US making peace with Kurds – to battle Iraq

Feuding among themselves and suspicious of US intentions, Kurds are no easy allies

In April, the CIA secretly flew two Iraqi opposition leaders to an agency training camp in tidewater Virginia. US officials wanted to persuade the pair – Jalal Talabani and Massoud Barzani, leaders of Kurdish groups based in northern Iraq – to cooperate with an effort to topple Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.

But at the meeting it quickly became apparent that the two Kurds were suspicious of US intentions. They said that US officials had encouraged them to revolt against President Hussein's rule before, only to abandon them. Discussions became so strained that a senior American diplomat had to make a quick trip down from Washington in an attempt to assure them that this time the US meant what it said.

This little-noticed blow-up underscores just how difficult it will be for the Bush administration to put together an Iraqi fighting force like the Northern Alliance, the loose coalition of guerrillas that proved so crucial to the US victory over the Taliban.

The Kurds, the only Iraqi opposition groups with military forces inside Iraq itself, are not necessarily burning to confront President Hussein's armies. Iraqi rebel groups based outside the country would like to confront Hussein – but they have little apparent armed strength. And all the Iraq opposition factions have a history of sniping at each other, as well as at Hussein.

"Iraq is not Afghanistan," says Judith Yaphe, an Iraq expert at National Defense University. "Certain things were a success [against the Taliban], but to assume that they would give you success in Iraq is careless."

Take Messrs. Talabani and Barzani. Between them, they say they are able to field some 70,000 peshmerga (guerrilla fighters). But they are extremely leery about working with the US and of jeopardizing the virtual state in northern Iraq they have created, which is protected by the US aircraft that enforce no-fly zones in the country.

Twice in the past – in 1991 and 1996 – the US persuaded them to rise up against Hussein. Both times the US left them on their own – and the results were disastrous. In 1991, 1.5 million Kurds were forced to flee; hundreds, if not thousands, died. In 1996, the US pulled the plug on their operation just hours before it was set to begin and thousands had to be airlifted to safety.

"Don't count on Talabani and Barzani kicking something off," says Robert Baer, who was the CIA's point man in the 1996 operation in northern Iraq. "They've just been betrayed too many times – lied to, misled."

But another problem with the Iraqi Kurd leaders is that they don't get along – their two factions, in addition to keeping Hussein at bay, have been fighting each other for years.

There are at least three other viable opposition groups besides the Kurds. Then there's the umbrella organization intended to represent all of them, the Iraqi National Congress, founded in 1992 with US support and now led by Ahmed Chalabi.

Earlier this month, the White House convened a conference of leaders from all the opposition groups in Washington. Talabani came, along with a representative of Barzani.

Possible transitional government

The purpose of the meeting was to pump new energy into the opposition movement, and possibly turn it into a transitional government to take over when Hussein is gone. Via videoconference from his home in Wyoming, Vice President Dick Cheney told the conference that the Bush administration is committed to this plan.

But unifying these disparate groups is probably about as difficult as solving Fermat's Last Theorem.

Talabani and Barzani, for example, already have basically an autonomous country. They have their own civil administration, military, and stable currency. While they want to be rid of the fear that Saddam's rule might extend to them again someday, they don't necessarily want anyone else meddling with their fiefdoms.

Mr. Chalabi, on the other hand, wants to control a united Iraq. But he has a long history of playing one opposition group against another and doesn't have the broad support among them that he once had. Moreover, he has earned the displeasure of several US officials over the years for his propensity to try to manipulate them.

Ms. Yaphe says she's sure the US got its message through to him that he will not be able to continue that kind of game-playing. "But I don't think he can control himself," she adds.

Although, in an effort to show his displeasure with the US, Barzani himself did not attend the meeting, there were some positive signals.

"Certainly the contacts with the opposition have improved and expanded," Yaphe says. "And now we've met in a unified fashion so these groups can't play one off against the other."

Cruel coercion

Still, overcoming their fears of meeting Hussein head-on and persuading them that the US will assist them is a daunting task. One Iraqi dissident, for example, reportedly received a video of a female relative being raped by Iraqi security forces after the dissident began working with the US.

But an even greater problem in working with these groups, says Frank Anderson, former Near East division chief for the CIA, is applying the leadership pattern to them that the US used in Afghanistan, in which a new government arose from indigenous guerrilla groups.

"None is a serious candidate to run the country," he says. "None could even win an election in which all the exiles voted."

Planning for that day after any invasion is critical, experts say. And what will happen once Hussein is ousted is high on the agenda for Congress as it reconvenes and holds hearings on the administration's Iraq plans at the end of this month.

Administration officials are closely watching – and hoping – that the six groups that have agreed to an expanded conference in Europe next month can find a way to bring themselves together in one united effort both to oust Hussein and to provide a viable interim government.

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