Chaos, recriminations hinder Iraq opposition

Plans for historic meeting in Kurdish territory go awry amid suspicion

February 25, 2003|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

NUSAYBIN, Turkey - The nearly deserted Nezirhan Hotel, which bills itself as a "unique tourism complex," has seen better times. And thanks to Saddam Hussein, it hopes to see them again soon.

Just last week, said Mehmet Devrimci, one of three brothers who own the hotel, a United Nations representative dropped by to negotiate room and board for the staff of some of its relief agencies in northern Iraq.

Others have inquired whether there is space in his 72-room inn, complete with its half-size Olympic swimming pool, now empty, a sports complex with tennis and basketball courts and a full track, a sauna and Turkish bath for 200.

And then there are still "other" inquiries, Devrimci said mysteriously, declining to elaborate.

Workers at his hotel say he was referring to a U.S. military officer who visited this hotel three days ago to inquire about "space" here, and in particular, the Turkish bath.

"Soldiers get dirty," one hotel worker whispered.

Devrimci acknowledges that his hopes might be crushed yet again. "I've been waiting for 13 years," he said, referring to 1990, when the Turks ruined his business by closing the road that links this part of southeastern Turkey to Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq.

Cooperation falters

Just down the road yesterday, indications of how badly things can go awry emerged yet again.

An effort to showcase cooperation between Turkey and the Kurdish parties in northern Iraq ended in the chaos and recriminations that have typified so many aspects of behavior on all sides as they anticipate Saddam's ouster.

About 150 foreign journalists who were hoping to cover the first meeting of the Iraqi opposition on Iraqi soil in nearly a decade were loaded onto six buses bound for the border.

Seven miles from the promised land, a lone Turkish soldier with a rifle slung across his chest blocked the road and ordered the buses to return to Salopi, a nearby border town.

The reasons were unclear, and the recriminations among reputed allies against Hussein were bitter.

Kurdish officials accused the Turkish government of organizing the media tour as a subterfuge for allowing Turkish special forces, disguised as media guides, to enter the region.

"We will not allow any Turkish government buses to cross our territory," Fawzi Hariri, a spokesman for the Kurdistan Democratic Party, told the dejected reporters by telephone.

"We don't want you used as a pretext for any intervention in our region."

The Kurdish leaders insisted that the meeting would take place today, as planned, but without the Turkish media guides and their journalist wards.

Turkish officials, for their part, dismissed Kurdish claims with disdain. "Whatever the KDP says doesn't matter," said Unal Cakici, subgovernor of Silopi. The meeting, he announced, had been postponed until Friday at the earliest.

In other parts of Turkey, rumors spread quickly that the conference had to be delayed because of the absence of the small American delegation led by Zalmay Khalilzad, President Bush's special envoy to the Iraqi opposition.

A White House spokesman said he could not discuss Khalilzad's whereabouts for security reasons. But several U.S. officials said Khalilzad had been lining up prospective new members of an advisory council that the Americans want the dissidents to create at the meeting to involve Iraqis in a post-Hussein government.

Khalilzad was seen yesterday in Ankara, said one U.S. official.

The not-so-diplomatic contretemps intensified the confusion at what was supposed to be the historic gathering of Iraqi dissidents in Salahuddin. In northern Iraq, the Kurdish representatives and Ahmad Chalabi, the leader of the Iraqi National Congress, the dissident umbrella group, were trying to ensure that the 60 or so delegates to the opposition meeting did not begin quarreling as they awaited the opening.

U.S. delegation

On Saturday, Chalabi said they had convened a meeting to discuss whether their formal meeting should begin without the American delegation, the dissidents' patron.

Meanwhile, they spent hours on satellite phones trying to get more of their own allies and equipment into northern Iraq. Although Turkey is officially committed to permitting journalists to attend a dissident meeting in northern Iraq, neither Iran nor Syria seems inclined to open its borders.

Some diplomats joined the Kurds in cautioning the United States about permitting the Turks to enter northern Iraq.

Turkish forces in Iraq, one diplomat warned, even with the newly devised military "understandings" between Washington and Ankara, might lead Iraqis and other Arabs to fear the dismemberment of their country.

The Western diplomat who was tracking Khalilzad sightings said he was not alarmed by such warnings or the current squabbling and jockeying among anti-Hussein allies. Yet even he saw little harmony ahead. "We're going to have some interesting times," he said.

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