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Iraq's Wary Kurds Wonder What Washington Has in Mind

Mideast: Key opposition group sees both oppor- tunity and danger in any bid to topple Hussein.


IRBIL, Iraq — Long before terrorist-piloted passenger jets slammed into the Word Trade Center, Sept. 11 was a tragic watershed for Iraq's rebellious Kurds.

On the same day in 1961, Iraqi air force jets began raining bombs across northern Iraq, flattening thousands of Kurdish villages and killing many more Iraqi Kurds in a campaign of brutal repression that lasted with few pauses until President Saddam Hussein's defeat in the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

Today, amid speculation that America's post-Sept. 11 war on terrorism will target Hussein next, Iraqi Kurdish leaders see both opportunities and dangers for their people.

"We are going through a crucial period in our history," said Massoud Barzani, leader of the stronger of the two rival Kurdish factions that have controlled northern Iraq for more than a decade.

With 50,000 men in arms and control of an area roughly 16,000 square miles, the Iraqi Kurds are the strongest opposition group in the country. U.S. officials acknowledge that the group would be likely to play a substantial role in any effort to overthrow Hussein's regime. Kurdish leaders say their support would come at a price.

"We will not drag our people into any operation that does not guarantee their rights as equal citizens within a federally administered, democratic Iraq," Barzani said in a recent interview at his sprawling, hilltop headquarters overlooking this Kurdish-controlled city.

Barzani had just returned from secret talks with U.S. officials in Germany, where he was joined by his archrival, Kurdish warlord Jalal Talabani, who controls the eastern section of the Kurdish enclave, to discuss the Kurds' potential role.

Barzani declined to give details of the talks. Faced with traditionally hostile neighbors--Turkey, Syria and Iran, all of which have restive Kurdish minorities--and with Hussein's tanks positioned at strategic points around the Kurdish enclave, Barzani would say only that he and about 3.6 million Kurds remain vulnerable and are wary of U.S. intentions.

Recent reports from Washington claiming that the Bush administration has shelved plans to overthrow the Iraqi leader have only served to deepen the Kurds' misgivings. "We were being served attack scenarios for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and now this," said Sami Abdurrahman, a senior Barzani aide. "It is not clear what the U.S. wants."

Memories of the time that Washington encouraged them to rise up against Hussein at the end of the Gulf War, and the United States' failure to intervene when the Iraqi leader's remaining forces retaliated, haunt many Kurds.

Fleeing Iraqi troops, more than 1.5 million Iraqi Kurds massed along the bitterly cold mountains separating Iraq from Turkey and Iran. Television images of their plight prompted an international outcry. Soon after, the U.S. and allies Britain and France declared a "no-fly" zone over the Kurdish north.

"At the end of the Gulf War, the Kurds stuck their heads above the parapet and got it shot off," said a Western diplomat who watches the Kurds closely and spoke on condition of anonymity.

Few Iraqi Kurds conceal their bitterness over the fact that they have come to the world's attention again "only because the Americans need us," as Jano Rojbeiani, a Kurdish American film director, put it.

Rojbeiani was in Irbil to promote his new film about the effects of a 1988 chemical attack by Iraqi forces against Kurdish civilians in the town of Halabjah, which killed more than 4,000 people. At the time, he said, "Saddam was not a demon but an American ally against Iran. Nobody cared about the Kurds then."

Yet most Iraqi Kurds readily acknowledge that they owe their unprecedented security of the last decade to allied air protection. Under that shield, and with their share of funds from the United Nations' Iraqi oil-for-food program, the Kurds have been steadily rebuilding their war-shattered region.

They have freedoms unseen elsewhere across Middle Eastern dictatorships, albeit under firm, one-party rule. Ethnic and religious minorities can set up their own parties, radio and television channels, and publish newspapers and run schools.

"Nobody forces me to do military service here. I'm all in favor of Kurdish independence," said Hasan Krani Fettah, a 19-year-old English-language student at the local university, airing a sentiment that is shared by many Iraqi Kurds but dismissed as unrealistic by their leaders.

Kurdish leaders have been expanding contacts with the majority Shiite and Sunni Iraqi opposition groups in a bid to present a united front in their talks with the Bush administration.

Representatives from these groups are set to travel to Washington this month for meetings at which Kurdish leaders say they will discuss possible blueprints for a future Iraqi regime.

The administration, however, is unlikely to support Kurdish demands for an independent government loosely linked with Baghdad.

"Yes, we do support regime change, but the Kurds need to work out details with their fellow Iraqis," said a U.S. official who spoke on condition of anonymity. Another reason is that Turkey, a strategic U.S. ally that has long fought a Kurdish insurgency, has threatened to intervene militarily should the Iraqi Kurds show any signs of breaking away from Baghdad.

U.S. and British warplanes enforcing the Kurdish no-fly zone take off from the Incirlik base in southern Turkey. Allied aircraft used Incirlik as a launching pad during bombing raids against Iraqi targets during the Gulf War. The United States sees Turkey's cooperation as vital to any military effort to topple Hussein.

Nechirvan Barzani, who is in charge of running the slice of Iraqi Kurdistan controlled by his uncle Massoud Barzani, said: "The longer the Americans are talking about overthrowing Saddam and not doing it, the greater the likelihood of Saddam attacking us Kurds first. That is the greatest risk of all."

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