WASHINGTON -- Kurds in northern Iraq have created a quasi-democratic, somewhat prosperous life under the protection of U.S. jets patrolling a no-fly zone and keeping Saddam Hussein's tanks away.
But faced with the question of whether that democracy could flower elsewhere in Iraq if the United States launched an invasion to topple Saddam, many Kurds are leery.
They worry that any U.S. military action in Iraq could just lead to a backlash against them by Saddam, who gassed Kurdish villages in the 1980s.
Even if Saddam were toppled, they could just end up with another dictator in Baghdad or -- even worse -- invasions by Iran or Turkey, said several who attended a meeting this weekend in Washington on prospects for democracy in Iraq.
Before they support any U.S. efforts to overthrow Saddam, the Kurds want guarantees that the United States would not stop until Saddam was overthrown, and that they would have a role in any future central Iraqi government, said Mahmood Osman, a Kurdish politician who lives in London.
"They cannot destroy all their gains, and give more sacrifices," he said at the conference, sponsored by the human rights group Freedom House and the Iraq Institute for Democracy, an organization based in Irbil in the Kurdish north of Iraq.
Much of the debate in the United States over how to deal with Saddam has focused on how to overthrow him, what opposition groups the United States might work with and whether a military invasion is too risky. President Bush has made clear his desire to see Saddam toppled, but has not said how he might do that. Some officials in his administration advocate military action, some covert action, others continued diplomatic efforts.
But the concerns raised at the conference here point to another problem: How to ensure a stable government once Saddam is gone -- a government that's agreeable to Iraq's neighbors and provides a better life for Iraqis, even minority groups.
"Removing Saddam will be opening a Pandora's box, and there might not be any easy way to close it back up," said Philip Gordon, a military analyst at the Brookings Institution in Washington.
Neighboring Turkey, a U.S. ally, fears that any Kurdish freedom in Iraq, for example, would encourage restive Kurdish minorities in their territory. Iran has the same concern.
Many regional governments don't really want a democratic northern Iraq under Kurdish rule, or even a democratic Iraq overall, said Fuad Hussein, an Iraqi who lives in the Netherlands.
He and others at the conference said they believed the Kurdish autonomy in the north could serve as a potential model for Iraqis seeking democracy in the country as a whole, if Saddam were toppled.
But the problem is that Iraqis have been so conditioned to fear Saddam's harsh regime that their very mindset must first be changed, said Laith Kubba, an Iraqi expatriate who works for the National Endowment for Democracy in the United States.
"Iraqis in the last 30 years have been conditioned not to participate, to live in fear," Kubba said.
There has been much debate within the United States over whether opposition groups, members of the Iraqi military or even ordinary Iraqis would rise up against Saddam if it were clear that U.S. help was coming.
Leaders of the two main Kurdish parties in northern Iraq met with U.S. officials a few weeks ago to talk about ways to remove Saddam from power, according to Iraqi dissidents.
Some U.S. officials believe another group called the Iraqi National Congress, which also includes some former Iraqi military officers, would be able to foment rebellion, but others call the group inept.
As for the Kurds, Saddam already has moved tanks closer to them, said Vince Cannistraro, a former CIA counterterrorism chief.
The Kurdish-run zone was established with the help of Washington and its allies after Saddam brutally put down the 1991 Kurdish uprising that broke out after the Gulf War.
The region has an incipient democracy with several political parties and newspapers, said Hussain Sinjari, president of the Iraq Institute for Democracy. Criticism of the Kurdish administration is somewhat tolerated and the region's economy is doing well. The two main Kurdish parties, however, remain antagonistic, leaving the region partitioned.
The Iraqi Kurds quite rightly worry that prosperity, peace and autonomy would be in jeopardy if Saddam is attacked, Cannistraro said.
"It's pretty clear that no one is going to rise up and revolt against Saddam until they see his dead body on the ground," he said.
On the Net:
Freedom House: http://www.freedomhouse.org/
Iraq Institute for Democracy: http://www.iraq-democracy.org/