Visit to an ancestral Kurdish Fortress

One of the many locks US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice was charged with opening during her one-day May 15 visit to Iraq pertained to the rocky elations between the two top Kurdish leaders, Iraq’s new president Jalal Talabani and his former rival Masoud Barzani.

She was flown by helicopter to Saladhin, the northern Iraqi mountain stronghold of Kurdish Democratic Party leader Barzani after her talks in Baghdad.

Although clad in a flak jacket and helmet, Rice made sure to insist publicly that her body armor was no comment on the security situation in Iraq. But the Americans were taking no chances and her helicopter was escorted northward by attack helicopters and fighter planes.

Even such high altitude flights, out of the range of shoulder-held surface-to-air missiles, are risky. Technical problems, the weather, or just landing conditions make any flight in Iraq an exercise in survival. This applies particularly to the flight north over the Baghdad-Irbil land route which is in guerrilla hands. According to DEBKA-Met-Weekly’s Kurdish sources, 15-20 miles (24-32 km) of the road are under the control of hostile forces. A number of guerrilla groups do have shoulder-fired Strela missiles. Others have acquired even more sophisticated missiles – especially insurgent factions operating in the area west of Baghdad near the international airport and US air bases at Habaniyah.

Rice may have been on an unannounced trip – reporters accompanying her were allowed to inform only their supervising editors who too were under oath of secrecy – but US security officials did not rule out the possibility of insurgents quickly moving missiles over to likely visit venues once the news of her arrival was released.


Barzani needed for new constitution


Although Saladhin, Barzani’s main power base northeast of Irbil, is believed to be immune to guerrilla attack, Rice kept her flak jacket and helmet on even as he came out to welcome her. US officials were well aware that, while Kurdistan may be the safest place in Iraq – and arguably its most prosperous – two terrorist organizations linked to al Qaeda – Ansar al-Islam and Ansar al-Suna – run networks in the autonomous enclave. They also keep Kurdish mercenaries for suicide attacks. Barzani and Talabani are under no illusion that they are ever completely safe from assassination.

Rice’s visit was the first by a high-level member of the Bush administration to Barzani’s mountain headquarters; it was an implicit acknowledgement of the futility of trying to draft an Iraqi constitution by autumn without his consent.

Without a constitution, Saddam Hussein cannot be put on trial. But as long the proceedings are not started, the Sunnis leading the insurgency will not be approachable for a compromise for ending terrorism in Iraq.

Obstacles are posed, in the case of Ahmed Chalabi, the deputy prime minister who seeks rehabilitation from Jordan on his own terms, from personal pride, and in the case of president Talabani, from stubbornness. (See separate article in this issue.)

In previous issues, we reported how Talabani, after his election as president, reneged on a tacit understanding with his former rival Barzani. Under the deal, Talabani was to have reciprocated for Barzani’s support in his bid for the federal presidency by helping his helper become first president of Kurdistan.


Talabani: No can do, partner


Talabani now maintains he cannot deliver because the Americans and the central Baghdad government are dead set against the creation of a Kurdish presidential post.

Much in the way Chalabi’s problems with the Jordanian monarchy are holding up reconciliation with the Sunnis, the Talabani-Barzani rivalry is delaying the resolution of pressing issues such as the status of northern Iraqi oil fields, the constitution and the Kurdish role in drafting the document, and the war against Zarqawi’s guerrilla forces.

In Saldhin, DEBKA-Met-Weekly’s learn that Rice sought to smooth the friction between the two Kurdish leaders. It looked as though she succeeded and set the two men’s feet on the path of cooperation. She also appeared to have talked Chalabi round. But it is too soon to predict how events will unfold in the coming weeks and months – especially in light of the guerrilla war.

Rice heard optimistic reports in Saladhin, mainly from the Kurdish intelligence chief, who said: “It’s true the Iraqi underground has detonated a large number of explosive devices and car bombs, but the sound of explosions has not been as loud as in the past.”

He and other Kurdish intelligence officials assured Rice the insurgency was dying down.

Rice made no comment on this.

Leaving Saladhin by helicopter, she flew to the new Kurdish international airport at Irbil instead of heading back to Baghdad. A civilian plane was waiting at the little-known facility to fly her back to Washington.

The secretary of state was the first senior American official to use the new Kurdish airport, a symbol of the new reality in Iraq. It is now possible to fly direct to Kurdistan without bypassing Baghdad.

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