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World - Reuters
Iraq's Kurds Fear Results of U.S. Attack on Saddam
Mon Jul 29,11:25 AM ET
By Jon Hemming
SULAYMANIYAH, Iraq (Reuters) - Iraq's breakaway Kurds fear that a possible U.S. attempt to topple President Saddam Hussein ( news - web sites) could lead to death and destruction for them and their mountainous homeland.
A leader of one of the Kurdish factions that have held Iraqi government troops at bay for more than a decade told Reuters in an interview on Monday the United States should guarantee the Kurds' security before launching any military attack on Iraq.
"We need to have guarantees for our future in Iraq, guarantees for our future security. My people have suffered so much, we must not put them in harm's way unnecessarily," said Barham Salah, prime minister of part of Kurdish-held northern Iraq.
The comments came as six leaders of the main opposition Iraqi opposition parties have been invited to Washington to discuss the future of Iraq in the wake of President Bush ( news - web sites)'s pledge to use all means at his disposal to topple Saddam.
The Kurds feel they were let down by the United States after rising up against Saddam at the end of the 1991 Gulf War ( news - web sites), encouraged by then U.S. President George Bush senior.
Iraqi government forces crushed the rebellion, sending millions fleeing to neighboring countries as refugees.
"We have no interest in being dragged into half-baked adventures...this is too big an issue," Salah said.
"Not only is the future of Iraq and Iraqis at stake, I would say the future of the Middle East is also at stake."
The Western-educated civil engineer governs the eastern side of a triangle of territory which broke away from Baghdad's rule after government troops withdrew in 1991. The head of his party, Jalal Talabani, is among those invited to Washington.
But, Salah said, no decision had been taken on whether Talabani, as head of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), would attend meetings due to start on August 9. "We have sought clarification on a number of issues," Salah said.
NO MATCH FOR SADDAM
The lightly-armed "peshmerga" fighters of the PUK and its main political rival, the rival Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), are no match for the tanks and artillery of Saddam's forces. Salah said PUK guerrillas would not automatically join a U.S. attack to topple Saddam.
"We are not guns for hire. We are democrats, we are freedom fighters, we have a cause," he said.
The PUK and the KDP both endorse a federal solution that would give Kurds substantial autonomy within a united Iraq. KDP officials have also expressed misgivings about the possible fallout for Kurds of any U.S. attack on Iraq.
While most of the rugged Kurdish region is shielded from government air attack by a U.S. and British enforced no-fly zone operating from neighboring Turkey, the PUK capital Sulaymaniyah is not and Iraqi front lines are less than an hour's drive away.
"We actually want to avoid a situation of conflict, we have no interest in confrontation," said Salah. "We would want to convey to all parties concerned the need to prevent havoc being inflicted upon the defenseless people of Kurdistan."
Many Kurds are still haunted by memories of past treatment meted out to rebellious Kurds by Iraqi governments, culminating in the bloody ethnic cleansing of the late 1980s, including a poison gas attack on the eastern town of Halabja that killed thousands of people.
"The record is very clear to see, another Halabja awaits us if we are not careful," said Salah. "The risks are very, very serious for us. We cannot afford to be complacent and we cannot afford another seven or eight decades of misery.
"We need a government that is not feared by the people of Halabja. They may be strategic concerns for the people of the United States, European countries or our neighbors, but for our people it is a matter of life and death."
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