Kurdish leaders make peace in Iraq: Hugh Pope reports from Arbil in Iraqi Kurdistan on a historic reconciliation between two guerrilla rivals

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The Independent Online
ONE was frosty and the other almost too effusive, but in the gloomy restaurant of an Arbil hotel yesterday the leaders of Iraqi Kurdistan's two founding guerrilla armies started face-to-face talks at last on ending a month of senseless and deeply damaging internecine conflict.

The two men's welcoming embrace showed how much trust had been lost. Massoud Barzani, in full Kurdish costume and turban, held back from kissing his Western-suited rival, Jalal Talabani, until they were forced together with a stout bear hug from retired Iraqi General Hassan al-Naquib, one of many onlookers at the talks.

'Our relationship is stronger than a kiss,' joked Mr Talabani, leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), a slicker, more urban group strong in the Surani-dialect east of Iraqi Kurdistan. Mr Barzani was not so quickly won over, however. His more tribal Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), strongest in the Kermanja-speaking west, believes PUK ambitions coupled with an extended absence abroad by Mr Talabani were to blame for five weeks of fighting.

The two groups may be 'only as different as Pepsi and Coca Cola', in the words of one angered UN relief worker, but clashes killed up to 400 people and have effectively divided Iraqi Kurdistan.

The conflict's pivot was in Arbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan's 3.5 million people. But after Mr Talabani's return on Thursday, a ceasefire, peace process and withdrawal of forces from frontlines brought confidence to the city and surrounding countryside.

The governor of Arbil, Abdul-Moheimen Barzani, said government officers had resumed work. Traffic policeman returned to their posts. Roads linking the pro-Barzani western province of Dihok and the pro-Talabani eastern province of Sulaymaniyah are mostly secured by checkpoints of the Iraqi National Congress (INC), the umbrella organisation for all the Kurdish, Shia and Sunni groups fighting President Saddam Hussein.

The effective leader of the INC, Ahmed Chalabi, showed his increasing influence by organising the peace process well before Mr Talabani's return to bless it. Mr Chalabi smoothly mediated the summit. It was not easy. Dozens of Toyota battlewagons carrying rival and heavily armed guerrlllas charged through the hot, dusty streets of the city toward the nondescript Shireen Palace Hotel. All was nearly lost when a shot rang out just as Mr Talabani arrived, sending guerrillas scurrying to battle positions, cocking rifles and ramming bullets into their machine-gun breeches.

The day was saved by Muhammed from Baghdea, the Shia leader of the INC's small opposition militia of Iraqi army defectors. Running between the sides he shouted: 'It's nothing.' His disciplined sentries securing the square in front of the hotel kept calm and prevented a bloodbath.

A group of Kurdish cinema workers looking on voiced no worries that Arab soldiers were keeping the peace for the first time since Mr Saddam's troops were ousted in 1991. 'We didn't know they had a disciplined army like this,' said Ismail Aziz, 31, in charge of the cinema lights. With Saddam's army you couldn't even go out on the streets.'

Mr Chalabi sent dozens of trays of food and soft drinks to keep the guerrillas calm as the leaders inside the hotel tried to heal their divisions under the few working lights of the restaurant's low, embossed gilt ceiling. Mr Barzani said merely that he hoped there would be peace. Mr Talabani, flamboyant as ever, vowed to 'consolidate peace, stability, to implement accord, to restore our alliance and to resume our struggle against dictatorship'.

All present then repaired to a long table laden with kebabs, chicken, rice and aubergine stews. Such feasts are traditional when Kurds try to end the blood feuds that have plagued them and helped prevent the emergence of a Kurdish state.

Iraqi Kurdistan's troubles are still not over. Mr Talabani's guerrillas still occupied the regional parliament, and sessions could not resume until they and a colourful group of 200 women peace protectors had left.

Most Kurds fear the impact of fighting on Western aid and military protection since the Gulf war. 'We just want peace and freedom from Saddam Hussein,' said cinema ice-cream salesman Rashad Hussein. 'Apart trom that, the Kurds just want stability and proper government.'

(Photograph omitted)