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Saturday, 15 December, 2001, 18:32 GMT
Iraqi Kurds buoyed by US visit
Ryan Crocker with KDP leader Massoud Barzani
The US team met both the main leaders
By the BBC's Hiwa Osman

Iraqi Kurds have hailed the visit of a US State Department delegation to their region as a gesture of continued US commitment to their protection.

The delegation, led by senior State Department official Ryan Crocker, met the leaders of the two main parties - Massoud Barzani's Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and Jalal Talabani's Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK).

The PUK said the Americans had reaffirmed the commitment of President Bush's administration to the protection of the Kurdish region and its 13% share of the UN oil-for-food programme.

At the same time, the Kurdish parties played down speculation that Washington was planning to use the region as a base for attacking Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's regime.


Talk of attacking Iraq or turning Iraqi Kurdistan into a launch-pad is premature and this was never raised in the talks with the American delegation

Hoshyar Zebary
KDP foreign relations chief

The US visitors also discussed the implementation of a peace treaty between the PUK and KDP signed in Washington in 1998.

In an interview with BBC News Online, the PUK's prime minister, Barham Salih, described the visit as "an important reminder of American engagement with the situation in Iraqi Kurdistan".

Hoshyar Zebari, the KDP's foreign relations chief, told the BBC for his part that the visit had been "timely" and was very well received by the KDP and PUK leaders.

"It will have a substantial affect on the morale of the people," he said.

Saddam's approaches

The visit comes amidst growing speculation that the US is planning to extend its war on terror to Iraq.

Baghdad and Washington are engaged in an ongoing undeclared rivalry to woo the Kurds.

Talabani and Croker in Dukan
PUK leader Jalal Talabani thanked the US for its support

Iraqi President Saddam Hussein has made calls for dialogue in a softer and more compromising tone than he did in November when he vowed to "cut out the tongue of whoever refuses".

The Iraqi president's repeated calls for dialogue are seen by observers as an indication of an increased conviction by Baghdad of the certainty of a US-led attack.

A likely scenario in such attack would be for the Kurdish region to be used as a launch-pad for attacks against the Baghdad government.

But the Kurds say they did not discuss any scenario of this kind with the US delegation.


The visit was an important reminder of American engagement in Iraqi Kurdistan

Barham Salih
PUK prime minister

"Any talk of attacking Iraq or turning Iraqi Kurdistan into a launch-pad or replicating the northern alliance scenario in Afghanistan is premature and this was never raised in the talks," said the KDP's Mr Zebari.

Iraqi threat

The position of the Kurds in the case of an attack remains unclear, but it seems it will be dictated by American intentions about the future of Iraq.

"It depends on whether this attack is part of an overall policy of regime change or a determent policy to bring a new Iraq where the Kurdish people would be fully represented," said Mr Zebari.

Another factor the Kurds are taking into account is the ever-present risk of Iraqi reprisals.

"We are very mindful of the implications of any evolving situation on the plight of the Kurdish people," said the PUK's Mr Salih.

He added that Iraqi Kurds had made "an important statement about the viability of democracy" which could have "important bearings" on the future of Iraq.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
Barham Salih
The visit was an important reminder
Hoshyar Zebari
Any talk of attacking Iraq is premature
See also:

11 Dec 01 | Middle East
US officials meet Iraqi Kurds
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
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