The United States has quietly renewed its covert cooperation with Kurds in northern Iraq, potentially crucial players in any U.S.-led military operation against Baghdad, according to senior Kurdish officials.
Kurdish sources say U.S. intelligence officials are in Kurdish territory on multiple missions, which include doing advance work for a possible attack on Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, establishing a listening post to monitor what is happening in the rest of Iraq and probing the strength and operations of an Islamic extremist group with ties to Al Qaeda.
Washington has promised to protect the Kurds if Hussein should order his troops into their region, the officials say.
"If Saddam Hussein invades the north, the United States will act immediately," said Jalal Talabani, head of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, one of two main Kurdish movements in the north. "Now there is all kinds of cooperation with the United States. Militarily, there is all kinds of cooperation."
The involvement would mark a comeback for the United States, which was forced to withdraw its CIA station from northern Iraq after Hussein invaded in 1996. That offensive also led to the collapse of the north as the headquarters for the U.S.-backed Iraqi opposition coalition. Since then, the CIA and the coalition have operated from outside Iraq.
Some here fear that Hussein might launch a preemptive thrust into the north to divert attention from the renewed effort to make him give up any weapons of mass destruction, leaving the outside world scrambling to respond before it is ready to take him on.
"Every person in Kurdistan has prepared food and medicine and is ready to go to the mountains or the border for fear that Saddam Hussein will move on the north. He can't attack other countries, but he can hit his own people. And he's slaughtered us here more than once before," said Nasreen Mustafa Sadiq, the Harvard-educated minister of reconstruction and development in the Kurds' government.
The renewed U.S.-Kurdish bond illustrates the depth of the Bush administration's intentions to get involved in Iraq and to be prepared militarily. The administration was unable to prepare adequately before the campaign to oust the ruling Taliban in nearby Afghanistan last year.
In Washington, CIA and Pentagon officials said Monday that they could not confirm the reports of increased cooperation with the Kurds or of any new commitments to protect them.
For years, Kurdish leaders have been appealing for guarantees beyond a general statement that Washington would retaliate at a time and a place of its choosing for any strike against the Kurds.
A senior leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party, the other main party, said a "new relationship" with the United States has evolved in the last two months.
"I sincerely believe that U.S. cooperation with the Kurds will be beneficial to both sides," said Kurdish Deputy Prime Minister Sami Abdurrahman.
Much of the north has been protected from Iraqi airstrikes by U.S. and British warplanes enforcing a "no-fly" zone. But the unofficial internal border on the ground is now also considered a "red line" that Hussein may not cross, Kurdish officials say.
"If Saddam violates that red line again, the response will not be mere punishment," said another senior Kurdish leader who spoke on condition of anonymity. "The response would be to annihilate him altogether."
Kurdish leaders expect to hold talks with U.S. officials about deepening their cooperation after a conference of joint Iraqi opposition forces scheduled for Brussels this month. One Kurdish leader said he wants the United States to ensure that it will prevent any outside interference by neighboring nations either during or after any war to oust Hussein.
"We now await guarantees from the United States," said Massoud Barzani, head of the Kurdistan Democratic Party.
Kurds are particularly concerned about Turkey and Iran, and the danger that any move to influence or intervene by either country would lead the other to follow suit.
Northern Kurdistan is important to the United States as a possible entry point for U.S. troops in the event of an invasion of Iraq. In the meantime, it is also the only area where U.S. intelligence can operate freely.
Three airfields — Harir, east of Irbil; Bakrajo, near Sulaymaniyah; and Bamarni, near Dahuk — also could be prime facilities for the U.S. military. The three, along with a smaller helicopter and light aircraft facility at Sirsenk, were used by the Iraqi military until 1991. The senior Kurdish leader described the facilities as "ideal" logistically for a military operation against Baghdad.
All four facilities need some degree of upgrading or repairs for a major operation, Kurdish sources say. In the last decade, some of them have been put to use for other purposes, such as driver education courses and outdoor wedding parties.
Two turning points are said to have led to the apparent U.S. involvement. One was the August meeting in Washington of six Iraqi opposition groups, part of a U.S. attempt to forge a united Iraqi opposition. The second happened last month, when the two former rivals — the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan — formally put aside years of fighting and tension and jointly reopened the regional parliament for the first time since 1996.
Despite the new cooperation, Kurds say, they are nervous about whether the Americans will follow through, in part because Washington's pledge is not part of a formal agreement or even a written commitment.
"The commitment is still in the early stage, and there's a lot of room for wiggling out. I'm petrified that my people will be abandoned — again," said Barham Salih of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan in Sulaymaniyah.
The United States has a long record of not fulfilling promises to Iraq's Kurds, a non-Arabic people who are one of Iraq's three major population groups. After Iraq was forced out of Kuwait in 1991, the first Bush administration called on the Kurds to rise up to topple Hussein.
The Kurds in the north and the Shiite Muslims in the south launched the largest domestic challenge to Hussein since he assumed power in 1979. But the U.S. military, which was still stationed in the region, allowed Baghdad to use its helicopter gunships to crush the revolt, killing thousands and forcing nearly 2 million Kurds to flee to the Iranian and Turkish borders.
The United States, along with the former shah of Iran, also encouraged a Kurdish revolt against Baghdad when Hussein was vice president in early 1975. But U.S. backing abruptly collapsed a short time later when then-Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger mediated a deal to end a territorial dispute between Iraq and Iran.
The terms included an end to political and material support of the Kurds, which freed Hussein — who was already the major political power in Iraq — to put down the uprising. Yet Kurdish leaders are buoyed by the apparent change in U.S. cooperation. "The United States has been good to us, and we look at the United States as a partner to bring about a better Iraq," said Salih. "I'd be surprised if the United States allows this opportunity to go down the tubes."