WASHINGTON — For the United States, Masoud Barzani committed the ultimate betrayal last month. The Kurdish warlord, with whom U.S. officials renewed high-level contact Wednesday, sold out to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein after years and millions of dollars worth of American support--more than any other Iraqi opposition leader.
His relationship with the United States was so close that the CIA station was based on Barzani's turf. His security force provided U.S. agents with protection and critical intelligence, say Iraqi dissidents who worked with him.
Covert operations were often launched from Barzani's territory--including a U.S.-orchestrated drone airdrop of anti-Hussein leaflets over the capital on the Iraqi president's birthday in 1994.
So when Barzani balked at a U.S.-orchestrated cease-fire with his rival last month and, just days after his 50th birthday, led Hussein's troops in a sweep across the 36th parallel into the U.S.-declared Kurdish haven in northern Iraq, furious Clinton administration officials used terms such as "quisling" and "traitor" to describe him.
Yet, as one part of an attempt to salvage U.S. policy, Washington has again turned to Barzani, whose life and policies are full of contradictions.
Assistant Secretary of State Robert Pelletreau traveled to the Turkish capital, Ankara, to meet Barzani on Wednesday--and to try to win him back.
"Our strong advice to the Kurdistan Democratic Party is to forgo an alliance with Saddam Hussein," State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns said Wednesday. "We'd like to see the Kurdish factions sit down and negotiate their differences."
Initial signs were upbeat. Barzani, who inherited power through the wealthiest Kurdish clan and who usually dons a red-and-white turban and baggy trousers despite years in the West, declared this week that his alliance with Hussein was never meant to be permanent.
In a letter to Secretary of State Warren Christopher, he wrote that the KDP has "always stood by American initiatives for a peaceful settlement in Iraqi Kurdistan."
And he now welcomes the resumption of "Operation Provide Comfort," said Fahad Barzani, his nephew and the KDP representative in Washington.
After the Ankara talks, Burns described the meeting as productive and "a good first step" in discussions about ways to restore peace and stability in Iraq.
Such a turn of events--opposing Hussein, then embracing him, then turning away again--is remarkable, given the Iraqi dictator's well-documented practice of eliminating those who betray him.
Yet Barzani survives, almost certainly because he has a power base that Hussein would not want to enrage. But pulling Barzani back completely into the U.S. orbit will not be easy, for the relationship between Washington and the Barzani family has, at best, been rocky.
"Barzani never trusted us from Day One," a senior administration official said. "He has always felt that the Kurds were a small people who will be betrayed by the great powers forever."
Barzani's cynicism was evident at a 1991 White House meeting, when Bush administration National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft told Barzani and his rival, Patriotic Union of Kurdistan leader Jalal Talabani, that Washington would not again abandon the Kurds, said others who were present.
Scowcroft was referring to a U.S., Israeli and Iranian pact to abandon the Kurdish movement and its anti-Baghdad campaign to support a peace treaty between Iran and Iraq in 1975. The Kurds fragmented thereafter: Talabani, whose family was the tribal rival of the Barzanis, went off and formed the PUK--and planted the seeds of formal political conflict.
Talabani came out of the 1975 session impressed with the U.S. commitment. Barzani was subdued.
"He was amazed at our excitement," a PUK official recalled Wednesday. "He said, 'My father used to say the sound of the chicken is not as sweet as the meat.' "
The two Kurdish leaders received essentially the same commitment in 1993 talks with Vice President Al Gore.
But today, Barzani is even more skeptical after five years of what he views as a U.S. sellout, said aides, allies and family friends.
Barzani is said to believe that Washington, because of other regional interests, is unprepared to really help the Kurds achieve their goal of their own homeland. Turkey, Iran and Iraq--all with substantial Kurdish populations--have resisted efforts to create a Kurdish state.
Barzani was also angered by U.S. policy: While he appreciated U.S. humanitarian aid from Operation Provide Comfort, he could not understand why Washington would not lift economic sanctions on the Kurds; they faced worse restrictions than the Iraqis--who suffered under international sanctions after the 1991 Persian Gulf War--because the Kurds were also sanctioned by Baghdad.
Barzani's coolness may also stem from his background.