http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/9629606/site/newsweek/ Friends in the Mountains Northern Iraq is a stable land where people love America and Americans. So why doesn't the U.S. military make itself at home? By Babak Dehghanpisheh and Christopher Dickey Newsweek Oct. 17, 2005 issue - For a brief spell last year, small groups of American soldiers fresh off the battlefields of Fallujah and Samarra got a chance to rest and relax at the Jiyan Hotel in the highlands of Iraq. They could swim laps, play tennis, shoot pool and generally just chill as they looked out on the dramatic snow-covered peaks that have always been the refuge of the Kurds. ("We have no friends but the mountains" is a well-known Kurdish proverb.) Kids mobbed the soldiers, asking for candy; adults began every conversation with "My friend." Indeed, there are few places anywhere in the world these days where American troops get a warmer welcome. When you hear that Iraqis are sick of the U.S. occupation, remember the Kurds. They love the U.S.A. They want these American occupiers, and really do think of them as liberators. Top Kurdish officials have practically begged the U.S. military to make itself at home in their land. "I do not ask that Americans build bases in KurdistanI demand it," says Abdel Beg Perwani, a Kurdish member of Iraq's Parliament and deputy head of the defense committee. It gets better: Kurdistan is the one area of Iraq that's stable and prosperous. "People feel good," says Stafford Clarry, an adviser to the regional government who previously worked for the United Nations. "It's just money, money, money." With the approach of a referendum on Iraq's national constitution on Oct. 15, bombs were going off to the south in Baghdad, Taji and Al Hillah, killing scores of people and wounding hundreds. But the Kurds were in a festive mood. "It's going to be embarrassing," says Clarry of the referendum. In Kurdistan, "there's probably going to be a 97 percent turnout." So why are U.S. soldiers rare sights in the Kurdish north? In part, it's because they're not needed. Kurdish troops known as peshmerga are responsible for keeping order, and do. Yet soldiers don't even go to the Jiyan Hotel anymore for R&R; they go to Kuwait and Qatar instead. And you might think the Americans could use a base in a stable area, if only to focus a little attention there. So what gives? The answer goes a long way toward explaining the delicacy of the U.S. position. America can't afford to accept the offers of its friends in Iraq any more than it can bow to the demands of its enemiesat least not yet. Very quietly, some tentative planning for American installations in Kurdistan is underway. One site under consideration is the military zone that houses Erbil International Airport. According to the civilian facility's general director, Zaid Zwain, a "large team" from the American military "came to do a security assessment" last April. Harry Schute, who was in charge of an Army civil-affairs unit in northern Iraq until June last year, says that Kurdish leaders have also offered basing facilities at the old Harir air base north of Erbil. "You have a spot that's right in the thick of things, but that spot is secure and the people are friendly," says Schute. A senior Coalition official, who would speak only on condition that he not be further identified, says the planning is part of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's global strategy to build small, forward bases and to support "islands of stability" in potentially troubled regions. The Kurds' proffered hospitality is not altruistic. They have a long history of being massacred by their neighbors and betrayed by their friends (including the United States). Since 1991, however, the Americans have provided fairly consistent protection, and the Kurds have developed their economy and their fledgling democracy. Since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003, many have dared to dream of an even closer alliance that would serve to protect them further. That's probably more of a commitment than the United States wants to make at this point. For starters, it would further anger and alienate the Shiite and Sunni Arabs of Iraq, and imperil any hopes of building an effective national government. Iraq's neighbors would be equally wary. Iran wouldn't look kindly on U.S. bases anywhere on its borders, and already has concerns about unrest stirred among its Kurds by the satellite TV stations broadcasting from northern Iraq. Turkey, itself a close U.S. ally, has opposed every increment in Iraqi Kurdish autonomy, fearing Kurds in Turkey would make the same demands. Iraq's Kurds are not relying solely on the U.S. for their security. Since the fall of Saddam, more than $800 million worth of construction contracts have been given out to Turkish companies. Yet tens of thousands of Turkish troops remain positioned near the border, and Ankara continues to press Washington to do something about Kurdish rebels operating from northern Iraq. So far, the U.S. military has shied away from that. But the United States may have to act if it wants to get Ankara's blessing to build bases in Turkey's backyard. As Kurdistan cultivates its image of tranquillity, launching a TV ad campaign next month beckoning investors to "Kurdistan, the Other Iraq," the temptation for the American military is bound to grow. "If you think about a withdrawal strategy, it would make a lot of sense," says Peter Galbraith, a former American ambassador who advises the Kurdish leadership. U.S. forces could still deploy quickly and effectively from Kurdish areas, but wouldn't be an in-your-face incitement to resentful Sunni or Shiite Arabs. And they'd be staying the course, still inside the country. "If you get out of Iraq completely," says Galbraith, "you'll never go back." Until then, it seems, the United States has no better friends than the Kurds in their mountains.