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Iraq: Washington Seeks To Strengthen Kurdish Accord

By Charles Recknagel and Sa'ad Abdul Qadir

Prague, 21 January 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Washington sought to give new impetus this month to implementation of a peace agreement between northern Iraq's two main Kurdish factions which has fallen behind schedule since it was signed in September.

The Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) signed the agreement in Washington to reunify the territories they control in northern Iraq after years of fighting. Their conflict has killed thousands of Iraqi Kurds and complicated efforts to build a unified democratic opposition to the Baath Party regime of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

The U.S.-brokered accord calls for the rival Iraqi Kurdish factions to begin revenue sharing, reestablish a united legislature abandoned in 1992, unify their militias, and hold parliamentary elections by July. But analysts say that disagreements have delayed progress, throwing the election timetable into doubt.

The United States and Britain sent a joint delegation to northern Iraq last week to meet with KDP leader Massoud Barzani and PUK leader Jalal Talabani in an effort to strengthen their commitment to the agreement.

RFE/RL's correspondent in northern Iraq, Sa'ad Abdul Qadir, quoted the head of the delegation, U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs Elizabeth Jones, as telling reporters Washington is satisfied with the accord even if its implementation takes longer than planned. Abdul Qadir filed his report by satellite phone:

"Jones said, to quote, 'I have a good impression about the implementation of the Washington Accord, but we should not expect a quick implementation of all of its articles. The important thing is that the two leaders are committed to implement all the points they agreed upon when signing the accord.'"

Jones, who made the remark at a press conference in the PUK stronghold of Sulaymaniyah in northeastern Iraq, also reiterated U.S. assurances that the United States, Britain and France will protect Iraqi Kurds from any attacks by Saddam's forces whether, in her words, it is by air or land.

Washington's promise of protection was a major incentive for the KDP and PUK to sign the September agreement and end a rivalry which had been exploited by Saddam in his efforts to regain control over northern Iraq. Baghdad lost much of its power in northern Iraq when Western nations declared it a no-fly zone to end Iraqi government reprisals for a Kurdish revolt following the 1991 Gulf War.

The first step in the accord, revenue sharing between the two sides, was to have taken place in October. But initial payments did not begin until Talibani and Barzani met early this month for their first meeting inside Iraq in four years. Analysts say disputes remain over the amounts to be shared.

At issue are the PUK's demands that the KDP, which controls Iraq's border with Turkey, fully share the fees it levies on cross-border truck traffic. Western correspondents say the trucks smuggle in consumer goods for Baghdad and smuggle out oil in violation of UN sanctions. The KDP currently charges trucks some $150 each way, earning up to $500,000 daily.

The two leaders also agreed at their meeting to open offices on each other's territory, free all remaining prisoners-of-war, and prepare for the return of displaced persons.

Alan Makovsky, an analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, says Washington is willing to let Iraqi Kurds find their own pace for implementing the accord so long as the agreement prevents any new fighting. He spoke with RFE/RL by phone:

"When this agreement was signed [the U.S.] hope was that the speedy timetable would force the parties toward action. Very early on U.S. government officials recognized that things were not going to go as fast as the agreement itself envisioned. I think the [U.S.] administration is happy as long as there is no fighting. The concern is that if the agreement is not implemented down the road, particularly this issue of transfer of funds, that you could have a resumption of the fighting."

The two Iraqi Kurdish factions originally signed a power-sharing agreement immediately after the Gulf War but it broke down amid disputes over revenues. Efforts to elect a parliament collapsed in 1992 after fighting broke out following first-round voting. Two years later, the KDP invited Saddam's forces into northern Iraq to help drive the Iran-backed PUK from northern Iraq for a month. The move led to the destruction of a U.S.-backed anti-Saddam coalition which was based in northern Iraq. That in turn forced U.S. personnel to evacuate. The KDP and PUK finally signed a ceasefire in the Fall of 1997 which has largely held, though both sides still guard their territory with military checkpoints.

Makovsky says that last year's Washington accord and other factors have now strengthened stability in northern Iraq to the point that the peace could last even if all the accord's reunification measures are not implemented.

"There are at least three positive factors that suggest that stability can endure in the region even if the agreement is not implemented. One is the fact that the Kurdish leaders are talking to one another again. Second of all, the Kurds perceive the U.S. to have reinvigorated its commitment to the Kurds, to protect them against attack by Saddam as a result of this agreement. And thirdly, there is more money in the area now, including in the PUK areas thanks to UN Security Council oil-for-food resolutions. So, even without the transfer of funds from the KDP, the PUK areas are doing much better."

The analyst cites Turkey's acceptance of the Washington accord as a fourth influence for stability. Ankara, which is fighting Kurdish rebels of its own, accepted the accord after Washington and London affirmed their commitment to Iraq's territorial integrity. The Iraqi Kurdish factions also assured Turkey they will deny the Turkish-Kurd Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) any bases in northern Iraq. Turkey has frequently carried out military operations in northern Iraq, in alliance with the KDP, to attack PKK bases.