EARLY in August, only a few days after Iraq invaded Kuwait, a visitor to Washington lifted the lid of Pandora's box just a bit for a glimpse of some of its more obscure contents. The visitor was Jalal al-Din Talabani, leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, one of the Kurdish guerrilla groups that have been fighting Iraq. The Kurdish people are the largest ethnic minority in Iraq, some 3 million of the 16 million total population. Spread across the national boundaries that have been drawn in the region, there are also 2.5 million Kurds in Iran and perhaps 5 million in Turkey. The Kurds have maintained their distinct culture for at least 3,000 years. They have never been united under one ruler but have never ceased to struggle for independence.
Their most bitter fight has been with Iraq. Saddam Hussein has used poison gas against them. Nothing will erase the picture of the dead women and children in Halabja in 1988. Since then he has used chemical weapons to drive scores of thousands of Kurds out of the border area of northern Iraq. They are now refugees in Turkey. The Kurds have been utilized and victimized by others as well. The shah of Iran, supported by the United States and Israel, financed and armed a Kurdish rebellion against Baghdad only to drop it completely when he signed a treaty with Iraq in 1975. Iraq, for its part, has tried to incite the Kurds against both the shah and the mullahs in Tehran.
Earlier, the Soviet Union had championed the Kurdish cause. During World War II, Britain and the Soviet Union occupied Iran to ensure the transit of allied supplies to the Red Army from the Persian Gulf. In their northern zone of occupation, the Soviets in 1945 set up a Kurdish Republic of Mahabad and a Democratic Republic of Azerbaijan. They both collapsed when Soviet forces were made to withdraw from Iran in 1946.
Mr. Talabani came to Washington on his own (he had no trouble getting a visa) to see whether the US intended playing the Kurdish card against Saddam. The saying goes, in the Middle East, ``The enemy of my enemy is my friend.'' The State Department denies that he was received by a senior official. Talabani is a separatist who wants an independent Kurdistan. This is unacceptable to Turkey, which fears that such a state would attract Kurds in Turkey's southeastern provinces and threaten Turkey's territorial integrity.
The US, keenly aware of Turkey's value as an ally, especially in its cooperation in the embargo against Iraq, will do nothing to disturb Turkey. And if anyone in Washington is toying with the notion of covertly instigating a Kurdish uprising in Iraq (which may well be the case), Talabani will have told him that the Kurds have been burned too often pulling other people's chestnuts out of the fire. Besides, the American record at covert operations, like the Iran-contra caper, is a great deal less than impressive.
Ankara's concern with the Kurds goes beyond the political complications they hold for Turkey. It embraces a territorial claim, a legacy of the Ottoman empire. As an ally of Germany in World War I, the Ottoman empire was dismembered after defeat in 1918. Most of the carving was done by Great Britain, which arbitrarily created the states of Iraq and Kuwait. Today, Saddam Hussein justifies his annexation of Kuwait on the grounds that it had been part of the Turkish vilayet or province of Basra and should not have been torn from it.
As it happens, the British did exactly the same thing in Iraq's favor when they gave it the Ottoman province of Mosul in the north. The reasoning at the time - before the rich Rumaila oilfield was discovered in the south - was that the rest of Iraq would not be economically viable unless it were given the great northern oil basin of Kirkuk. Kirkuk, a mainly Kurdish city, as it happens, is in the old province of Mosul. Turkey has never agreed to the loss of Mosul and Kirkuk but was forced to swallow the bill under British pressure in 1926. The Turkish claim has survived. In 1986, when Iraq was at its lowest ebb in the war with Iran, Turkey officially notified Iran and the US that it would demand the return of Mosul and Kirkuk if Iraq were defeated.
Turkey joined the United Nations coalition without hesitation after Iraq attacked Kuwait on Aug. 2, shutting down the Iraqi oil pipelines across its territory. Since then, unofficial voices have reasserted the claim to Mosul and Kirkuk. There is no doubt that they echo official thinking. One day, when the present mess in the Middle East is untangled, this question and its Kurdish ramifications will have to be dealt with, too.