US fears Iran's influence with warring Kurds

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The Independent Online
The growing power of Iran in Iraqi Kurdistan is leading the United States to become actively involved in a mediation effort to end the civil war between the rival Kurdish parties which has raged for more than a year.

The US, supported by Britain, has written to the Kurdish leaders proposing a preliminary meeting in Europe next week aimed at resolving their differences. Massoud Barzani, leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), currently controls the north and west of Kurdistan, while Jalal Talabani's Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) holds the south and east.

Iranian influence has grown rapidly among the 3 million Iraqi Kurds over the last 12 months because Iran can tip the balance between the two warring parties. In battles around Panjwin on the Iranian border Iran first supported Mr Barzani's men and then switched to backing Mr Talabani.

A letter sent from Robert Deutsch, director of Northern Gulf Affairs at the US State Department, to the Kurdish leaders on 20 July, gave a detailed agenda for American mediation. It also warned that "the US cannot support any involvement in northern Iraq by the government of Iran. Iran is not a disinterested party, and has no constructive role to play here".

The aim of US mediators will be to neutralise Arbil, the Kurdish capital. It has a population of 800,000 and is currently held by the PUK, but is surrounded by PDP troops.

The US will also try to broker an agreement over the division of tax revenues from Turkish trucks carrying cheap Iraqi diesel oil back into Turkey through Kurdish territory. The border crossing at Zakho is held by the KDP, so all customs revenues are currently going to Mr Barzani.

The US and Britain will have difficulty in reducing the influence of Iran, which has a long common border with Iraqi Kurdistan. Under the Shah and during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s the Iranian government supported the Barzani family, many of whose members still live in Iran. It can also control the lucrative cross-border smuggling of cigarettes for sale in the Iranian market.

The two Turkish invasions of Kurdistan this year in pursuit of Turkish Kurd guerrillas has also alarmed Tehran, which has traditionally feared a build-up of Turkish influence on its borders.