'Last True Enemy' of Saddam Vows Guerrilla-Style Warfare


The Kurdish rebel leader sits quietly on a Persian carpet laid out on the grass, fingering Islamic prayer beads and holding court with elders and his commanders in the cool shade of a rare group of trees.

Below him, toward a valley of shale glinting in hard sun, Jalal Talabani's defeated Kurdish fighters stir up dust, tend to weapons, or try to sleep away the fatigue of two weeks of losing battles.

This is the new rear base of Mr. Talabani's Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), one of two main Kurdish factions vying for control of northern Iraq until Aug. 31, when rival Kurds joined with Iraqi troops. Their lightning strike expelled Talabani from Arbil - the capital of Kurdistan and the focus of efforts of the Central Intelligence Agency to overthrow Saddam Hussein - and sparked a PUK retreat to a narrow strip of territory along Iraq's border with Iran.

Talabani has long fought for an independent Kurdistan, sometimes at odds with Masoud Barzani's Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), sometimes at peace.

As relaxed as he appears now, his comments confirm that recent upheavals have fundamentally altered the struggle against Iraq: Until two weeks ago, two Kurdish factions stood in strong opposition to Saddam. Now only Talabani remains in resistance.

The change also has Kurdistan's neighbors - Iran, Turkey, and Syria - on edge, worried about continued conflict.

The surprise alliance between Saddam and his sworn enemy, Mr. Barzani, has "turned Kurdistan from the base for the Iraqi opposition to the graveyard of the Iraqi opposition," Talabani says.

Also a surprise was that, before the attack, Talabani says he had US assurances that it would prevent an Iraqi advance. These promises were broken, he says. US cruise-missile strikes in southern Iraq did not stop Saddam and his Kurdish allies in the north.

Remnants of Talabani's PUK - which have been locked in tribal conflict with Barzani's forces since 1994 - are now regrouping, he claims, and will wage guerrilla war. Despite losing all strategic towns and most of his territory, Talabani vows to continue fighting.

He says he and his forces alone are respected by all Kurds as Saddam's last true enemies. And Barzani, he says, is now a "traitor" to all Kurds

"Now we are obliged to use the tactics of partisan war, of guerrilla war," he says. "People think the PUK is dead, but it's not true."

Already he has chosen 1,000 of his top peshmerga fighters (the traditional name means "those who face death" in Kurdish) to operate from the rugged mountains of northern Iraq, he says.

Thousands of others are regrouping at three locations along the border, restocking with weapons stores that Talabani claims were in place well before the recent fighting, in case the PUK were pushed back.

His base at Zaneh, Iraq, some five miles from the remote border with Iran and virtually inaccessible, was home to the movement for a decade until 1987.

Baking in the sun and now quiet, some 106-mm antitank weapons and aging antiaircraft guns are evident; others have been moved to just beyond the border with Iran.

Though Iranian officials deny helping the PUK - and Talabani makes the same claim - support from Iran is believed by Western observers to have increased in recent months.

An Iranian road leading to this remote border point is now being paved with asphalt, an unlikely and expensive move by Iran if its aim were only to help several thousand Kurdish refugees.

Also, on Sunday Iran reportedly lobbed artillery fire into Iraq to fend off KDP troops pursuing Talabani's forces.

Talabani concedes that American worries about Iran's influence in northern Iraq - where US diplomats have tried unsuccessfully to negotiate an inter-Kurd cease-fire during the past year - may have played a role in permitting the PUK's demise.

Gunshots occasionally crackle across the valley, their echo ricocheting from one stone face to another. The rugged terrain and proximity to Iran makes an Iraqi air strike unlikely.

Life here is a far cry from Talabani's plush Arbil offices. Nothing better illustrates the turnaround than the change of lifestyle: The PUK leader's finely cut suits have been put away in favor of the traditional peshmerga dress of baggy trousers and thick cloth belts.

Talabani first blames his rival Barzani for his fate and says it stems from their contrasting views of the regime in Baghdad: His PUK will never make peace with Saddam, he says; but Barzani appears to have calculated that Saddam's regime will not be toppled soon.

"We knew that Barzani had relations [with Iraq] for a long time," he says. "But we were not expecting that he would openly side with the biggest enemy of the Kurdish people, because Saddam Hussein is the man who killed hundreds of thousands of Kurds.... It's unbelievable." (See story at right.)

Talabani also blames the US for his predicament, saying that his tactics would have been different if he had known that Arbil would be allowed to fall. But with assurances that such a "foolish act" by Iraqi forces would yield "serious consequences" from the US military, the PUK stayed on to defend the city.

The night before Iraqi tanks encircled Arbil, he says, American officials asked him exactly where his front lines were and those of Iraqi troops - further convincing him that an American military response was being planned.

But the US help never came. Talabani calls the result the "biggest defeat for US policy in the Mideast." It has also meant the relegation of this bitter Kurdish leader to his new, remote base at Zaneh.

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