U.S. to mediate conflict between Kurdish factions Revival of opposition to Iraqi regime is goal of scheduled meeting

September 06, 1998|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

ANKARA, Turkey -- Hoping to help rebuild an opposition movement in Iraq, the Clinton administration is bringing the leaders of two rival Iraqi Kurdish factions to Washington for face-to-face talks aimed at ending their military conflict.

A meeting between Massoud Barzani of the Kurdistan Democratic Party and Jalal Talabani of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan is expected to take place within the next two weeks. The U.S. effort comes amid concern that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein may be ready to use force to reassert his rule over Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq.

"I am going to find out what exactly the Americans have in mind for the [Iraqi] opposition," a skeptical Barzani said yesterday during a stopover in Ankara en route to Washington, where he is scheduled to arrive today for talks with U.S. officials.

"If the Americans want to use us merely as a pressure card against Iraq, I will never allow that," he said. "We want ironclad guarantees that the Americans will protect us against any form of Iraqi aggression. If they have a realistic plan for the opposition that foresees the establishment of a Kurdish federation within Iraq's existing borders, we will consider it."

Barzani said he was hopeful that a meeting with his bitter rival, Talabani, who is due in Washington on Sept. 14, will help revive a power-sharing arrangement that collapsed four years ago.

An official involved in the visit confirmed that "fresh strategies to revive the Iraqi opposition will be very much on the agenda."

"But there is no question of dismembering Iraq," he said.

On Tuesday, the Senate moved to bolster Iraq's "democratic opposition" movement with $10 million in U.S. assistance. The rival Kurdish leaders are a key part of that movement.

"Without the full collaboration of the Kurds, the Iraqi opposition becomes meaningless," an Arab diplomat in Ankara said.

Barzani's and Talabani's forces have controlled northern Iraq since the end of the 1991 Persian Gulf war, when the United States and its allies declared a "no-fly" zone north of the 36th parallel. The Kurdish "haven," protected by U.S., British and Turkish fighter planes based in southern Turkey, is an essential element of Washington's strategy of "containment" of Hussein.

The two Kurdish factions shelved their long-standing rivalry and joined forces in a postwar regional administration. A CIA-backed armed Iraqi opposition movement -- the Iraqi National Congress -- began operating from Kurdish territory, grouping Sunni and Shiite Muslims with Christian Arab foes of Hussein's regime.

But by 1994, Barzani's and Talabani's factions were back at war, each claiming their man was the Kurds' true leader. The fighting has claimed more than 3,000 lives.

The opposition movement was effectively shattered in August 1996, when Barzani invited Iraqi troops into the enclave to help him oust Talabani's Iranian-backed forces from Irbil, the regional capital. Hussein seized the opportunity to slaughter hundreds of opposition troops before withdrawing his forces.

Barzani's betrayal prompted Washington to withdraw its military officers and other personnel from the enclave.

The Kurdish rivals' decision to travel to Washington for their first meeting in four years has "less to do with successful U.S. diplomacy than with growing fears on both sides that Saddam will attack [the Kurds] again," said an Iraqi opposition official in London.

Pub Date: 9/06/98

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