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Iraqi Kurds Say U.S. Is Back

Hussein's foes in the north cite renewed cooperation with Washington. Such collaboration could help in war, officials say.

November 12, 2002|Robin Wright | Times Staff Writer

IRBIL, Iraq -- The United States has quietly renewed its covert cooperation with Kurds in northern Iraq, potentially crucial players in any U.S.-led military operation against Baghdad, according to senior Kurdish officials.

Kurdish sources say U.S. intelligence officials are in Kurdish territory on multiple missions, which include doing advance work for a possible attack on Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, establishing a listening post to monitor what is happening in the rest of Iraq and probing the strength and operations of an Islamic extremist group with ties to Al Qaeda.

Washington has promised to protect the Kurds if Hussein should order his troops into their region, the officials say.

"If Saddam Hussein invades the north, the United States will act immediately," said Jalal Talabani, head of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, one of two main Kurdish movements in the north. "Now there is all kinds of cooperation with the United States. Militarily, there is all kinds of cooperation."

The involvement would mark a comeback for the United States, which was forced to withdraw its CIA station from northern Iraq after Hussein invaded in 1996. That offensive also led to the collapse of the north as the headquarters for the U.S.-backed Iraqi opposition coalition. Since then, the CIA and the coalition have operated from outside Iraq.

Some here fear that Hussein might launch a preemptive thrust into the north to divert attention from the renewed effort to make him give up any weapons of mass destruction, leaving the outside world scrambling to respond before it is ready to take him on.

"Every person in Kurdistan has prepared food and medicine and is ready to go to the mountains or the border for fear that Saddam Hussein will move on the north. He can't attack other countries, but he can hit his own people. And he's slaughtered us here more than once before," said Nasreen Mustafa Sadiq, the Harvard-educated minister of reconstruction and development in the Kurds' government.

The renewed U.S.-Kurdish bond illustrates the depth of the Bush administration's intentions to get involved in Iraq and to be prepared militarily. The administration was unable to prepare adequately before the campaign to oust the ruling Taliban in nearby Afghanistan last year.

In Washington, CIA and Pentagon officials said Monday that they could not confirm the reports of increased cooperation with the Kurds or of any new commitments to protect them.

For years, Kurdish leaders have been appealing for guarantees beyond a general statement that Washington would retaliate at a time and a place of its choosing for any strike against the Kurds.

A senior leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party, the other main party, said a "new relationship" with the United States has evolved in the last two months.

"I sincerely believe that U.S. cooperation with the Kurds will be beneficial to both sides," said Kurdish Deputy Prime Minister Sami Abdurrahman.

Much of the north has been protected from Iraqi airstrikes by U.S. and British warplanes enforcing a "no-fly" zone. But the unofficial internal border on the ground is now also considered a "red line" that Hussein may not cross, Kurdish officials say.

"If Saddam violates that red line again, the response will not be mere punishment," said another senior Kurdish leader who spoke on condition of anonymity. "The response would be to annihilate him altogether."

Kurdish leaders expect to hold talks with U.S. officials about deepening their cooperation after a conference of joint Iraqi opposition forces scheduled for Brussels this month. One Kurdish leader said he wants the United States to ensure that it will prevent any outside interference by neighboring nations either during or after any war to oust Hussein.

"We now await guarantees from the United States," said Massoud Barzani, head of the Kurdistan Democratic Party.

Kurds are particularly concerned about Turkey and Iran, and the danger that any move to influence or intervene by either country would lead the other to follow suit.

Northern Kurdistan is important to the United States as a possible entry point for U.S. troops in the event of an invasion of Iraq. In the meantime, it is also the only area where U.S. intelligence can operate freely.

Three airfields -- Harir, east of Irbil; Bakrajo, near Sulaymaniyah; and Bamarni, near Dahuk -- also could be prime facilities for the U.S. military. The three, along with a smaller helicopter and light aircraft facility at Sirsenk, were used by the Iraqi military until 1991. The senior Kurdish leader described the facilities as "ideal" logistically for a military operation against Baghdad.

All four facilities need some degree of upgrading or repairs for a major operation, Kurdish sources say. In the last decade, some of them have been put to use for other purposes, such as driver education courses and outdoor wedding parties.

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