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Tuesday, 20 November, 2001, 14:22 GMT
Analysis: Kurds 'caught in the crossfire'
Saddam Hussein
Saddam Hussein: "I can go back to the Kurdish cities whenever I want"
By the BBC's Hiwa Osman

Iraqi President Saddam Hussein recently received a delegation of Kurds in which he told them that the only way to solve problems betwen the Kurdish and Arab "sons of the homeland" was through dialogue and wisdom.

But he also vowed to cut out the tongue of whoever refuses to enter a "calm dialogue" with him.

As Saddam Hussein was speaking, his troops were massing at the dividing line between the Kurdish-controlled area in the north and the areas still under his control.

These developments are taking place at a time when the US has accused Iraq of developing biological weapons in violation of an international ban.

Kurds' anxiety

And US Secretary of State Colin Powell has also warned of warned of possible military action against Iraq. He said that after defeating al-Qaeda: "We will turn our attention to terrorism throughout the world, and nations such as Iraq, which have tried to pursue weapons of mass destruction."

An important factor in such attack could be the role of the northern Kurds, who have the only fighting force on the ground among possible opposition players.

But they view the latest developments with anxiety.

The Kurds are caught between the threat of an attack by the Iraqi troops if they decide to co-operate, and the risk of losing US protection if they remain on the sidelines.

The Prime MInister of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan Government (PUK) Dr Barham Salih said: "The political scene in the region is about to undergo major changes. Sooner or later, these changes will affect our area.

"It is vital that we prepare ourselves and seize this opportunity to secure a future for our people."

Iraqi Kurds
They have been in control of their area since 1991
The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) share power
They enjoy Western protection since the establishment of the UN safe haven
Fearing reprisals from Baghdad in the event of an unsuccessful US attack on Iraq, the Kurds seem to be wary about co-operating with Washington.

Mas'ud Barzani, the leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) which shares power with the PUK, said: "We will not take part in any plan to change the regime unless our rights are taken into consideration."

Since 11 September, Iraqi Kurds and Baghdad have expressed opposing positions. Iraq is one of the few countries that has not condemned the attack nor expressed support for the "war on terrorism".

Critical decision

On the other hand, the Kurds in the north have extended sympathy for victims of the attack and expressed support for the US-led response.

If the US decides to attack Iraq, the Kurds will be faced with a critical decision.

So far the Kurds have not ruled out the possibility of talks with Baghdad.

Leading PUK figure Adel Murad told BBC News Online that dialogue between the Kurds and Baghdad is possible if it is conducted "on the basis of democracy and federalism for Iraq and an end to ethnic cleansing in the Baghdad-held Kurdish areas".

But the Kurdish terms of dialogue are unlikely to conform with the Iraqi president's - he has said that no-one can stop him from going to the Kurdish cities.

Dr Mahmoud Osman, an independent Kurdish politician, said: "The Kurds will have to be very careful not to become once more a victim of regional and international deals."

See also:

08 Nov 01 | Middle East
Powell says Iraq may be next target
31 Aug 01 | Middle East
Iraqi Kurds face uncertain future
02 Oct 01 | Middle East
Iraqi Kurds fear new Islamist group
03 Nov 01 | Middle East
Iraqi Kurds' story of expulsion
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