Warlords bewail fall of anti-Saddam front

Kurdish conflict: Guerrilla leaders admit pointless feud has alienated former Western allies and brought comfort to Baghdad
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The Independent Online

Salahuddin, Northern Iraq

Massoud Barzani twisted his hands in embarrassment. Even as a powerful protagonist, he agonised over the way Iraq's Kurds have frittered away Western goodwill and protection in an 18-month-old civil conflict that has split their opposition front against the Iraqi President, Saddam Hussein.

"We have ourselves to blame for the mess," the guerrilla leader said in an interview in his hilltop Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) headquarters, 250 miles north of Baghdad.

"People are frustrated, disappointed, and I don't blame them. We had so many hopes and ambitions that we would build democracy here.'"

On the other side of the lightly-armed front lines in the nearby Iraqi Kurdish regional capital of Arbil, officials of Jalal Talabani's rival Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) spoke of the same shame.

"There is no hate. It is not like Lebanon. We were together at school. We are the same people, same religion", said Sadi Ahmed Pire, a PUK negotiator in the latest peace process that has been making hesitant progress since a cease-fire was agreed, somewhat bizarrely, in the Irish town of Drogheda in August .

British and American mediators descended on Salahuddin this month to push the talks forward. But the only test of success will be in the implem- entation, a problem that has undermined all previous promises to try to knit the 3.2 million people of Iraqi Kurdistan together again.

Points of difference remain much the same as they have since a feud over a piece of land in March 1994 sparked the conflagration. Mr Barzani now controls the richest customs point on the Turkish border, which produces pounds 36m of customs revenue per month. Mr Talabani controls the chief cities, Arbil and Sulyemaniyeh, and about 70 per cent of the population.

Only if they can share these will anything meaningful come out of easily agreed points such as reconvening parliament, appointing a new regional government and holding new parliamentary elections, possibly in May 1996. Only then can the indebted, Western-backed Iraqi National Congress resume its role as a bridge between the two Kurdish groups, organising an alternative to President Saddam's rule in Baghdad.

Hundreds of Kurdish guerrillas have been killed in 18 months of meaningless fighting. In the last elections in 1992, both Kurdish factions got votes in each other's areas, even though Mr Barzani's KDP is a more tribal, popular among Kermanci- dialect Kurds, while Mr Talabani's PUK is more urban and left-wing, popular among Surani-dialect Kurds.

In the end, Kurdish observers fear, the system of two adjacent single- party fiefdoms will continue until a decades-old feud between the two men is decisively resolved. In the meantime, regional states have not sat idle. The mountain homeland of the 25 million Kurds is split between Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran, and all of them want to ensure that the Kurds neither unite or threaten their internal security.

Damascus is manipulating the disruptive PKK Turkish Kurd rebels that it sponsors into a position of power in northern Iraq. Hard-pressed Baghdad is being more conciliatory to all factions. Tehran is fast developing a special relationship with Mr Talabani's PUK.

Iranian aid delegations have multiplied their visits. The KDP alleges Mr Talabani has also closed down the Iranian Kurd opposition radio, and has allowed the murder of 19 Iranian Kurdish activist..

"It's embarrassing and it's illogical. Enemies of the Kurds can now say the Kurds cannot rule themselves," said Sami Abdurahman, Mr Barzani's chief negotiator. "All of us are supposed to be on the same ship. Our ship has not arrived at any shore. We are in the wildest sea and we are still fighting among ourselves."