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Kurdish Eyes on Iraq's Future

Heir of legendary leader sees little for his troops to do if the U.S. invades

November 24, 2002|Robin Wright

Massoud Barzani is a respected military strategist and a survivor who can play all sides of the fence. In the 1980s, Iraqi troops killed three of his brothers, 29 family members and some 8,000 Barzani clansmen. Nevertheless, in 1996, Barzani briefly allied with Saddam Hussein and allowed Iraqi troops into Kurdistan to rout rival Kurdish leader Jalal Talabani and his Iranian backers. A good chunk of Barzani's budget comes from levies on goods smuggled into and out of the rest of Iraq through the northern Kurdistan enclave.

Barzani inherited the leadership of the Kurdistan Democratic Party from his father, the legendary Mulla Mustafa Barzani, the charismatic, dagger-wielding fighter who launched the Kurdish nationalist movement in Iraq and, in 1961, an armed struggle.

The Barzani family history chronicles the repeated U.S. betrayal of the Kurds. After using Kurdish fighters to pressure Baghdad, then-Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger turned around and negotiated a deal between Iran and Iraq in 1975 that let Hussein crush the movement launched by Barzani's father, who was forced into exile. In 1991, after calling for a Kurdish uprising against Baghdad after the Gulf War, the United States allowed Hussein to quash the rebellion, which led to thousands of deaths and more than 1 million Kurds fleeing to the borders with Turkey and Iran. Barzani's headquarters are in Salahuddin, a mountaintop retreat near Irbil.

Question: Do you think the new U.N. resolution renewing weapons inspections in Iraq means war can be avoided? Or do the chances of war now increase?

Answer: The resolution has probably delayed [the war]. I think that the decision about war has already been taken.

Q: Do the Kurds really want a change of government? Kurdistan is the only area of Iraq to thrive since 1991, effectively gaining self-rule [under protection from U.S. and British warplanes] in the northern no-fly zone. You would have to give this up if Iraq is reunified.

A: We want a democratic, federal Iraq. So we welcome whatever achieves this goal.

Q: What role will the Kurds play if there is a war? For example, would you be prepared to allow U.S. troops to use your facilities in Kurdistan?

A: I don't think that the fighting will be in our region, but Americans could come via Kurdistan. We cannot prevent them from doing so.... During a war, I don't think we will be able to offer anything, because there are differences in systems of command, training and ways of fighting.

Q: Is there a role for Kurdish fighters, the peshmerga? Are they the equivalent of Afghanistan's Northern Alliance?

A: It's a mistake to compare the situation here with Afghanistan or to compare the peshmerga with the Northern Alliance. But this is not purely a matter of toppling Saddam Hussein, which is not a difficult job.... The most important thing is what happens after the war. We have proposed, first, that within three months [of a regime change], Iraq establish a federal parliament; and, second, that we have guarantees that the United States would not allow any foreign interference in Iraq or in the Kurdish area. If we are given these guarantees, the Kurds will do their best to cooperate in all possible ways. But if the war is merely to overthrow the regime, and we don't know what lies ahead for the Kurds, why should the Kurds put themselves in a trap?

Q: So you're not satisfied with the U.S. commitment so far?

A: The commitment we have is different from [the one] in the past. There is trust [this time]. What worries me is the lack of transparency and details -- specifically, on the formation of the new government. The United States should respect the will and the desire of the Iraqi people to decide on the formula for a new government. The other issue that worries us is the danger of foreign interference [by a neighboring state].

Q: What is the Kurds' vision of a post-Hussein Iraq?

A: We are opting for a voluntary union. There is no animosity between the Kurds and the Arabs. There are other minorities living here, like the Turkmen and the Assyrians, who are all brothers. We're working for an alternative that is pluralistic and federal. There is a desire and will to preserve the unity and the territorial integrity of this country within the state of Iraq.

Q: One of the most explosive issues of post-Hussein Iraq is the fate of the northern city of Kirkuk. The Kurds' proposed constitution makes Kirkuk their regional capital, which makes Turks nervous because Iraq's Kurds would have strategic and economic power that might inspire Turkey's own restive Kurds. Some Turkish politicians even warn of military intervention if the Kurds take control of Kirkuk. Is there room for compromise on Kirkuk?

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