Allies set to quiz Barzani over alliance with Baghdad

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The Independent Online
Masoud Barzani, who won the power struggle in Iraqi Kurdistan, arrived in Ankara yesterday to meet Turkish and US officials anxious to test how far he will go in his tactical alliance with President Saddam Hussein.

Changing his Kurdish costume for a suit may help Mr Barzani little in dealing with a diplomatic tangle in which different goals are being pursued by the US, its allies in the Turkish establishment, and the pro-Islamic, pro-Iraqi senior partner in Turkey's coalition government. US diplomats refused to comment on the meeting between Mr Barzani and Robert Pelletreau, the State Department's senior official for Near Eastern affairs, planned for late last night or this morning.

A State Department spokesman outlined two goals for Mr Pelletreau. The Americans want to bring Mr Barzani back into talks with Jalal Talabani, whose Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) was routed in the recentfighting in northern Iraq.

The Americans also want to tempt the Iraqi Kurds away from Baghdad. They are furious that not only did the offensive by Mr Barzani's Kurdish Democratic Party break cease-fire negotiations, but that he revealed a close relationship with President Saddam. In the first two days of fighting, at least, Iraqi armour played a decisive part in the battle for the Iraqi Kurdistan capital, Arbil.

Washington, fearing Iraqi agents would have a free hand in the north, ended aid programmes for the Iraqi Kurds, and covert operations against Baghdad based there. It also withdrew its token military presence from Zakho, which prompted the withdrawal of many Iraqi Kurds and aid workers for foreign organisations.

The KDP says the alliance with Iraq was brief and tactical, but even if Mr Barzani agrees to talks on an equal basis with Mr Talabani, it is by no means clear how easy it will be to put clear water between himself and Baghdad.

After President Saddam lifted a four-year embargo between Arab and Kurdish parts of the country, checkpoints have disappeared and the populace has enthused about the return of cheap fuel before the mountain winter. Iraq, which used to supply petrol at two dinars (2.5p) a litre, is selling it for only a twentieth of, or virtually free. In a place as poor as Kurdistan this makes a big difference. Travellers say food prices in Iraq are dropping because it is easier for Kurds to sell meat and other products in territory held by Baghdad. While there is no sign of an increased Iraqi security presence in Kurdistan, few believe Iraqi agents can be kept out.

Mr Barzani's first meeting yesterday was with Tansu Ciller, Turkey's Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister, who stressed its military's prime concern, the need for an ill-defined "security zone" to protect the Turkish border from attacks by Turkish Kurd rebels of the Kurdistan Workers' Party. Mrs Ciller also spoke of Turkey's wish to see the Turkish- speaking Turcoman minority accepted as a partner in any future northern Iraqi local administration. It is unclear whether Turkey believes its interests are best served by a military alliance with Mr Barzani, whom they have always favoured over the now more pro-Iranian Mr Talabani, or by a renewed arrangement with Baghdad, with which it is also talking.

If there is foreign interference in northern Iraq, the Turks want it to be their own. After the withdrawal of foreign non-governmental organisations, always disliked for their pro-Kurdishness by Ankara, Turkish officials say they are pushing hard for the Turkish Red Crescent to be accepted by the allies as the principal vehicle of aid distribution to the people of northern Iraq.