- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 11, 2003

WASHINGTON, March 11 (UPI) — A key Kurdish political leader has asked Washington for emergency financial aid as tightened borders and the Iraqi regime have shut off one of his small, autonomous cash-strapped state's sources of income — smuggling.

"We are already feeling the pinch," Barham Salih, the prime minister of the Kurdistan Regional Government for Suliminiyah, told United Press International Tuesday. "Trade has dwindled and the oil for food program is all but terminated. Economic pressures are becoming really grave."

Salih arrived in Washington Saturday and has asked top Bush administration officials for $50 million for cover government expenses for the next month. The two major Kurdish political parties — the Kurdish Democratic Party, and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan oversee the section of northern Iraq protected by U.S. and British fighter patrols.

On Tuesday, Salih met with Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs, Ryan Crocker. On Monday he met with the Pentagon's number three civilian official, Doug Feith.

As the Kurds wait for a U.S.-led force to topple Saddam Hussein's regime, their economy is in peril, analysts say. Northern Iraq's traditional sources of income have largely dried up in recent months.

Saddam Hussein began cutting back trade from Baghdad to the north of his country over the summer, though some smuggling persisted. Recently however, as one Kurdish diplomat in Washington told UPI Tuesday, "Only the most diehard Kurds are continuing to smuggle goods from the rest of Iraq."

Turkey has also decided to close its southern border in preparation for war, denying the Kurdish parties revenue from illegal oil smuggling trucked in from Iraq. The only reliable link to the outside world remaining for northern Iraq's Kurds is its border with Iran.

U.N. workers in the Oil for Food Program, which help distribute money for food and medical help in northern Iraq from the country's oil revenues, began evacuating the Kurdish territory last month.

With traditional revenues down, Salih's government has had to spend its reserves to pay salaries for the last two months. "Public services run the risk of being undermined unless we have immediate economic assistance to pay the salaries of our health workers, teachers and other public services," Salih told UPI.

Complicating the situation for Salih is that it appears the United States is willing to delay further a deadline for Iraq's complete disarmament past March 17. Qubad Talabani, the spokesman for the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan in Washington told UPI Tuesday, "The longer the status quo continues the more difficult it will be for us to continue to provide services to our people."

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