IRBIL, Iraq – Two U.S. senators spoke with Kurdish politicians and victims of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's regime in Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq on Saturday, a move that Kurds say shows how vital they will be in mapping out the future of Iraq.
The trip is the highest-level American visit to the autonomous area since it was set up after the 1991 Gulf War.
Outgoing Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., and Sen. Chuck Hagel, a Nebraska Republican and fellow committee member, assured the Kurds that the United States, which patrols the skies above the Kurdish areas, would not forget them in planning for a government after the ousting of Saddam.
The pair also will travel to Qatar, which could be the U.S. military headquarters for a possible war because of its proximity to Iraq.
"We will stand with you in your effort to build a united Iraq," Biden told the 105-member Kurdish parliament on the last day of Eid al-Fitr, a three-day celebration marking the end of Islamic holy month of Ramadan.
Hagel said that for many Americans, "the threat from Iraq's weapons programs remains in the realm of intelligence assessments and speculation."
"For you, it is your living past, a tragic part of your heroic story," he said, referring to Saddam's use of poison gas that killed 5,000 Iraqi Kurds in Halabja during the war against Iran in 1988. "It cannot be your future."
The senators also met with about 200 wives, mothers and daughters of some of the estimated 180,000 Kurdish men who allegedly disappeared during rule by Saddam's Baath party in the 1980s. Some held fading framed photographs of young men.
"They surrounded the house and ordered all the men to come out," said Ghorbat Mohammad Ahmed, 40, whose husband disappeared nearly 20 years ago. "My only hope and wish in life is to find him and at least see if he's dead or alive."
The lawmakers said that any post-Saddam government would have to address the suffering of the Baghdad regime's victims.
"People have to be accountable for these crimes," Hagel said.
Biden and Hagel said their visit doesn't signal any policy shift toward the Kurds, whose 70,000 fighters and opposition to the Baghdad regime make them natural allies in any war against Saddam.
Kurdish nationalism worries neighboring Turkey, a key U.S. ally, which is winding down its own 15-year war against Kurdish separatists in the southeast of the country. Turkey's public opposition to the Iraqi Kurds' desire for self-rule within a federal Iraq appear to have subsided in recent weeks after the election of a new government in Ankara.
The senators arrived Friday night after crossing the Turkish border 130 miles to the north. Senate staffers laid the groundwork for the trip in a discreet one-week visit a month ago.
Biden described the visit, part of a six-country tour, as a "fact-finding mission" to see if the Kurds would "help or hinder" U.S. plans for a post-Saddam Iraq.
Biden and Hagel also visited the Benislawa refugee camp, home to about 120,000 Kurds forced from their homes in Kirkuk, which is controlled by Saddam's forces. The Iraqi government has been pressuring non-Arabs to leave the city.
"The government threatened to expel us unless we registered as Arabs instead of Kurds," Nawal Ali Qader told the senators. "That's something we would never do. So they expelled us from Kirkuk, the heart of Kurdistan."
Biden told relief organizations that although war with Iraq is not inevitable, they should make plans in case the fighting swells the ranks of refugees.
"If there is a war, it will be a significant one," Biden said. "The American military will not arrive empty-handed."
Relations between the Kurds and the United States were strained during a 1994-1998 civil war. The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan accepted the backing of Iran and the Kurdistan Democratic Party sought help from Saddam at the peak of fighting. The Kurdistan parliament fully reconvened two months ago for the first time since the outbreak of fighting.
"In all past wars there have been many betrayals. What is important here is that we move forward and not look back," Hagel said.
The Kurdish autonomous area was established following an aborted uprising against Saddam at the end of the 1990-1991 Persian Gulf War. While the Iraqi army crushed the revolt, the northern area with nearly 4 million people remained out of Saddam's grasp, protected by U.S. and British aircraft.
Meanwhile, in other news, Central Command Chief General Tommy Franks arrived in Qatar on Friday for war games at the As Saliyah base called "Internal Look." It's designed to evaluate Centcom's ability to fight a war from its mobile headquarters in Qatar.
Franks arrived at the Al Udeid airbase first, then went directly to As Saliyah where the Centcom headquarters is located. He immediately began a series of meetings and briefings on the exercise and he will spend the weekend with his battle staff preparing and doing full walk-throughs of the exercise.
"Internal Look," a computer simulated attack, begins Monday and will last one week. It will involve using As Saliyah as the headquarters and troops will practice communicating with air, ground and sea commanders in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Bahrain. Franks will conduct the exercise as if he were running a war.
He and other top battle planners will spend seven to 10 days using computers to playing the sophisticated, multi-player game, which is designed to test their ability to communicate, coordinate and react to a realistic -- but fictitious -- battle scenario with thousands of players around the world.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.