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Divided Kurds put party before state: Hugh Pope in Istanbul untangles the labyrinthine politics of a people who are still frustrated in their search for a homeland

THERE MAY be only about 20 million Kurds in the world, but a proliferation of Kurdish parties, groups and their representatives abroad can confuse their friends, let alone their many enemies, with such abbreviations as KDP, PUK, PKK, KDP-I, PAK, Komala. And if that's not enough, try ERNK and ARGK.

Some are mass movements, others are tiny. But they all share a K for Kurdistan, and, as the Kurdish movement gains momentum and street collections start for helping displaced Iraqi Kurds, it is becoming important to tell them apart.

Last year a group of church congregations in Germany, thinking they were helping refugees, gave pounds 3.6m to Marxist guerrillas fighting in Turkey. Others may well have cashed in.

So who is who in this mostly underground world? The Kurds are mainly split between the mountains joining Turkey (10-12 million), Iraq (4 million), Iran (3 million) and Syria (1 million), but also have communities in the former Soviet Union and Lebanon. They speak many dialects and have never been united or organised as a truly independent nation state. Many hope for such a Kurdistan as promised in the 1920 Treaty of Sevres, a would-be carve-up of the Ottoman Empire rejected by the republican movement of Kemal Ataturk. Furthest on the road to self-rule is the Iraqi Kurdistan Front, an alliance of several groups that has governed 3 million Kurds in north Iraq since the end of the Gulf war.

In theory, the front's mandate should have passed to a parliament elected in May, but the two biggest Iraqi Kurdish guerrilla parties still dominate.

The Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) is the father of most Iraqi Kurdish groups, founded in 1946 by the legendary Mustafa Barzani and now led by his son, Masoud. The KDP is mainly rural, traditional and based in the western and northern Kirmanci-dialect areas. Although Mr Barzani always notes the Kurdish dream of a united Kurdistan, he favours signing an autonomy deal with Baghdad.

The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) split from the KDP in the mid-1970s under its leader, Jalal Talabani. Famous for kissing Saddam Hussein as autonomy negotiations started after the 1991 refugee exodus, Mr Talabani now espouses an anti-Baghdad position, to the point of calling for a neo-Ottoman Kurdish federation with Turkey. The PUK is more urban than the KDP and its power base in the Surani-speaking areas of the south and east makes it dominant in Sulaymaniyah, the Kurds' most sophisticated city. The PUK is slick and well-funded.

Smaller Kurdish parties in the Iraqi Kurdistan Front merged this year into a United Party of Kurdistan, led by Mahmoud Othman and Sami Abdul-Rahman, long known as negotiators with Baghdad. The National Turkmen Party, backed by Turkey and the Iraqi Communist Party, also operates in the region. Sheltered by the front in northern Iraq are the few remaining bases of Iran's Komala, founded in the early 1940s, and the Iranian Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP-I), which led the one-year independent Kurdish republic of Mahabad in the year of its founding, 1945. Both Iranian parties have suffered reverses: the veteran KDP-I leader Abdul-Rahman Qassemlu was murdered in 1989 and his successor, Sadik Sharafkandi, died in Berlin last week, both presumably the victims of Iranian agents.

Beyond the Iraqi front are two small newcomers, the Kurdistan Islamic Party and the Kurdish Freedom Party (PAK). The PAK is much more of a threat to the Iraqi Kurdish establishment, being an affiliate of Turkey's Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) and sharing its aim of a united, independent Kurdistan.

The Damascus-based PKK leader, Abdullah Ocalan, founded his party in the 1970s. It began its ruthless armed struggle in 1984, deploying its civilian and military wings, ERNK and ARGK. It is now launching attacks with hundreds of guerrillas, turning parts of south-eastern Turkey into war zones.

PKK attacks from northern Iraq into Turkey have angered Mr Barzani and Mr Talabani, who are eager to curry favour with Turkey. The latter two have only recently been reconciled.

NEW YORK - Iraq has agreed in principle to a substantial international relief programme for Kurds in northern Iraq United Nations officials said yesterday, Reuter reports.