AMERICAN neglect of its own peace initiative in northern Iraq has enabled Iran to significantly increase its influence here and is causing Kurds to question the US commitment to finding peace.
Robert Deutsch, the US State Department chief for Iran and Iraq, begins a new mediation effort in northern Iraq this weekend, nearly five months after the last round of talks, which diplomats say "came within an ace" of agreement.
His mission is to resuscitate peace talks between rival Kurdish factions and to limit Iran's growing role in northern Iraq. But American and Western sources in the region say that after such a long delay, the job won't be easy.
American interest stems from the 1991 Gulf war, when Saddam Hussein's Iraqi Army forced nearly 2 million Kurds to flee to northern Iraq. A US-led military operation now protects them.
But Turkey, Iran, and Syria - who for decades have played quarreling Kurds off each other - also want leverage here.
For Kurdish leaders, Mr. Deutsch's visit marks the end of a long period of uncertainty, during which they have been pressured by Iran to accept closer ties. They say they are astonished at America's absence. Because Iran abuts Iraqi Kurdistan - the area protected since the end of the Gulf war by a US-enforced no-fly zone - the Kurds have felt obliged to flatter them.
"At a time when we are harassing Iran on so many other fronts, why suddenly not pay attention to northern Iraq?" asked one Western diplomat. There is "absolutely no question" that the American peace plan is being undermined by Iran, he added, "because northern Iraq is a place they can score some points."
US policy toward northern Iraq is run out of the White House by the National Security Council, so "frittering away" earlier gains has been even more puzzling, diplomats say.
The two main Iraqi Kurdish groups, once united in their opposition to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, split two years ago over land and revenue issues, reviving decades-long animosities.
More than 3,000 people have died in the violence, but a cease-fire has held during the past year. A front line separates rival peshmerga guerrillas of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), though early in the conflict the PUK occupied the "free city" of Arbil.
The division has turned northern Iraq into a political playing field, where Kurds are torn by the different and often nefarious agendas of their neighbors. The US sponsored three rounds of talks last year, raising expectations of an American-guaranteed peace. The talks were to resume in December, but until Deutsch's current visit, Kurdish leaders had received no word that they would continue at all.
Trips to Tehran
American concerns center on Iran's efforts to foster closer ties with both Kurdish factions in the last year. Iran has brought members of each to Tehran and sent high-level delegations to Iraqi Kurdistan.
But Iran also has quietly backed Kurdish insurgents from Turkey, the PKK, who have battled the KDP. Western and Kurdish sources confirm that about a dozen Iranian Kurdish opposition figures have been assassinated in northern Iraq in the past eight months. The killings are believed to have been carried out by Iranian agents. "Iran is using northern Iraq as a soft, safe place to do its dirty work" in exacting leverage among Kurds, said one source.
And since December, when the US talks came to an end, Iran has set up three offices of its intelligence apparatus, Italaat, in Iraqi Kurdistan. A KDP rally held in Dahuk in January was attended by a senior Iranian official. Children were let out of school to attend, and - in what is seen by Kurdish leaders as an embarrassment - the crowd shouted anti-American slogans.
Bomb attack near US office
Some Western and Kurdish sources also see Iran's hand in a string of bomb attacks over the last year, including one with 150 pounds of TNT near the US Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA) in Arbil, which was discovered when the detonator partially exploded.
American OFDA staff were withdrawn two months ago from all but one of their offices, and remaining Americans have been told that they could become targets. The CIA has a strong presence here, but longtime Western residents say they focus too much on the "threat" from Iran, and not enough on the Kurds.
Kurdish leaders say that US concerns about Iran's role may be partly justified, but are exaggerated. Massoud Barzani, the leader of the KDP and one of a long family line of Kurdish leaders, told the Monitor: "We will neither fight Iran on behalf of the US, nor fight the US on behalf of Iran."
"We have mutual interests and mutual respect, but if we think Iran is trying to impose itself, we will not accept it," he said at his base in Salahuddin. "The US has its struggle, but it is not our struggle."
Jalal Talabani, the urbane and portly head of the PUK, whose territory is blocked by the Iraqi Army and the KDP, has become much closer to Iran because of a long mutual border to the east. But he denies favoring Iran over the American peace efforts and said in an interview that "there is no Iranian influence in Iraqi Kurdistan."
"We want peace. Anyone who can achieve it is welcome. If the US can do it, they are welcome," he said, rattling prayer beads in his Arbil office. He was "really surprised" that the US peace effort had lapsed. It indicated that if the US still wanted to "overthrow Saddam Hussein, they are going about it in the wrong way."
Other Kurds say that only the Americans can impose a solution, and many say that a peace deal - if the US wanted one - could be reached in an hour. So the American absence has also fueled speculation among Kurds and some Western sources that US policy may be slowly changing.
"Saddam is the only one who can stand against Iran," said Najim Ilsorchi, a Kurdish politician. "Though he does terrible things, the US prefers their own interest above those of people here. America has not found an alternative to Saddam."