Kurdish leaders try to piece ‘giant puzzle’
WAR ON TERROR
Kurdish leaders try to piece ‘giant puzzle’
Factions complicate task of pulling together before possible war
By BRIAN MURPHY Associated Press
Sunday, October 27, 2002
Irbil, Iraq — The complexities of Iraq’s Kurdish enclave are written in the flags.
Green banners are planted by the pro-Western faction that holds the east. Yellow and red symbolize its newfound partner that controls the bulk of the region.
More than 30 other groups fly a host of different colors — from old-school communists with their hammer and sickle on a red background to the all-black insignia of Islamic militants accused of links to al-Qaida.
Throw in a supporting cast of minorities, such as Turkmens and Christian Assyrians, each unfurling their own emblems.
This kind of rainbow is not a welcome sight for those trying to stabilize and organize the Kurds’ U.S.-protected haven in northern Iraq.
“This place is a giant puzzle,” said Hatab Bakogli, political officer for the Iraqi National Turkmen Party, which seeks strong links with Turkey as its ethnic motherland. “It’s not just so simple as saying, ‘The Kurdish area is against Saddam.’ We can be against each other.”
The gamut of loyalties and perspectives — some overlapping, others at odds — complicate the task confronting Iraqi Kurds and others in the semi-autonomous area: pulling together before a possible U.S.-led war targeting Saddam Hussein’s regime.
A return of internal Kurdish squabbles could tear apart any potential post-Hussein government. How Kurds define their borders and political status will be closely watched by neighbors led by Turkey, which has threatened to challenge any steps for greater autonomy among the 3.5 million people in the Iraqi Kurdish zone.
For the moment, the buzz words are unity among Kurds and federation with the rest of Iraq.
The two main groups — the dominant Kurdistan Democratic Party and the smaller Patriotic Union of Kurdistan — fought each other for power and land in the mid-1990s. But they have reconciled. Their leaders met this month in a high-profile display of cooperation.
All establishment officials read from the same script: There is no bid for independence — only a type of federation within Iraq.
The messages may be about standing together, but the reality suggests something less cohesive in the region wedged between Turkey, Iran and Syria.
The various factions are still highly insular and suspicious.
In the administrative capital Irbil, the Democratic Party displays red and yellow flags and police cadets’ badges depict party chief Masoud Barzani. In Patriot Union territory, stern portraits of leader Jalal Talabani adorn checkpoints.
The big factions watch each other for any signs of stress in the goodwill after a three-year truce. And they both watch Hussein for signs of infiltration.
An official with Barzani’s party said several spies for Hussein are known. “We keep an eye on them,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “It’s the old cat-and-mouse game of espionage.”
Some militias are setting their own hard-line course.
The fundamentalist Islamic group Ansar al-Islam rules a small patch along the Iranian border that U.S. authorities claim is a haven for some fugitive al-Qaida loyalists. Washington makes other strong allegations: that crude chemical weapons tests have been conducted on the territory of Ansar al-Islam, or Supporters of Islam.
At a garrison outpost marked by the group’s black flag, fighters would not allow an Associated Press reporter to proceed to the stronghold village of Biyara. The militiamen claimed no knowledge of al-Qaida ties but said cross-border help comes from Iranian supporters. The Iranian government denies any link to the group.
Their huts held a range of weapons: automatic rifles, hand grenades, mortars and rocket-propelled grenades. A pile of books included texts on Islamic holy war and martyrdom.
Dark slashes were drawn over newspaper photos of mainstream Iraqi Kurdish leaders.
“It’s a small group, but any faction that has weapons can cause problems,” said Adbul Ghanite al-Bazaz, a Muslim cleric who leads the more moderate Islamic Movement of Kurdistan.
His party maintains a private militia and controls about 200 mosques, he said. Its symbol is a gun barrel and bayonet rising from a Qur’an.
“We want a federation with Iraq with all the voices here to be heard,” al-Bazaz said. “It would be a mistake to leave anyone out.”
Top officials object to any proposals to dilute the region’s self- rule, which now includes a parliament, police forces and a telecommunications company. Kurdish leaders also want to expand their authority to nearby oil-rich areas now under Hussein’s control, a move that Turkey promises to fight.
Turkey considers the oil-producing regions around Kirkuk and Mosul an ethnic Turkish heartland. It also worries a bigger and richer Iraqi Kurdish enclave could encourage Turkish Kurdish rebels who launched a battle for autonomy in the 1980s.
“We will not allow a pseudo-state in the bosom of Turkey,” Turkish Foreign Minister Sukru Sina Gurel said last week.
Iraqi Kurdish leaders have tried to assure Turkey that they don’t want independence. But the dreams on the streets are different.
“I won’t be happy until we have a country of our own,” insisted Delshad Rahim, 21.
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