- The Washington Times - Monday, November 18, 2002

The Washington representative of an Iraqi Kurdish faction says his group is prepared to put 100,000 troops in the field against Saddam Hussein but that the Pentagon has shown little interest in the offer.
The failure to connect underscores the delicate diplomacy behind U.S. preparations for war with Iraq, where handling U.S. allies in the Iraqi theater is proving almost as complicated as confronting the enemy in Baghdad.
Iraq's Kurds, with tens of thousands of armed fighters on the ground inside the country ready to take on Saddam, would seem a fabulous resource for a country contemplating military action against Baghdad.
But the Bush administration has found the Kurds' proposal too good to accept.
"We can mobilize 100,000 fighters against Saddam in the north, and you would only need a very small international force," Mohammed Sabir, Washington representative for the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), said in an interview last week.
"So far, the Pentagon has yet to take up our offer," added Mr. Sabir, a nuclear physicist whose faction is one of two major Kurdish political parties that have battled between themselves.
The prospect of an important role for Kurdish fighters in the campaign against Saddam has infuriated Turkey, a critical U.S. ally that fears a revived independence movement within its own ethnic Kurdish minority. The Turks' fears are shared by Iran and Syria, which also have Kurdish minorities.
Pentagon planners also have concerns about the only proven anti-Saddam fighting force in southern Iraq: the Iranian-based Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), which can field an estimated 7,000 to 15,000 mostly Shi'ite Muslim soldiers.
The SCIRI has had a complicated relationship with the Islamic fundamentalist regime in Tehran, but American war planners fear it may be too close to another member of the "axis of evil."
Also ready to fight are 1,000 Iraqi military defectors, most of them drawn from the country's minority Sunni Muslim elite, who argue that Iraq's professional military is a victim of Saddam's tyranny and should have a role in U.S. military planning and in the armed forces of a post-Saddam Iraq.
"Saddam was never a military expert. He was an amateur warrior who never served in the military at all," said Brig. Gen. Najib Salhi, a top commander under Saddam before his 1995 defection and now the head of a group of former Iraqi military officers working to overthrow the regime.
"Iraq's security after Saddam cannot be handled through vestigial armies," Gen. Salhi said in Washington on Friday at a conference on Iraq's military future.
Several top U.S. officials have traveled to Ankara in recent months seeking to ease Turkish concerns about the Iraqi Kurds and affirm that Washington will oppose any territorial breakup of Iraq.
Earlier this month, the Istanbul daily Hurriyet reported that Turkish military leaders had insisted that any U.S. invasion plan not include Iraqi Kurdish militias, known as peshmergas, and that Kirkuk, an oil-rich northern Iraqi city that Kurds were seeing as a future provincial capital, not be placed under Kurdish control.
The Bush administration's wariness over the roles of the Iraqi Kurds and the SCIRI in any military action is reflected in the Pentagon's plan to fund combat training for yet another Iraqi opposition force, using carefully screened recruits from several exile communities to assist the U.S.-led invasion force.
In the interview, however, Mr. Sabir insisted that the PUK and its sometime rival, the Kurdistan Democratic Party, could fill the critical role the opposition Northern Alliance played in the U.S. campaign last year against the Taliban government in Afghanistan.
"We could do even more. We are ready to help in any way," he said.
Protected by U.S. and British air cover, the Kurds in Iraq have enjoyed an unprecedented degree of autonomy and prosperity since the end of the 1991 Gulf war. But Mr. Sabir said Kurds know that their situation is precarious.
"Yes, you may call it a golden age, but we know we are living on a bubble," he said. "The day the United States changes its policy and Saddam Hussein is still in power, we know that the Kurds will be his first target."

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