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Precarious Kurdish Unity

THE abrupt meeting between Kurdish leaders and Saddam Hussein stunned the Kurds and many in the West. The Iraqi news agency quickly circulated a photograph showing Jalal Talabani and Saddam kissing each other on both cheeks. Mr. Talabani is the most vocal Kurdish actor in this political drama. Two Kurdish proverbs might be used to describe the meeting. The first says, "If you cannot bite, do not show your teeth." The other says, "Believe in neither a pleasant winter nor a smile of an enemy." After the Kurdish military defeat, it seems that Talabani is complying with the first proverb and showing signs of reconciliation. It is not clear yet whether he trusts the ruthless enemy who smiles at him.

To analyze the circumstances that brought about the meeting in Baghdad, it is necessary to examine the two chief Kurdish leaders - Talabani and Masoud Barzani (who did not attend the meeting). Talabani, a lawyer by training, heads the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), while Barzani, whose father Mullah Mustafa was Talabani's lifelong rival, leads the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP). In the mid-'60s, Talabani fought the elder Barzani in conjunction with government troops. Masoud Barzani, like his father

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before him, has been a guerrilla commander all his life.

The meeting last month was not the first time Talabani sat with Saddam at the discussion table. In December 1983, during the Iraq-Iran war, Talabani entered peace negotiations with Saddam. The act was opposed by other Kurdish national movements in Iraq. The negotiations reminded Talabani's opponents of what they believed were treasonous events of the mid-'60s.

When the negotiations broke down in January 1985, hostilities between the two sides resumed. Talabani became the most notorious enemy of the Baath regime. In the past, he had spoken of mere autonomy for Iraqi Kurdistan, but after his 1985 disappointment he changed his objective to national self- determination leading to an independent Kurdish state.

Unity among the Kurds was slowly emerging during this time. Talabani's PUK gradually shifted its policy toward Barzani's KDP, which was allied with Teheran against Iraq. At the end of 1986, the military cooperation between Talabani's and Barzani's fighters resumed after a hiatus of more than 10 years. In the years to follow, Kurdish unity remained intact, though it was not seriously challenged by external events and powers as it might be now.

In the past, because of the enmity between the KDP and PUK, it was impossible to have both organizations on the same front. But various Kurdish leaders, including Barzani and Talabani, were forced to bury their differences, especially after the chemical attacks against Kurdish civilians in 1987-88. All Kurdish leaders adopted a united front. Their military tactics were changed; instead of using permanent bases in "liberated" territory and confronting the Iraqi army directly, the KDP returned to insurgen c

y tactics that involved small, highly trained units which targeted specific economic sites such as dams. The shift in Kurdish operational tactics in the late 1980s might have been another reason for the Kurdish military failure in March 1991.

Talabani's meeting with Saddam could be interpreted as an acknowledgment of Kurdish military failure. He recognized the inability of Kurdish fighters to succeed in a full-scale war that goes beyond mere hit-and-run guerrilla operations. The Kurds were unable to establish order in the region they captured. As an old clan leader said, "There was no regularized form of cooperation among the clans. They did not know how to operate the tanks, planes, and helicopters they seized from the Iraqis."

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Talabani probably hopes that with allied forces still in Kurdistan, he might have the opportunity to ensure Kurdish autonomy. When autonomy is achieved, the Kurds could look for a better political climate, preferably without Saddam, in which to achieve other goals. Talabani is trying, meanwhile, to find a political solution, despite the Iraqi government's history of betrayal.

KDP leader Masoud Barzani, the second main figure in the Kurdish front and Talabani's rival, did not participate in the Damascus press conference in mid-March. Neither did he take part in the delegation that met with Saddam. Instead, he sent his 25-year-old nephew, Nashirwan. Barzani prefers to remain inside northern Iraq alongside his fighters. It is not accidental that Masoud, who is known as a militant, keeps a low profile in the negotiations with Baghdad. He might not fully agree with these discussi o

ns, but he has no reason to back out. He has nothing to lose. He will wait to see whether the fruit that Talabani is picking is ripe before trying to eat it.

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