US vs. Iraq: Saddam may have fired the first shot

An assassination attempt against a leading pro-Western Kurdish leader in northern Iraq underscores the risk that the US and its allies are taking as they weigh options to topple Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein.

The wily Iraqi leader – long the nemesis of Washington – may not wait for the US and its allies to make the first move. Kurdish sources say that Ansar al-Islam, a radical Kurdish Islamist group, last week targeted Barham Salih – the erudite, pro-Western prime minister of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). The group is reportedly supported by Mr. Hussein and has links with Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda network.

At the time of the attack, a US diplomatic delegation, led by Ambassador Ryan Crocker, was visiting. One Kurdish source says Mr. Crocker "could hear the gunfight very clearly." Five bodyguards and two of the attackers were killed in the 10-minute exchange at Mr. Salih's house. Salih was apparently "saved" by a telephone call he received just seconds before stepping out the door.

Kurds have made no secret of their willingness to serve alongside American units if the US decides to oust Hussein. This attack, experts say, could have been a message to the US delegation, or one to the Kurdish leaders, à la Afghan leader Ahmad Shah Masood, who was killed by representatives of Osama bin Laden just days before the Sept. 11 attacks.

"It's not clear yet whether this was a preplanned hit against [Salih], or as a show of challenge to the US team present," says a Kurdish source who requested anonymity.

Mr. Crocker's visit is the second – to put diplomatic and military pieces of the puzzle in place – since he made an initial appraisal of the US-protected safe area of northern Iraq last December.

Kurdish sources in Iraq tell the Monitor that there are comparisons to this assassination attempt and a successful one carried out by Ansar al-Islam in February last year against Franso Hariri – the top Christian politician in the region. In both cases, a taxi was purchased two days before the shooting; the same name was used both times to buy the car.

One surviving attacker, now in Kurdish custody, according to columnist William Safire in the New York Times, said a cadre of "60 Islamic terrorists, trained in Afghanistan by Osama bin Laden" were assigned to infiltrate northern Iraq and "kill Kurdish leaders."

And a defiant Hussein urged Arabs on Sunday to strike at US interests, after President Bush warned that "all options" were on the table. "Half your air defense capacity is destroyed. You fight with the other half, and if the other half is destroyed, you fight with daggers."

Kurds say that this attack was a brutal message, one that says Kurds are increasingly vulnerable as they prepare for any military action. But they also say this isn't likely to change their minds.

Still, Kurdish leaders are concerned about any new alliance because of past failed alliances with the US. Before taking part in any future US mission, Kurdish leaders want ironclad guarantees that any future US mission will be seen through to the end; that their people will be protected and emerge with self-rule at least as strong as what they enjoy today; and that they will not be betrayed again.

Kurdish guerrilla Hasko Aziz will never forget the heady days of mid-February 1991, after the Gulf War, when then-President George Bush called on "the Iraqi military and the Iraqi people to take matters into their own hands." Mr. Aziz was among the first to enter Rania – the first Kurdish town to be "liberated" in the uprising following the Gulf War.

"People were dancing in the street, shouting, and shooting at pictures of Saddam Hussein," says Aziz, a commander the time. "This gave us great hope to continue and liberate all of Kurdistan."

Indeed, throughout March 1991, Kurdish forces in the north and Shiite Muslim rebels in the south – driven in part by what they believed to be a promise of support from the US to help them depose Hussein – took control of large regions of Iraq.

But hope of US intervention evaporated quickly, as Hussein's Army counterattacked, and US aircraft watched but did nothing.

For Aziz, the most devastating moment came only weeks after the Rania jubilation. He watched as Iraqi helicopters emerged over the horizon from the city of Arbil, and swept across the rolling green fields toward his position, flushing out columns of desperate refugees.

"We will not be hired guns," says Massoud Barzani, leader of the Kurdish Democratic Party, when asked before the assassination attempt if Kurds would trust the US again. "The experiences we have seen have given us lessons. We want concrete assurances on the future of the Kurdish people. An overt, serious, and clear US policy would make sure these tragedies are not repeated."

Jalal Talabani, leader of the PUK, also interviewed before the Salih assassination attempt, says: "Tomorrow if America comes with a real guarantee, we will trust. If they come with only words, we will not."

But trust is a relative term in Kurdistan. Both Kurdish factions say they are grateful that the US has enforced a "safe haven" in northern Iraq, allowing them to begin building their own pseudo-state.

But both Mr. Barzani and Mr. Talabani led forces during the failed 1991 uprising. And Barzani's father, Mustafa, made an American-guaranteed deal with the Iranians to fight Baghdad in the early 1970s, but in 1975 then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger abandoned the Kurds overnight when the Shah of Iran struck a separate accord with the Iraqi leadership.

As the Kurds draw lessons from these cases of realpolitik – and seek ironclad guarantees – there are lessons today for Americans, too, says Anthony Cordesman, a regional strategist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "This is a very dangerous game to play unless you realize that pawns can be sacrificed," says Mr. Cordesman. "If you don't want to sacrifice them, you shouldn't play with these pieces."

"We've got to remember that if we start anything here and fail, the implications in the region will be devastating," he adds.

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