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Tuesday, 11 December, 2001, 16:42 GMT
US officials meet Iraqi Kurds
Kurds in northern Iraq
The Iraqi Kurds' safe haven is out of Baghdad's control
US State Department officials are meeting Kurdish opposition leaders in northern Iraq, fuelling speculation that the US is planning to extend its war on terror to the country.

The US delegation, the first to visit since February, arrived in the Kurds' UN-sponsored safe haven on Monday.

The region is outside Baghdad's control, so Kurdish forces there could be key to any attempt to remove the Iraqi President, Saddam Hussein, from power.

The move came as US temporarily transferred the headquarters of its military operations in the Middle East and Central Asia from Georgia to Kuwait.

Fighting obstacle

A State Department spokesman said the purpose of its visit was to demonstrate continued US involvement with the Iraqi opposition and to mediate between rival Kurdish factions.

Two parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), have shared power in the region since 1992.

But the Kurds have a long history of fighting one another.

The US delegation, lead by senior State Department Official Ryan Cocker, will also check on food deliveries under the oil-for-food programme, the spokesman said.

The programme allows Iraq to sell a limited amount of oil to enable it to buy food and medicine.

Calls for attacks

Eight US legislators last week called for humanitarian assistance and military training for Iraqi opposition parties.

In a letter to President George W Bush, they said US attempts to remove Saddam Hussein from power would not succeed without the help of local allies.

The US said its decision to move the headquarters of its military operations in the area - known as the Third US Army - to Kuwait was because of time zone and distance difficulties.

About 4,500 US troops are based in Kuwait, together with squadrons of US and British warplanes that regularly patrol the skies over southern Iraq.

European and Middle Eastern leaders have expressed concern that Mr Bush will cave in to pressure from hawks in his administration to launch attacks on Iraq.

KDP leader Mas'ud Barzani
Mas'ud Barzani: no co-operation without backing for Kurds' rights

The hawks, led by Deputy Secretary of Defence Paul Wolfowitz propose using the mainly Shi'ite south of the country, rather than the north, as the means to overthrow Saddam.

Pragmatists in Washington, notably Secretary of State Colin Powell, want to use diplomatic means to deal with Iraq - and favour a vigorous effort to force Saddam to accept the return of UN weapons inspectors.

Kurdish fears

The Kurds are also wary of allowing the north to be used as a launching-pad for attacks against the Baghdad government.

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

The BBC's Hiwa Osman, who has reported from northern Iraq, says that the Kurds are caught between the threat of a reprisal by Iraqi troops if they decided to co-operate with a US attack, and the risk of losing US protection if they remained on the sidelines.

KDP leader Mas'ud Barzani has said his party will not take part in any plan to change the regime unless Kurdish rights are taken into consideration.

Iraq's estimated four million Kurds have a long history of crushed resistance attempts.

Saddam Hussein killed more than 5,000 of them with mustard gas in 1988, near the end of the Iran-Iraq war in which the Iraqi Kurds backed Iran.

The Iraqi Kurds have also been urged to rebel by America before.

They heeded Western calls for a revolt against Saddam Hussein, seizing several towns during the closing chapter of the Gulf War.

But the US-led coalition failed to intervene when the Iraqi leader crushed the Kurds' uprising with military helicopters he had been allowed to keep.

The death toll may have been as high as 100,000. An estimated 1-2 million Iraqi Kurds fled into Iran and Turkey.

See also:

08 Nov 01 | Middle East
Powell says Iraq may be next target
02 Oct 01 | Middle East
Iraqi Kurds fear new Islamist group
31 Aug 01 | Middle East
Iraqi Kurds face uncertain future
03 Nov 01 | Middle East
Iraqi Kurds' story of expulsion
17 Feb 00 | Middle East
Iraq slams US visit to Kurds
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