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Iraqi Kurdish Groups Set Aside Dispute, to Turkey's Dismay

Pact: Hussein's northern neighbor fears a wave of separatism, but the U.S. hails the peace move.


ANKARA, Turkey — Rival Kurdish factions in northern Iraq, seen as important allies in the event of a Bush administration campaign against Saddam Hussein, took a major step Friday toward shelving decades of fratricidal feuding.

The Kurdish parliament based in the Iraqi city of Irbil unanimously approved a U.S.-brokered peace agreement formally ending more than six years of war between Massoud Barzani's Kurdistan Democratic Party and Jalal Talabani's Patriotic Union of Kurdistan.

"This is a very special day for the Kurdish people," said Iraqi Kurdish politician Hoshyar Zebari. "It will mean burying discord and disunity and turning a new leaf of harmony and prosperity."

Reconciliation between the Kurdish factions, who together command about 50,000 fighters, is good news for U.S. war planners. Signaling U.S. support, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell sent a message that was read at Friday's legislative session. Powell said the U.S. shares the Kurds' vision of a "democratic, pluralistic and united Iraq."

However, Washington's enthusiasm is not shared by a key ally, Turkey.

Although the Iraqi Kurds have called independence unrealistic, Turkish officials still believe it is their goal. The Kurdish parliament's decision to debate a draft constitution under which the Iraqi Kurds would maintain only a loose federation with the central authority in Baghdad is likely to reinforce Turkey's view.

Turkey's hawkish military has threatened to intervene should Iraqi Kurds seek independence, because it fears that such a move would reignite separatist sentiment among an estimated 12 million Turkish Kurds. Several thousand Turkish troops who were deployed to hunt down guerrillas fighting to carve a Kurdish state out of Turkish territory remain in northern Iraq, even though the Kurds ended their rebellion after the capture of their leader, Abdullah Ocalan, in 1999.

Iraqi Kurds have controlled a chunk of northern Iraq since their failed rebellion against the Iraqi president at the end of the 1991 Persian Gulf War. A "no-fly" zone was established to protect about 3.5 million Iraqi Kurds against possible attack from Hussein's forces. U.S. and British warplanes enforcing the no-fly zone are stationed at the Incirlik air base in Turkey.

The Iraqi Kurds have succeeded in rebuilding their shattered region and, after decades of oppression under successive Iraqi governments, are enjoying freedoms such as elections and parliamentary representation.

The parliament was formed after Iraqi Kurds held their first free elections in 1992. But the chamber ceased to function after civil war erupted between the two Kurdish groups over power-sharing and revenues from a once lucrative fuel trade between Iraq and Turkey that passed through their territory.

Turkey froze the trade in January because it feared that the Kurds were using the money to build a state. Turkey's action had the effect of removing one of the biggest reasons for the dispute between the Kurdish factions. Barzani's faction controls the mountainous land along the Turkish border and therefore monopolized the trade. Talabani long complained of not receiving a fair share.

Turkey's prime minster, Bulent Ecevit, said Thursday that Turkey hoped the Kurdish assembly would not be promoted as the parliament of an independent state.

"If they go over the limit, Turkey will take necessary countermeasures," he said.

"The Kurds must not forget that their security remains in our hands," said a Turkish official who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Turkey is the only member of the North Atlantic Treat Organization that is predominantly Muslim. It played a pivotal role in the Gulf War and is expected to be a key player if there is another war against Iraq. But Turkish leaders say their country will not take part in any action that would result in the dismemberment of Iraq.

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