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Last Updated:  Monday, 3 March, 2003, 00:31 GMT
US reassures Iraq opposition on Turkey

By Jim Muir
BBC correspondent in Salahuddin, northern Iraq

Delegates at the Salahuddin meeting
The meeting seemed to bridge the gap between US and the opposition

Iraqi opposition leaders, gathered in the northern Iraqi Kurdish summer resort of Salahuddin in a four-day meeting that ended late on Saturday, had hoped to focus largely on preparations to fill the vacuum after the anticipated impending overthrow of Saddam Hussein.

But much of their time was taken up with a new crisis: Washington's agreement that Turkish troops can enter northern Iraq as part of the deal for coalition forces to open a northern front against Saddam through Turkey.

The broader deal is currently snagged in the Turkish parliament.

Even if it is scrapped, the Kurds fear that Turkish forces will cross the border unilaterally as war engulfs the rest of Iraq from other directions.

Iraqi Kurds, both politicians and ordinary people, are outraged at the idea.

Turkish suppression fears

They have deep-seated historical suspicions of Turkish intentions, and fear the Turks are out to rob them of the gains they have made in 12 years of effective autonomy under western air protection.

Any involvement by any power in Iraq has to be fully coordinated with the coalition, and they must leave when we leave
US special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad
"The Kurds now truly are much more concerned about the Turkish threat to send armed forces then about any attack from Baghdad," said Sami Abdul Rahman, deputy prime minister of the half of the Kurdish enclave in northern Iraq ruled by Masoud Barzani's Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP).

"Saddam has killed many of our people, but all he can do now is only to kill more," he added.

"He cannot come and persecute the Kurdish population. But there is real fear that if the Turkish forces come in, they will suppress our people, demolish all the achievements of the last 10 years, and strangle the hopes and aspirations of our people for generations."

US position

The Kurds' apprehensions were shared by their Iraqi Arab allies in the broader opposition, who unanimously saw it as an issue of Iraqi sovereignty and territorial integrity.

Ahmad Chalabi, head of the Iraqi National Congress, with his bodyguards at Salahuddin
Chalabi: People of Iraq had a chance "to continue the sovereignty of Iraqis over Iraq"

The issue dominated behind-the-scenes discussions at the opposition meeting.

Its much-debated closing declaration said the gathering "rejects Turkish military intervention, or the intervention of any other regional power in Iraqi internal affairs".

This collided clearly with the position of a high-ranking American delegation, headed by US President George W Bush's special envoy to the Iraqi opposition, Zalmay Khalilzad.

He told the closing session of the conference that the US hoped Turkey would "join the coalition to facilitate and participate in the liberation of Iraq".

The US envoy stressed that "we oppose any unilateral movement of troops into Iraq - we've said that any involvement by any power in Iraq has to be fully coordinated with the coalition, and they must leave when we leave."

Wish for autonomy

But such assurances cut little ice with the anxious Kurds and the wider opposition, who point out that Turkish forces remain in northern Cyprus 29 years after their arrival there.

The conference decided to send an opposition delegation to Ankara to try - with US help - to persuade the Turks that their interests would be better served by staying on their own side of the border, and that the Kurds would do everything to meet Turkey's security and other concerns.

Turkish leaders have made it clear that there are many potential pretexts for intervention; to head off a possible humanitarian crisis, to protect the Iraqi Turcoman minority, to combat Turkish rebel PKK guerrillas, to prevent a Kurdish takeover of the oil cities of Kirkuk and Mosul.

But their real objective is to ensure the Iraqi Kurds are unable to achieve an independent state.

The Kurds insist their only ambition is to enjoy federal autonomy under a democratic, pluralistic new Iraqi government, an aim endorsed by all the other factions of the Iraqi opposition, including the majority Shia community.

There is a strong fear that clashes will break out if Turkish troops come across the border unilaterally.

Life after Saddam

The two main Kurdish factions can muster around 80,000 peshmerga guerrillas, lightly armed but experienced in mountain warfare.

We have an Iraqi leadership and we have... what looks to me like solid American support for this leadership
US-based opposition activist Kenaan Makiya
There are also fears that Iran might react in some way, perhaps by giving the green light for Iran-based Iraqi Shia forces to join the fray.

All this was a huge distraction from the main item on the menu - setting up practical mechanisms for pursuing the opposition cause through to the transitional phase following the projected downfall of Iraq's Baathist regime.

And above all, delegates hoped to reach some kind of understanding with the Americans on how to fill the post-Saddam vacuum.

Here, there seemed to be a greater meeting of minds with the US delegation.

'Preparing for liberation'

The opposition had feared it was about to be sidelined by an US decision to opt for US military rule for an unspecified period.

Delegates at the meeting in Salahuddin
Envoy Khalilzad seemed to win over many of the sceptics

The idea of military rule seemed still to be there, although the US envoy did not mention it in public sessions, and Iraqi opposition leaders said he had not told them about it.

But in a private briefing to journalists, Mr Khalilzad said: "Delivering on the responsibility we've assumed will be done through structures, including the overall responsibility for the country being, for as short a time as possible, in the hands of a military commander under General Franks. Yes, we're not changing that."

But the presidential envoy made it clear in public that the US would begin working immediately with 14 special committees or "task forces" set up by the opposition, and would "integrate them in our plans as we prepare for liberation".

The opposition also set up a six-man leadership council to direct the overall campaign.

Their hope is that it may form part of the nucleus of a transitional government as soon as Saddam Hussein is overthrown.

Winning over sceptics

The US envoy made no public commitment other than a pledge to cooperate with the opposition (including other groups than those at Salahuddin) and help install a democratic, representative, broad-based government as soon as possible.

He seems, however, to have won over many of the sceptics. Kenaan Makiya, a US-based opposition activist who had fiercely criticised plans for military rule, said:

"One very important new thing has happened. We have an Iraqi leadership and we have, by the presence of Mr Khalilzad at this conference, what looks to me like solid American support for this leadership."

"There is a recognition now of Iraqi leadership and Iraqi partnership in the process of liberating Iraq."

"This is a great day," agreed Ahmad Chalabi, head of the Iraqi National Congress.

"The people of Iraq have a chance to continue the sovereignty of Iraqis over Iraq during the process of change that is impending."

Iranian caution

Others, notably in the Iranian-backed Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (Sciri), were more cautious about US policy contradictions.

"Three weeks ago, they told us they were going to impose a military commander," said Sciri spokesman Hamid Bayati.

"Now they are saying something else. So I think they are not sure of their plans."

"But in this meeting we made all our positions clear to them, and they clarified some of their positions, so we are in better understanding now," he added.

The meeting, which called on Iraqis in government-controlled areas to "prepare for liberation", was regarded by all those who took part as a great success, and seems to have managed to bridge much of the gap between the US and opposition positions.




WATCH AND LISTEN
The BBC's Jim Muir
"The Kurds fear Turkey's real aim is to stifle their autonomy"




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