Top Kurdish leader assesses the costs of war

For the Kurds, this may be the first war to end without massive casualties and political defeat.

But to Massoud Barzani - leader of one of two main Kurdish parties in northern Iraq - the war is rife with disappointments and far from over.

Mr. Barzani, born on the same day in 1946 that the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) he now leads was founded, headed to a US-sponsored conference Tuesday in Nasiriyah as one of the key players set to determine Iraq's future.

But after a lifetime spearheading the Kurdish struggle, the present situation has him deeply troubled. One of the biggest Kurdish gains in a generation - the downfall of Saddam Hussein - has been marred by mayhem, looting, and violence. And the unfettered fall of Kirkuk late last week set in motion a chain of events that derailed a limited but well-controlled northern front, setting the stage for Kurdish infighting.

In an interview, Barzani lays blame for the chaotic turn of events in Kirkuk and Mosul - another northern city unchained by the disappearing Iraqi regime - on the doorstep of his rivals in the PUK (Patriotic Union of Kurdistan). The PUK is the other main party in the territory that has come to enjoy de facto self-rule since the 1991 Gulf War. Its pesh merga fighters rushed into Kirkuk on Thursday, Barzani charges, in violation of an agreement painstakingly hammered out with US officials - and tailored to keep a vigilant Turkey from marching into the fray.

"The PUK violated that agreement," says Barzani, who spoke to the Monitor and the Associated Press at his headquarters, ensconced in a mountain resort. "We made an agreement with the Americans that large [numbers of Kurdish] troops would not enter Kirkuk," he says. "We have lost the opportunity," to show the world the face of responsible behavior as Mr. Hussein's dictatorship disintegrated, "and we are very sorry for that."

While KDP forces stayed outside the city, Barzani charges, the PUK's poured in, raising the ire of Ankara. Turkey, vehemently opposed to the creation of any form of Kurdish state, worries that a Kurdish seizure of oil-rich Kirkuk could make an independent Kurdistan economically viable - and recharge its own sizable Kurdish minority.

As Kirkuk fell, Turkey threatened to send in troops. According to Barzani, that made the US skittish about allowing KDP forces to secure Mosul, which was sucked into a violent power vacuum the following day. The KDP's forces were delayed, waiting for an American go-ahead - giving looters and shooters a head start.

"If that delay had not taken place, we would have been able to stop the looting," he says. "If they had allowed us to go in within 12 hours we would have been able to stop this. When our troops went in, it was at the request of the people of Mosul themselves and the request of the Americans and with coordination with them."

All of this, he says, forced the Kurds to accept the presence of 20 Turkish military observers in Kirkuk.

The words of rebuke do not bode well for Kurdish unity as leaders from around Iraq meet to formulate an interim government to run the country until elections are held. But the KDP and the PUK, which split off from the former in the mid-1970s, have had more than their share of differences. After forging an uprising against Hussein at the end of the Gulf War, they wound up fighting each other in the mid-1990s. At one point, Barzani even turned to Hussein for help, although KDP officials say he was trying to counterbalance the military and financial assistance the PUK received from Iran.

Moreover, the conclusion of the war reveals strains in the Kurds' relationship with the US. Barzani, whose father founded the KDP, has in past interviews pointed to many letdowns by the US, from former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger in 1975 to former President George Bush in 1991. In this war, the Kurds were Washington's only fighting regional ally, marking the first time the Kurds have had a world superpower on its side.

But the war, like much of Barzani's life as a pesh merga - meaning those who face death - has taken a personal toll. A week ago, US airplanes accidentally bombed a convoy of KDP fighters advancing toward Mosul with US special forces. Eighteen of the KDP's most elite pesh merga were killed, and Barzani's younger brother and son were injured. "It was very unfortunate, but it was not deliberate because there were also American soldiers and officers with them," he says.

While wholesale looting and vandalism has tapered off, parts of Mosul and Kirkuk are still seething with ethnic tensions. In Kirkuk, for example, Arabs say they are being told by pesh merga that they have three days to leave the city, while Turkmens say they are also being targeted for theft and violence.

None of that will be tolerated and minority rights will be respected Barzani says. But the Arabs who were moved to Kirkuk by Hussein will have to leave, he says. "All those Arabs who have been brought to this area under the Arabization process ... should be taken back." He adds that "an international body should oversee the process."

But any attempt to quickly undo decades of forced population shifts under Hussein is not likely to reflect well on the Kurdish cause. Many Arabs in Kirkuk, for example, say pesh merga are already pressuring them to leave. Whether Kurdish leaders can keep a lid on people's desires for revenge and property reclamation - after decades of murder and mistreatment by Hussein - could be their most challenging litmus test in the coming weeks.

Having been a willing partner when Washington saw so many allies' doors slammed shut, Iraqi Kurds find themselves in a historically rare moment of power - a turning point Barzani acknowledges feels sort of strange. "We, as Kurds ... should not forget where we stand, and we should always look to the future," he says.

What that future holds is unclear. For all their differences, the KDP and PUK both say they hope to have a Kurdish state as part of a united, federated Iraq - not an independent Kurdistan. But worried neighbors, Turkey in particular, are not convinced.

Barzani warns Turkey not to send its own troops over the border. "We should all speak the language of dialogue and understanding and not military action, because when you send troops in it would further complicate the situation."

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