US seeks end to Iraqi Kurd debacle

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The Independent Online
The US is to make a fresh bid to resolve the simmering Kurdish civil war in northern Iraq which has killed 3,000 people in the last 18 months. Fearful of growing Iranian influence, the State Department is to send Robert Deutsch, its leading expert on the region, to Kurdistan this month to mediate between the warring parties.

If all goes well the US may invite Massoud Barzani, the leader of the Kurdish Democratic Party, and his main rival, Jalal al-Talabani of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, to Washington to sign an agreement dividing power between them. "The chances of a deal are good because neither side has been able to inflict a decisive defeat on the other and everybody is tired of fighting," says a Kurdish observer.

Mr Deutsch will also want to rescue the US from a growing foreign policy debacle in Kurdistan. Ever since Iraqi forces departed in the wake of the Gulf war in 1991 it has been been protected by US, British and French aircraft patrolling overhead. But failure of the US to prevent the war between Mr Barzani and Mr Talabani, who control the north-west and south- east of Kurdistan respectively, created a power vacuum which led to the Turkish invasion last year. This in turn provoked Iran into stepping up its efforts to increase its influence.

The CIA also uses Kurdistan as a base for covert operations against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, financing Iraqi opposition groups. One opposition party, known as the Iraqi National Accord, has planted bombs in Baghdad which killed more than 100 civilians according to testimony by their chief bomb-maker, recorded on video and first published by the Independent. The disclosure about the bombing may embarrass President Bill Clinton, who last month assembled 27 world leaders for an anti-terrorist conference in Egypt.

The US will try to get the Kurdish leaders to implement a peace agreement first worked out by a conference in Ireland late last year. Under this accord the main Kurdish city of Arbil, currently held by Mr Talabani's forces, will be neutralised. There will also be redivision of the crucial customs dues on trade - mostly of oil products - out of Iraq into Turkey.

Even though all sides in Kurdistan want to end the war, the difficulties still to be resolved are horrendous, mainly because of intense competition for influence from neighbouring countries. Iran, with a long common border, opposes the influence of Iraq, Turkey and the US in Kurdistan. It recently persuaded Mr Barzani to sign an agreement with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) which is fighting its own separatist guerrilla war against the Turkish government.

This has angered Turkey which might once again send its troops across the border into Iraqi Kurdistan in search of PKK bases. Ankara has always wanted the Iraqi Kurds to act against the Turkish Kurd guerrilla units. Mr Talabani's party has refused to sign any agreement to do so. But Turkish backing is essential if a new US peace plan is to work and Mr Deutsch will be stopping in Ankara on his way to northern Iraq.

Almost the only subject on which the US, Turkey, Iran, Syria and the Kurdish leaders are agreed is that they do not want President Saddam Hussein back in control of Iraqi Kurdistan. At the same time Iraq's neighbours want to avoid the formation of a Kurdish state, which would encourage their own Kurdish minorities to seek self-determination. The result of these conflicting pressures has been to turn Kurdistan into a permanent war zone.