans are most likely to keep are the ones they make to each other.' We are not supporting an American invasion. We are supporting a war of liberation." I asked if he expected to be in Baghdad this time next year. Like all who have seen Saddam get away with murdering so many, Chalabi is wary of optimism. "I don't get excited by positive developments. But I think events are moving our way."

The opposition in Arab Iraq lacks the free territory of the Kurds. But as the uprising in 1991 proved, the west, if it wants to get away with replacing one dictator with another, may also need to suppress the Shia and many Sunnis.

The Iraqi leaders I spoke to were obsessed with US intentions but had given up worrying about Britain. All they expressed was a vaguely contemptuous astonishment that, in the torrent of argument about the war, no one was asking what type of Iraq British troops may risk their lives for. Even Kipling accepted that "The silent, sullen peoples/Shall weigh your Gods and you".

The possibilities for democracy are ignored with enormous condescension by British opponents and supporters of the war. The best defence of their self-esteem is to decline the invitation to mount the scales.