SALAHUDDIN, IRAQ — THE blast left a crater more than 10 feet across, where a pool of water stagnates in a tangle of concrete.
When the bomb detonated last November in Salahuddin, more than two-dozen people were killed as it demolished the office of an opposition group struggling to topple Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. The group had received covert funding from the CIA, Western sources say.
For most of the 3.5 million Kurds living in northern Iraq, who have been protected from Saddam since the end of the Gulf war by a US-led operation, this blast was just one in a string of mysterious attacks aimed at keeping them divided.
As a US delegation travels to northern Iraq this week to mediate peace between two Kurdish factions there, new details are emerging that connect the blast to clandestine CIA activities. Coupled with fresh revelations about how a CIA agent helped persuade Kurds to launch a fruitless offensive against the Iraqi leader last year, the perception is growing that the US spy agency is operating out of control here.
Hemmed in by Iran, Syria, and Turkey - whose leaders do not want to encourage unrest among their own dispossessed Kurdish populations - the Kurds of northern Iraq are subject to powerful competing pressures, and are even divided among themselves.
Such influences have made northern Iraq, a rugged region of stunning mountain ranges, endless green valleys and charging glacier-fed rivers - with a Kurdish population as tough as its environment - a fertile field for clandestine gamesmanship.
Kurd groups collide
The two-year conflict between the largest Kurdish groups, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), has cost 3,000 lives. Though American diplomats are trying to mediate a peace, counterproductive meddling by the CIA, sources here say, is undermining American credibility.
CIA bungling in northern Iraq has helped further divide Kurds, caused deep suspicion of covert US activities, and complicated the peacemaking mission that American diplomats began on April 21, according to US, Western, and Kurdish sources.
Two incidents have most compromised Kurdish faith in the US peace efforts:
The bomb attack against the office of the Iraqi National Congress (INC), an opposition group supported by the CIA, was allegedly carried out by elements of yet another Iraqi opposition group, the National Accord, which sources say also received CIA backing.
A CIA spokesman, asked about the CIA connection, says, "We don't engage in or condone terrorist activities as a matter of policy."
Contrary to any stated American policy, Kurdish and Western sources say a "rogue" CIA agent 14 months ago promised Kurdish leaders that US warplanes would support an uprising against Iraqi forces. The subsequent offensive proved disastrous for the Kurds.
The CIA spokesman added that "as a matter of policy, we don't discuss intelligence operations."
Part of the task of Robert Deutsch, the State Department head of Iran and Iraq affairs who is leading the American peace mission now in northern Iraq, will be to convince Kurds that such high-profile manipulations should not shake their faith in American efforts.
Stakes for the US are high. To help the Kurds overcome the revenue disputes and personal antagonism that fuels their internal conflict, American diplomats last year held three rounds of peace talks. The talks nearly succeeded, but the process has since been allowed to lapse.
Iran - which ranks high on the official American list of terrorist states - has offered the Kurds an alternative and set up peace negotiations of its own.
Kurdish leaders say publicly that they embrace the US initiative. But they are also angry and wary: The split among the Kurds has been exacerbated by CIA mishandling, they say, and played directly into the hands of Saddam.
Details about CIA action indicate that the agency does not always control the opposition groups it chooses to support, or even - in one case at least - one of its own agents in the field. Privately, Western and Kurdish sources in northern Iraq often refer to CIA agents as "clowns" who "spook around," and who do not understand the confusing intricacies of opposition politics.
Kurds trusted mediator
The November bomb blast is widely seen as a case in point. As a so-called neutral party, the INC received significant covert funding from the CIA, Western diplomats and officials say, to help it mediate between Kurds. Conspicuous for its state-of-the-art radio and communications systems, the INC was largely trusted by both Kurdish parties.
The main INC headquarters in Salahuddin is said to have been housed in the same dusty hotel as the CIA base for northern Iraq, not far from the INC security office destroyed by the bomb.
Western and Kurdish sources say that the blast was the work of elements of the National Accord, which Western sources also say is backed by the CIA. Its members are former Baghdad cronies of Saddam, who maintain offices in Jordan with tacit US approval but are not well known in Iraq.
News reports say that the Accord was responsible for a series of bombs in Baghdad last year that killed more than 100 people.
