The leader of the Kurdish group that has allied itself with Iraqi President Saddam Hussein angrily criticized the U.S. missile attacks on southern Iraq and said that he had asked for Baghdad’s support only because the United States has abandoned the Kurds.
Massoud Barzani, whose Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) forces have been fighting alongside Saddam Hussein’s forces in northern Iraq, said his organization had no choice but to side with Baghdad.
The KDP called on Saddam for help, he said, in response to a threat of an alliance between its rivals in the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and Iran.
The American military attack has embroiled the United States in internal Iraqi politics, essentially forcing it to take sides in a decades-old dispute between the two rival Kurdish factions.
The irony is that the faction that benefits from the American intervention - the one led by lawyer and former journalist Jalal Talabani - currently is supported by Iran, the world’s leading “rogue state” in Washington’s view.
Barzani said he appealed not only to the United States but also to Britain, France, Germany, Turkey and regional states when his party felt the PUK was getting Iranian rocket and artillery support in a series of attacks and incursions since late July.
The United States launched missile attacks on southern Iraq this week to punish Baghdad for Saddam’s armored attacks in Kurdistan. But Barzani said the missile attack was “just part of President Clinton’s election campaign.”
Looking tense and tired after a weekend in which his forces collaborated with Baghdad to capture the Iraqi Kurdish capital of Irbil, Barzani said that his faction had become impatient with empty U.S. promises to assist Kurdish autonomy.
“We are angry with America. For two years the Americans have been playing with us,” he told a news conference at his hilltop headquarters at Salahuddin, just outside Irbil.
Talabani, the PUK leader, told Reuters news agency Tuesday that Iraqi troops and tanks were still deployed in the region.
Talabani’s party had held Irbil since 1994, when an uneasy Kurdish alliance collapsed in fighting.
KDP officials say that the only Western diplomat who visits them with any regularity is the much-liked Frank Baker from the British Embassy in Ankara in Turkey.
High-powered American diplomats dropped by infrequently, made threats and left soon afterward, making little lasting impact, they said.
Allied officers in a small monitoring base close to the Turkish border rarely venture more than a few kilometers anymore, they said, and due to Turkish pressure have virtually no political contact with the Iraqi Kurdish leadership.
“We felt our existence was threatened,” said Barzani. “There was no response to our appeal. We also wrote to the regional leaders and to the president of the Iraqi republic. Then there certainly was a response to our appeal.”
The response from Baghdad was Iraqi armor and artillery support for their joint attack on Irbil on Saturday.
The new atmosphere is symbolized by two flags flying side-by-side over Irbil’s landmark citadel: that of the KDP and that of Iraq.
KDP troops wielding Kalashnikov rifles patrolled Irbil Wednesday, cruising the empty boulevards in pickup trucks. Shops were closed, and not many residents had summoned the courage to venture out.
Iraqi troops were nowhere to be seen. The few people willing to talk about the soldiers said they had left town on Tuesday; nobody seemed to know where they had gone.
The buildings housing the offices of Kurdistan’s provisional government were pocked with shell holes and surrounded by broken glass and debris. Otherwise, however, this city of 750,000 looked remarkably intact just days after the massive Iraqi sweep.
But it was clear that a change had taken place. At Talabani’s headquarters, which had been painted in his trademark green, a guerrilla was busy Wednesday applying thick coats of yellow paint - Barzani’s color.
Factional infighting has long been a fact of life in Kurdistan, and Irbil’s residents know that today’s winners may be tomorrow’s losers. They also know that careless words can prove deadly. No one was willing to volunteer a description of the fighting that led to Irbil’s changing hands, and few were willing to attach their names to an opinion of whether the change was good or bad.
“If the PUK is here, we like the PUK. If the KDP is here, we like the KDP,” said Sardar Mustafa, who manned one of the few stores open for business, a shop near the citadel that offered a meager selection of cheap belts and pants.
Saddam has razed many hundreds of Kurdish villages and killed tens of thousands of Kurds, including with the use of poison gas. The specter of Barzani’s KDP faction formerly Saddam’s bitter enemy - fighting on the same side with the Iraqi dictator’s troops seemed to have deeply shocked the people of Irbil.
“I’m quite frightened,” said Ronaq Rafiq Tawfiq, a 25-year-old school-teacher who had left Irbil to stay with relatives in Salahuddin. “There is still the sound of shooting at night.”
At his hilltop headquarters, fitfully supplied with power from a substandard generator, Barzani said no formal talks had opened on the future relations of the KDP with Saddam. But, he noted, Saddam was still the president of Iraq.
“We have not separated from the rest of Iraq. We love our Kurdish flag but also there is the central flag,” Barzani said.
“If Iraq is ready to recognize the rights of the Kurdish people, if the Iraqis can meet our demands, we can make an agreement.”
The change of sentiment has struck a chord among many of the Kurds ruled by Barzani’s KDP, which now controls two of the three provinces of Iraqi Kurdistan.
Worn down by five years of deprivation, blockade, internal fighting and fading Western interest, Iraqi Kurds are more and more ready to discuss getting back together with the Iraqi central government.
“The dream of an independent Kurdistan is gone,” Mohsen, an Iraqi Kurdish teacher, said. “There were many who believed in it a few years ago, but now, after these wars, people are much more realistic.”
The following fields overflowed: CREDIT = From wire reports The Independent of London, The Washington Post and The New York Times contributed to this report.