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Kurdish leader helped by Saddam rethinks the partnership

Barzani

He assures world: Kurdish territory ours, not his

September 12, 1996
Web posted at: 10:20 p.m. EDT (0220 GMT)

SULAHADDIN, Iraq (CNN) -- There was more fighting Thursday between rival Kurdish factions in northern Iraq as exiled Iraqi opposition groups tried to muster support around the world for their efforts to topple Saddam Hussein.

Exiles are weighing the effects of the recent Kurdish Democratic Party rout in Irbil of its rival -- the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan -- with the Iraqi president's help. The consequences of the KDP victory are still unfolding.

Meanwhile, KDP leader Massoud Barzani seems to be reevaluating his allegiance to Saddam, whose troops assaulted the Kurdish enclave August 31, prompting missile attacks from the United States.

He has hastened to assure other countries that his alignment with Iraq was only temporary. In an exclusive interview with CNN, he emphasized that the territory held by the KDP remains Kurdish territory, not Saddam's.

Barzani also downplayed an obvious rift with the United States, saying Kurdistan still needs the shield of U.S. air power. He said his representative in Washington is in regular contact with the CIA.

The KDP victory triggered last week's U.S. air strikes, and wiped out a Kurdish safe haven that had been established and protected by allied forces since Operation Desert Storm.

Now, exiled Iraqi opposition groups are working overtime to muster support for their efforts to unseat Saddam. They say the return of his troops to northern Iraq at the invitation of the KDP is a blow to their work.

Albayati

"Kurdistan was an important source of information. It helped Iraqi opposition a lot to send people (there) to get information," said Hamid Al-Bayati of the Iraqi National Congress, an anti-Saddam group. "However, our work will continue inside Iraq. We have cells inside Baghdad and other provinces."

A setback for the West

Analysts say Saddam's presence in the north is also a setback for Western intelligence-gathering operations in Iraq, with the goal of encouraging an uprising against Baghdad's rule.

"Essentially there's no way of operating an Iraqi opposition inside areas of Iraq controlled by Saddam Hussein," said Rosemary Hollis of the Royal Institute of International Affairs.

Osman

"To the extent that Saddam Hussein's control will be reasserted in northeastern Iraq, in Iraqi Kurdistan, that has wiped out the possibility of a rallying point existing inside the country to take on the government of Baghdad."

Barzani's request for Saddam's help in gaining control of the north from the PUK capped more than 30 years of modern Kurdish civil war. Exiled Kurdish leaders are horrified.

"For a party to ... bring the Iraqi army and hit the other party and increase the conflict, increase inter-Kurdish fight and create a situation in Kurdistan in which half are siding with Saddam and the other half are against, would be misutilized by Iran and the others, that is a disaster," said Mahmoud Osman of the Iraqi Kurdistan Front.

"Where does that leave the Iraqi opposition? It's not clear that there's any main stronghold for that opposition. It always had a difficulty in terms of reputation, in terms of viability, in terms of credibility," Hollis said.

Barzani says Iraqi troops have pulled out of the region, and he isn't even talking to Baghdad about future relations. He was once the target of a Saddam assassination attempt.

With refugees now mostly back home in Sulaymaniyah in eastern Kurdistan, he says his biggest concern is promoting what his neighbors want: stability.

Correspondents Margaret Lowrie and Richard Blystone contributed to this report.

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