The Clinton administration is striving to clamp a lid on renewed fighting between Iraq's minority Kurds and eliminate the potential for a new showdown with Iraqi President Saddam Hussein less than three weeks before the presidential election.
The situation took on new urgency yesterday when Masoud Barzani, leader of the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP), said he might ask Saddam to intervene militarily on his faction's behalf as the Iraqi dictator did this summer, triggering US cruise-missile attacks in southern Iraq.
Mr. Barzani's threat came just before talks were to begin in Washington between a KDP delegation and US diplomats to mediate a cease-fire between the group and its rival, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) led by Jalil Talibani. And the US is sending Assistant Secretary of State Robert Pelletreau to meet with Mr. Talibani and Barzani in the Mideast next week.
Experts say it is crucial for the administration to end the inter-Kurd clashes because of the threats they pose to regional stability and American security interests at a time when President Clinton is focusing his energies on his campaign to win a second term.
The fighting provides a new opportunity for Saddam to extend his power in northern Iraq, as he did this summer when he sent his Army to help the KDP drive the PUK out of large swaths of territory. In a counterattack that began last weekend, Talibani's PUK regained virtually all of the ground it lost to Barzani's KDP.
Should Saddam intervene in the new fighting, Mr. Clinton would come under considerable pressure to stop him. The US is enforcing a no-fly zone in northern Iraq as part of a policy of trying to protect the Kurds. In addition to the cruise-missile attacks last month, the US extended a separate no-fly zone in the south.
The administration's interests in mediating between the Kurds go beyond domestic politics, experts add. They include reestablishing Iraqi Kurdistan as a safe area for opponents of Saddam's regime. Saddam's incursion into the area this summer devastated a CIA-funded movement dedicated to ousting the Iraqi dictator.
"It is much in our interest to create an island in northern Iraq that is not anti-Western, which seeks our friendship," says Uri Ra'anan, a Middle East expert at Boston University.
The US is also gravely concerned that inter-Kurd fighting could stoke tensions between Iran and Iraq - possibly sharpening political and economic instability in a region that holds 55 percent of the world's petroleum reserves. Despite its denials, the PUK is widely believed to be receiving arms from Iran's Islamic regime, which harbors serious differences with Iraq left over from their 1980-88 war.
The US believes that both Kurdish factions should "move toward a cease-fire and not allow Iraq or Iran the opportunity to enflame the situation further," says State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns.
PRIVATELY, US officials say they are not optimistic about brokering a rapprochement. They are deeply skeptical about assertions by both factions that they are eager to discuss a settlement, saying the latest fighting has only exacerbated decades of bad blood.
The KDP and PUK are divided by personal and tribal feuds and squabbles over control of economic resources. Each has at various times in recent history collaborated with Iran or Iraq against the other. A previous US-mediated truce collapsed in 1994.
"We are trying to do what we can. But we can't want [a cease-fire] more than the Kurds themselves," says an administration official. "We are trying to bring them together, but there is a limit to what we can do, and there is a limit to the willingness of both parties to work together."
Salih Barham, a US-based PUK spokesman, and Hoshyar Zebari, a KDP spokesman, agreed that a durable truce depends on the US reaffirming its readiness to help defend the Kurds from any future attempts by Saddam to reassert Iraqi control over Iraqi Kurdistan.
"We need a policy statement ... from the US reaffirming the protection of the Kurdish people ... and that the US will not deal with Iraq as long as Saddam Hussein heads that government," Dr. Barham says.