Washington, 11 December 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The State Department says a U.S. diplomatic team is in northern Iraq to mediate a dispute between rival Kurdish groups as Washington is trying to boost its efforts to help bring about a democratic government in Baghdad. The team is headed by Ryan Crocker, the deputy assistant state for Near East affairs. The State Department says Crocker is meeting with members of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) in the first direct U.S. attempt to bring the two factions together.
Spokesman Philip Reeker says Crocker's mission is aimed at demonstrating continued U.S. engagement with the Iraqi opposition.
The KDP controls an area along the Turkish border, while the rival PUK administers areas close to the Iranian border.
The area has been outside the control of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein for a decade, and is considered a prime staging ground for rattling his government.
Last week, a bipartisan group of nine U.S. legislators asked President George W. Bush to support Iraqi opposition forces with humanitarian assistance, information gathering, and military training. The lawmakers said in a 5 December letter to Bush that U.S. efforts to replace Saddam will not succeed without the help of allies on the ground inside Iraq. They suggested the support should be directed to the London-based Iraqi National Congress, the umbrella organization for all major groups opposed to Saddam.
Ignoring lawmakers' wishes, previous administrations have denied U.S. assistance for the INC to carry out operations inside Iraq.
On 9 December, a top Iraqi official was quoted as saying Baghdad wants to re-evaluate its ties with the United States by using dialogue instead of threats and aggression. The 10 December edition of the official "al-Qadissiya" newspaper quoted Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz as saying Iraq wanted to end its problems with America.
"Iraq calls for the solving of all disputes through dialogue under the condition that the American administration renounces the policy of aggression and threats," Aziz reportedly said during an address
to a visiting U.S. peace activist group.
Meanwhile, the foreign ministers of Iran and Iraq yesterday stressed the need to improve relations between their two countries, which have yet to be normalized 13 years after the end of the Iran-Iraq war.
Iran's official IRNA news agency quoted Baghdad's foreign minister, Naji Sabri, as saying Iraq is "determined to improve its relations with Iran on a solid basis." He said he will visit Iran in the near future.
Sabri made the comment to his Iranian counterpart, Kamal Kharazi, on the sidelines of a meeting in Qatar of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC).