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Iraqi Kurds are in a limbo. That, at least, they will freely admit. As to who is to blame is another matter. For eight years or so the rugged Kurdish north of Iraq has been independent of Baghdad, ever since the failed Kurdish uprising of 1991 when almost two million Kurds fled to the Turkish and Iranian borders. The question on the minds of many Kurds, as they ponder the future, is whether they will have to flee their homeland en masse again.

Under the control of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) the region has had, in the last two years, one of its longest periods of tranquility since the enclave became independent in 1991. The last -- and most serious -- bout of fighting between the two parties was in October 1997. Then the PUK allied itself with the Turkish Kurdish Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in an assault that almost brought the KDP to its knees. It was only timely intervention by Turkey's powerful military that brought a halt to the fighting, forcing the PUK back to its Sulymanya headquarters in the south east of the enclave.

Since then it has partly been the threat of further Turkish intervention that has held the peace between the two parties. Negotiations, starting in January 1998, began a painfully protracted and drawn out process of reconciliation which finally saw both parties agreeing to elections, albeit at an unspecified date. For all this, though, the two parties continue to disagree on what observers have called "minor and petty points of little consequence", which continue to hold back the implementation of the peace process and elections. The process between the two parties has received relatively firm backing from Washington, where in September 1998 the two Kurdish leaders, Massoud Barzani and Jalal Talabani, signed a peace agreement.

Elections, though, will essentially solve little in the long term. At best they will bring a close to the power struggle between the two main parties that has wracked the region since 1994 and bring a strong and much needed dose of internal stability to Iraqi Kurdistan.

Of greater concern to both Kurdish leaders is the unavoidable day of reckoning with Baghdad. Indeed, at the root of the instability in the Kurdish region has been this very question.

Whilst Iraqi Kurdistan has been -- and continues to be -- protected by Allied forces under Operation Northern Watch, the region has been embargoed, first from Baghdad and secondly under the wider embargo on Iraq, since 1991. Almost the sole, and certainly the largest, source of revenue for the region has been the numerous trucks crossing the border between Turkey and Iraq trading in cheap oil.

Given that the PUK and KDP have a historical antipathy within the Iraqi Kurdish movement, dating back to the 1960s, and combined with the KDP's control of the border and the fact that both parties were starved of resources, it is hardly surprising that tensions over the oil revenues exploded into fighting in 1994.

And, to an extent, it has been this latter issue, combined with political differences and personal rivalries that has kept the region in a whirlpool of instability. But a far greater impetus in pushing the region towards war has been the instability of the Kurdish region vis a vis Baghdad. Whilst the US has guaranteed Kurdish security in the face of potential agression by Saddam Hussein it still leaves a large question mark over the future of the Kurdish enclave in any post-Saddam Iraq. This uncertainty has been a powerful lever in exacerbating tensions between the two parties whose tactics and ideas of how to tackle the problem differ markedly. As much as anything the fighting has been an effort by both sides to gain the dominant position for any future negotiations -- or fighting for that matter -- with Baghdad.

Crucially, this issue has yet to be resolved. Indeed, there is little sign that it will be; a recent meeting last November in New York drew the Iraqi opposition, including the Kurds, together for the first time in seven years. A revamped Iraqi National Congress (INC) -- theoretically designed to act as an umbrella group for the Iraqi opposition -- has received the apparent blessing of the United States. Last year the US earmarked $97 million for the Iraqi opposition, if it proved capable of getting its act together. Whilst the New York meeting drew praise from US officials, little, apart from lip service statements to democracy, was accomplished.

The influential Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) boycotted the meeting as being overly reliant on Washington. This leaves the PUK and KDP as the only two other parties in the INC who have any serious opposition on the ground to Saddam Hussein.

Whilst the US now maintains that disposing of Saddam is one of its top international priorities, such statements are unconvincing. Despite his genocidal campaigns against the Kurds in northern Iraq, Saddam has yet to be indicted on any genocide charges, unlike Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, responsible for far fewer deaths, who has been indicted for war crimes. An indictment would, at the very least, be an indication that the US is indeed serious about not just disposing of Saddam Hussein, but backing some form of democracy in a future Iraq. Instead, US moves leave many in the opposition with the distinct impression that the Americans are simply biding their time as a substitute for any kind of policy towards Iraq.

Indeed, of the $97 million going to the opposition, the US has already made clear that this will be for non-military purposes, thus ruling out any arming of the opposition. Whilst few in the opposition believe that an armed conflict can be won against Saddam Hussein, the lack of weaponry leaves the Kurds, at least, defenceless.

If there is anything to be drawn from the recent New York meeting and the recent history of the `safe haven', it does little more, on the one hand, than underline the layers of internal mistrust between the Iraqi opposition themselves and, between them, and their American sponsors. On the other, it essentially demonstrates that neither side has a mutually inclusive view of a future Iraq. For everybody concerned it is a waiting game. And it is only with the departure of Saddam Hussein from the scene that anyone will really be willing to reveal their hands. In the meantime, for Iraq's Kurds the question is whether they will be able to form, let alone hold, a common front for that day.
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Author:Scott, Roddy
Publication:The Middle East
Geographic Code:7IRAQ
Date:Dec 1, 1999

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