AMMAN, Jordan — Saddam Hussein's Kurdish gambit--an offer of autonomy and democracy--has drawn two knights from Iraqi Kurdistan into the center of the fray, the wheeling-dealing Jalal Talabani and his soft-spoken rival Masoud Barzani.
As the tragedy of the Kurdish refugees plays out across the Turkish and Iranian frontiers, Talabani and Barzani will weigh the risks of a political deal with the man in Baghdad who has bedeviled their people for more than two decades. On their decision ride their standing at the head of the Iraqi Kurds and the prospects for the return of the refugees.
Talabani, head of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, declared last week that he and Hussein had reached agreement in principle. Over the weekend, said Mohammed Tofik, a London spokesman for the PUK, Talabani went north to the Kurdish heartland to discuss the deal with Barzani. The details have not been disclosed.
Tofik told The Times he was cautiously optimistic that Barzani would concur. "If you have a negotiation you have to have compromise," he said. "The problem is becoming deeper and deeper every day."
But no one speaks with flat assurance on what the Kurds will do. After battling Baghdad since the second decade of this century, the tough mountain people are unified on only one demand: They want to preserve their culture. A lot of Kurdish blood has been spilled to make the point.
After the long years of struggle, Talabani and Barzani have risen to carry the cause, two leaders of sharply different styles, the first a Westernized politician and the second a guerrilla commander, a son of Kurdistan's most powerful clan. They are co-leaders of the Iraqi Kurdistan Front, an amalgam of the eight organizations that speak for the country's nearly 4 million Kurds, one-fifth of Iraq's population.
And they watch each other like the hawks that hunt the high valleys and snow-swept mountains of the Zagros and Taurus ranges, the Kurdish homeland of northern Iraq. "There's always an undercurrent" of rivalry, said Vera Beaudin Saeedpour, a Brooklyn-based Kurdish authority. "One isn't going to let the other supersede."
Talabani, 58, is the public face of the movement. Born in a village near the Iranian border, he left the mountains for school in the city of Kirkuk, took a law degree at the University of Baghdad and ran a few newspapers. Politics began early; in his teens he joined the Kurdish Democratic Party, founded by Barzani's father, Mustafa, a legendary warlord who battled Baghdad's authority for nearly five decades and died in exile in the United States in 1977.
Two years earlier, Talabani had broken away from the Democratic Party to form the PUK.
In his book-lined office in Damascus last month, before his return to Iraq, the portly Talabani, dressed in suit and tie and fiddling with his worry beads, whirled like a dervish as he delivered his political message to a handful of American reporters. He's an agitated man.
The phone rang, a journalist calling from London; Talabani spluttered out his latest position on the Kurdish insurgency then rising in his homeland. An aide came in. There was a radio message from Barzani in the mountains. He rattled off a response in Kurdish. "I told him now is the time to move," Talabani said.
He has always been the Kurd on the move, off to London or Washington to carry the cause. He's fought in the mountains himself over the decades, but compared to Barzani, he is a man of politics. Those politics once were Middle East leftist--he courted Egypt's Gamal Abdel Nasser, Algeria's Ahmed Ben Bella and lived for a year in Moscow--but now, observers say, they are more hard-headed.
In the current talks in Baghdad, Talabani's practicality is center stage. "He will get down and deal," said Saeedpour, the Kurdish authority. "He will have political clout in direct proportion to what he gets for the Kurds."
Barzani came by his influence the old-fashioned way. He inherited it. The Barzani clan is the biggest and richest in Iraqi Kurdistan. His father, Mustafa, famed for his resistance to Baghdad's rule, fathered three sons. Idriss succeeded his father as leader but died in Iran two years ago. Ubeydullah crossed over and served Saddam Hussein as a pliant Kurd in charge of government operations in the north.
Masoud, 44, was born in the short-lived Kurdish state of Mahabad, which the Soviets set up in northern Iran at the end of World War II. He was educated in the West and has traveled widely but in recent years has made his headquarters in the rugged mountains where the borders of Iraq, Iran and Turkey converge.
He is the warlord, a reputed expert in intelligence and tactics, but a quiet man. Reporters say Masoud carries a .38-caliber Smith & Wesson pistol strapped to his hip but once told them he had never had to use it. Reporter Hugh Pope, who met Barzani several years ago, describes him as "soft-spoken, gentle," a man who "did not give the impression of being a powerful or authoritarian character."