- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 28, 2002

SALAHUDDIN, Iraq Iran would never say publicly that it is rooting for the United States to topple the Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein, even though the two nations share a status as part of President Bush's "axis of evil."

But a group of Iraqi Kurds, just back from a visit to Iran, say their hosts appeared to relish the prospect of an end to Saddam, who initiated a bloody eight-year war with Iran more than two decades ago.

"The Iranians have some concerns about the post-Saddam Iraq, what kind of Iraq there would be, and the legality of removing a sovereign regime," said Hosyar Zebari, a top level Kurdish official whose delegation met top Iranian officials last week.

"But deep down, they really they want a change of regime in Iraq. They want to see the back of Saddam Hussein," Mr. Zebari said in summing up his meetings with powerful former Iranian President Hashemi Rafsanjani as well as the head of Iran's Revolutionary Guards, its minister of defense and its minister of intelligence.

U.S. troop deployments in the region and Mr. Bush's vow to replace the government of Saddam have placed this region on edge.

Governments and political groups in the region have been in a flurry of diplomatic haggling and military planning.

Here in northern Iraq a semi-autonomous U.S.- and U.N.-protected area fears of war and instability loom especially large.

This mountaintop town just north of the major city of Erbil is where Massoud Barzani's Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), one of the two major groups governing Iraqi Kurdistan, had been busy preparing for a parliamentary meeting yesterday and wrestling with the implications of a post-Saddam Iraq.

The Kurds were once fierce guerrilla warriors. But they've lately laid down their arms, put on suits and ties, and engaged in low-key political maneuvers to ease fears in neighboring Iran about a new Iraqi government.

Relations between Turkey and the two political camps governing northern Iraq nearly collapsed after two members of the Ankara government publicly suggested annexing Northern Iraq. Mr. Zebari says he's heading to Turkey next.

"We're trying cool down the atmosphere and tone done the media threats," he said.

Mr. Bush's Sept. 12 speech at the United Nations, in which he identified the Iranians as victims of Saddam Hussein four times, did much to ease Iranian fears that America plans to attack Iran following an elimination of the Baghdad regime, Mr. Zebari said.

In the recent meetings, Iranian leaders welcomed Mr. Bush's remarks as a conciliatory gesture, he said

British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw is due in Iran to discuss the Iraqi question the second week in October.

Iran and the United States cut ties following the 1979 seizure of the American Embassy in Tehran.

But the clerical regime of Iran is also no friend of the Baghdad government, which used chemical weapons against its soldiers at the end of a long war in the 1980s.

Iran quietly sat out the 1991 U.S.-led campaign to push Iraq out of Kuwait.

But just as its border and ethnic ties with Afghans have complicated the U.S. drive to create a post-Taliban peace in Afghanistan, Iran can throw wrenches in any plan to create a new Iraq.

Ninety percent of Iranians are Shi'ite Muslims, giving them strong ties to Iraq's Shi'ites, who make up 60 percent of Iraq. Saddam is from the rival Sunni sect.

The 3.5 million Iraqi Kurds and majority Shi'ites of Iraq will likely make up important component

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