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Kurds offer territory for Iraq attack

Talabani: "Believe me, the United States is very popular now in Iraqi Kurdistan."  

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- A prominent Iraqi Kurdish opposition leader said Tuesday U.S. military forces would be "welcomed" at areas in Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq to stage attacks against Saddam Hussein's regime.

Jalal Talabani, founder and secretary-general of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, told CNN's Wolf Blitzer that after weekend meetings with top Bush administration officials, he and other Iraqi opposition leaders are convinced the United States is now serious about ousting Hussein.

"I explained to the United States officials here that the Iraqi opposition, Kurds included, ... have tens of thousands of armed people," Talabani told Blitzer in an interview.

"We have more than 100,000 (Kurdish resistance fighters), and Syria also has tens of thousands. These forces can liberate Iraq with the support of the United States, with cooperation and coordination with American forces. This is all second, of course, with allowing the United States and facilitating any work that the United States wants to use our area until we stay there."

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The opposition leaders met with Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Colin Powell, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, as well as other top officials.

Talabani said that despite rumors to the contrary, "The American army will be very warmly welcomed in Iraqi Kurdistan."

"Believe me, the United States is very popular now in Iraqi Kurdistan," he said.

A U.S. official told CNN the Bush administration is assessing the offer. The official said the Iraqi opposition has previously made similar offers in private, but this is the first time they have gone public with an offer to use areas in northern Iraq. (View a map of the areas in Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq)

At Tuesday's Pentagon briefing, Rumsfeld was asked if he was aware of the offer and if it was helpful that it was made publicly. The secretary said he doesn't recall hearing the offer in the meetings, which he described as "constructive."

"If I said, 'My goodness, that's a big help,' it suggests that we plan to go use them. And that is a decision the president has not made," Rumsfeld.

Talabani said he expected Hussein to respond to the Kurdish offer by attacking with chemical or biological weapons. He said Iraqi opposition groups have asked the United States for equipment to protect against chemical or biological attacks.

"They promised to help and to protect us. Even Dick Cheney was clear when we asked him about the protection of the Kurdish people. He said he would do it," Talabani said.

Turkey -- a staunch U.S. ally during the Gulf War -- has expressed concern that military action could lead to the creation of an independent Kurdish state on its border and encourage Kurdish separatists in Turkey.

Turkey has been fighting a 15-year civil war with Kurdish militants in the southeast of the country.




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