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Kurds ready to be next N. Alliance

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 28, 2002


High on a spring-green escarpment in northern Iraq, elite Kurdish forces decked out in camouflage and maroon berets are training for the day they hope they realize their dream: helping US forces topple Saddam Hussein.

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To the southeast, in another part of the divided US- and British-patrolled "safe haven," a rival Kurdish force is gearing up for exactly the same anti-Hussein mission. In the bright morning sun, soldiers gather around 120-mm mortar tubes and artillery pieces, practice with a rocket launcher, and learn about the range of antiaircraft guns from veterans with stars on their epaulets.

The shockwaves of the decisive US military campaign in Afghanistan are reverberating here, and changing thinking among Kurdish chiefs and Pentagon planners alike.

Spurred on by the Afghanistan example – in which a rebel group made up of ethnic minorities seized Kabul, backed by a heavy US airstrikes – Kurdish leaders have a new conviction that the road to their future security leads through Baghdad.

This new, broader strategy coincides with thinking among some Pentagon planners to use Kurdish forces to fight alongside American troops in any push against Saddam Hussein.

Political leaders here say that to date they have received no US request for military help, and that only a total US commitment to oust Mr. Hussein will convince them to join up.

But if spit and polish is any measure, these forces are preparing to play a key role, if Washington resolutely decides to apply the "Afghan model" to change the regime in Iraq.

"America is the best friend of the Kurdish people, to help us get self-rule and a voice in Baghdad," says Sheikh Jafar Mustapha, a senior commander of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) forces. "If America attacks Saddam ... we can help the US achieve success in that battle."

With many Kurds within Iraqi artillery range – and the regime's ability to re-occupy this entire region in a matter of days – Kurdish leaders must publicly adhere to a careful non-confrontational line, and call only for "democratic change" in Iraq.

But they have battled heavy-handed – at times even genocidal – rule from Baghdad for decades. Target practice with sniper rifles is de riguer, even for women of this Kurdish force called peshmerga, which means "those who face death."

"We can't photocopy the Afghan cause, but we can benefit from it," says Massoud Barzani, leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), whose family has been at the forefront of Kurdish opposition politics for decades. The key lesson from Kabul, he says, is that minority groups "took full control of the situation there, and have become owners of the cause." Kurds, too, will now "focus on solving Iraq problems first."

Both Kurdish factions say they gave up aspirations for an independent Kurdish state long ago. Ethnic Kurds are a minority in Iraq, along with Arab Sunni Muslims – from which the regime draws most of its support. Iraq's Shiite Muslims from the south make up a 60 percent majority, and have their own rebel movement.

But the Kurds now recognize that to guarantee self-rule in their own northern area will require powerful influence in Baghdad. That means taking on Iraq-wide issues, being a vanguard for all the Iraqi opposition, and possibly serving as Iraq's future powerbroker.

"We could be the magnet for all the opposition in Iraq," says Hoshyar Zebari, a top KDP strategist. "We are not claiming statehood, but we want a new Iraq where we can live in peace. The solution is in Baghdad. This new momentum is gaining ground, and terrifies Baghdad."

Kurdish forces fought each other in the mid-1990s, and have since signed a cease-fire that has allowed significant development in their territories. Divisions still exist, but they do agree about Baghdad.