While US planners continue to deliberate over transfer-of-power elections in Iraq and whether pivotal Shiite leader Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani will play ball, Iraqi Kurds are on the move.
Jalal Talabani, head of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and arguably the most powerful member of Iraq’s US-appointed governing council, led a large Kurdish delegation into secret talks with US administrator Paul Bremer last weekend. Representatives of the Kurdish Democratic Party, headed by the second most influential Kurdish leader in northern Iraq, Massoud Barzani, also took part. This meeting was supposed to be a pacifier after their last encounter ten days ago when Bremer scolded the Kurds for harking back to the pre-war American near-independence plan for their region instead of concerning themselves with the next stage of the Iraqi republic’s future after Saddam Hussein.
After that meeting, Talabani pulled some wires in the White House and asked for Bremer to be put on notice to pull his punches with the Kurds. This time, instead of falling into line behind Bremer, Talabani and his colleagues, according to DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources in Kurdistan and Baghdad, raised three explosive points touching vitally on Iraqi territorial integrity:
No Iraqi forces, including those the Americans are training, will be permitted to enter Kurdistan under any condition. The new Iraqi army will be able to deploy only up to the Kurdistan border fence.
The 85,000 Kurdish soldiers controlled by Talabani and Barzani will be unified into a single “Kurdish Border Patrol”. The force will be Kurdish-led and any contact with the new Iraqi general staff limited to exchanges of messages on cooperation and joint operations.
(See “Talabani’s Fallback Plan for his own Kurdistan”, DEBKA-Net-Weekly 140, January 2, 2004).
There will be no Iraqi administrative offices in Kurdistan.
Bremer reserved comment on these demands. But the Kurdish leaders appear convinced that Washington will not stand in the way of what they are calling an “independent Kurdish state in camouflage”, spanning northern Iraq. The Kurds and DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s experts believe the United States will agree to such an arrangement because:
Washington has abandoned any hope of Syrian president Bashar Assad indeed ceasing his country’s involvement in the guerrilla war against US troops in Iraq. Consequently, the United States will not oppose the establishment of a strong Kurdish state or entity that will deploy forces to block the flow of arms and fighters across the Syrian-Iraqi border.
(See separate article in this issue on Syrian arms bazaar on the Iraqi frontier).
A Kurdish state will stand in the way of Turkish ambitions to take over northern Iraqi oilfields around the cities of Kirkuk and Mosul. The United States is not interfering in Turkey’s campaign to join the European Union but it does not want Ankara to feel it also has a green light to establish a presence in Iraq. That represents a dramatic departure from Washington’s policy of just a year ago, on the eve of the US invasion of Iraq. As far as the Bush administration is concerned, the Turks will have to make do with control over pipelines from Iraq, Central Asia and the Caucasus that carry oil to the Mediterranean.
The Kurds see a parallel between their situation and intensive US efforts to establish a pro-American government and a strong US military and political presence in the former Soviet republic of Georgia following the overthrow of president Eduard Shevardnadze. A pro-American Georgia north of Turkey and a pro-American Kurdish state to its south will complete the US military ring around Turkey.