High-level Kurdish sources confirm that elements of Accord were responsible for the Salahuddin blast. Countering the perception that the CIA was blowing up its own beneficiaries, Jalal Talabani, head of the PUK, told the Monitor that the bomb was actually planted by an Iraqi agent who had infiltrated Accord. The PUK, he claimed, had arrested the man.
Despite the official US policy of supporting Kurdish unity against Saddam, news reports available in northern Iraq that describe CIA support for Accord bombmakers have convinced many Kurds that the CIA is intent upon destabilizing the Kurds.
"American actions keep the Kurds divided," says a former PUK guerrilla fighter close to the leadership. "[The CIA] gives the Iraqi opposition money to live, but then gives them money to die. The right hand does not seem to know what the left is doing."
Such a perception will be difficult to dispel, since Kurdish doubt about American intentions stretches back two decades. The Kurds remember a betrayal in the mid-1970s as a watershed in their history.
At that time, the shah of Iran wanted to destabilize Iraq to gain a waterway to the Persian Gulf. Mullah Mustafa al-Barzani, leader of Iraq's Kurdish guerrillas who was fighting Baghdad for Kurdish autonomy, agreed to accept secret shipments of weapons from Iran, but only with US guarantees that the shah would not suddenly abandon the Kurds.
Despite that guarantee, the shah made peace with Iraq in 1975. The US - in a move that then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger is said to regret to this day - did nothing to save the Kurds. Mullah Barzani was forced overnight to give up his 30-year struggle for Kurdish autonomy.
For many Kurds, a similar betrayal occurred in 1991 after the Gulf war, when President Bush promised to support the Kurdish uprising against Baghdad. When Iraqi forces turned back the Kurdish attack and forced 2 million Kurds to flee, the US did nothing. On the lips of every Kurd at the time was the same question: "Where is Mr. Bush?"
Such lessons are not easily forgotten, and many Kurds are asking if yet another betrayal is possible.
US bungles plans
The few sources who know about the CIA's part in the most recent failed Kurdish uprising, in March 1995, say it is another example of how the CIA - even if inadvertently - has damaged US interests in northern Iraq by harming the Kurds.
Massoud Barzani, son of the defeated mullah who has continued fighting for Kurdish autonomy as chief of the KDP, described to the Monitor how a "representative of the American government" played a crucial role in persuading Kurdish forces to take part in the general uprising against the Iraqi regime last year that backfired.
Mr. Barzani says that the American - who other Western sources confirm was a CIA agent - promised him and other opposition leaders that the US would support the uprising with airstrikes against Iraqi forces. He says he was surprised, because the promise represented an about-face of US policy.
"We were told by [INC chief Ahmed] Chalabi, some Iraqi officers [defectors], and an American representative ... that there would be an uprising, that the Iraqi Army would join the opposition, and the American Air Force would bomb," Barzani says.
As part of the plan, the Kurds were to attack from the north to topple Saddam.
The secret promise of American air support gave more weight to this plan, causing the Kurds to believe that countrywide uprisings would in fact happen, and that their assault would succeed.
But Barzani was anxious about the reversal in American policy, and on the eve of the operation he checked directly with Washington to confirm that the US was behind the attack: The reply was "no."
"We prepared ourselves and had our forces ready for the uprising to happen ... but it turned out to be all lies," he says. "It was a big lie to the Iraqi people, and it was a very weak and fabricated play."
The CIA agent was withdrawn almost immediately, but the damage had been done: Mr Barzani's KDP withdrew from the uprising, while the PUK and INC launched their attacks anyway.
Some 500 Iraqi soldiers were captured, but the mass uprising never materialized. Instead, Iraqi forces bombarded border villages for three weeks, forcing thousands of Kurds to flee.
The attack is seen as one of the most severe Kurdish miscalculations since the end of the Gulf war. The PUK now accuses the KDP of abandoning its armed struggle against Baghdad, and the fiasco has hardened both sides.
Barzani says that justifying this fiasco to the Kurds has been "like swallowing a razor," and has resulted in a feeling of "desperation and hopelessness."
One official says that the CIA agent - whom Barzani calls a "cowboy" because he apparently "also lied to Washington" - was arrested on his return to the US.
The fallout from his actions, however - which Western sources say was "rogue" behavior - has undermined American influence in northern Iraq, and possibly its ability to bring peace to the Kurds. Still, some Kurds are not surprised. "There is no trust in politics," Mr. Talabani says. "Trust is only when a boy and girl are going to marry each other."