Biggest Kurd foes are themselves Internecine: There nothing new about a Kurdish faction allying itself with arch foe Saddam Hussein to annihilate a rival Kurdish group. Such alliances historically have spelled disaster for Kurds.

Sun Journal

September 05, 1996|By Ann LoLordo | Ann LoLordo,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

AMMAN, JORDAN — A caption with yesterday's Sun Journal on Page 2A incorrectly identified the leaders of two Kurdish factions. Jalal Talabani of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan was on the left and Massoud Barzani of the Kurdistan Democratic Party was on the right.

The Sun regrets the errors.

Pub Date: 9/06/96

AMMAN, Jordan -- A Kurdish king, born just north of Baghdad, led the holy war that crushed the Crusaders in the 12th century. Today the descendants of the heroic Saladin are locked in a less glorious fight with a too familiar enemy -- themselves.

The fighting this week in northern Iraq has pitted Kurd against Kurd in a classic struggle over power, territory and a lucrative, often illegal, trade that cuts across the northern part of the country. The internecine struggle has for years involved Iraq and Iran, and has since ensnared the United States.

FOR THE RECORD - CORRECTION

Washington this week launched cruise missiles against Iraq to punish it for an assault against the city of Erbil, the stronghold of one of two Kurdish factions -- the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, led by Jalal Talabani. Iraqi troops overran the city at the invitation of that party's longtime rival, the Kurdistan Democratic Party, led by Massoud Barzani.

It is not the first time one or another Kurdish faction has allied itself with Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

But the alliance has always brought the Kurds disaster. Hussein has tolerated the Kurds' quest for independence only when that served to destabilize neighboring Iran or Turkey -- as when other problems were more pressing, such as during the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s.

Tried to crush them

And as soon as those other problems were resolved, Hussein turned his attention to trying to crush the Kurds.

In the late 1980s, Hussein used chemical weapons against them. In 1991, after his war with the United States over Kuwait, his troops moved north to counter a Kurdish rebellion.

In response, the United States, Britain and France declared the territory north of the 36th parallel a "no fly" zone for Iraqi aircraft, in an attempt to protect hundreds of thousands of Kurds who were fleeing north.

Throughout the region, the Kurdish people have suffered under repressive governments. In Iran, Kurdish resistance fighters battled the regime of the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini over issues of cultural freedom and self-rule.

In Turkey, the Kurds have sometimes been forbidden to speak their language or wear traditional dress. Kurdish activists have been imprisoned or killed; villages have been destroyed.

Eastern Turkey was part of the physical and spiritual home of the Kurds, and it was there that Kurdish rebels began to fight back. In the mid-1980s, the Kurdish Workers Party (known by its Turkish acronym, PKK) began its own campaign of terror. More than 20,000 people have died in 12 years of fighting between the PKK and the Turkish army.

In Iraq, the roots of today's Kurdish struggle began shortly after the founding of the state in 1921. The Kurdish leaders were Mustafa Barzani and his brother Ahmad, who led their people in battles with the government.

But it wasn't until the early 1960s, after Mustafa Barzani's return from exile in the Soviet Union, that guerrilla forces formed "a liberation zone" in the northeast part of the country.

In the 1970s, Barzani led a failed rebellion. The Kurdish people then divided their loyalties between Barzani's Kurdistan Democratic Party and the break-away Patriotic Union.

Before his death in 1979, Barzani declared: "I am a failure."

It is Barzani's son, Massoud, who now leads the Kurdistan Democratic Party, and who called for help from Hussein.

Agreed to share power

The two Kurdish groups had seemed to find a way to co-exist, beginning in 1991 when elections were held in the U.S.-protected enclave in northern Iraq. The vote split almost evenly between the two factions, so they agreed to share power. But the arrangement disintegrated by mid-1994.

"When they aren't fighting against Baghdad," says a diplomat in Amman, Jordan's capital, "they are often fighting among themselves."

In March, the two factions agreed to a cease-fire. It lasted until August, when fighting erupted over control of the Hamilton Road, a thoroughfare that crosses most of the key Kurdish cities and continues to the Iranian border.

Their struggle over the road is a struggle over money, and thus power. Their main source of income was the "tax" collected on vehicles traveling the Hamilton Road -- from Turkey to Iraq to Iran and back, often with smuggled goods. During the temporary peace, the revenues apparently were shared.

"Talabani says that Barzani is collecting these revenues because his party controls the border points and that he is in contact with Baghdad in an attempt to get rid of him," wrote Mohammad Zuhair Diab of the London-based, pro-Iraqi daily al-Arab. "Barzani in turn accuses Talabani of conspiring with Iran to get rid of him."

Credibility undermined

Leaders of a key Iraqi opposition group, the Iraqi National Congress, say that Barzani's alliance with Saddam Hussein undermines his credibility. "Iraqi President Saddam Hussein is the first enemy of the Kurdish people," says Ganim Jawad, who heads the London-based group's human rights section.

Iraq isn't the only government that has involved itself in this struggle. Both Iran and Turkey have made forays into the region. Turkish forces have pursued Kurdish rebels into northern Iraq; Iran has reportedly made similar forays.

And in all three countries the Kurds' standing remains unchanged -- as a minority in a desperate search for allies.

Pub Date: 9/05/96

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