Hussein seeking to assert power, disrupt U.S. plans Erbil attack called a gamble to check influence of Iran

AMMAN, JORDAN — AMMAN, Jordan -- Saddam Hussein's military strike into Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq enabled the Iraqi leader to affirm his combat strength, assert his power in the Kurdistan conflict and upset U.S. peacemaking efforts in the region, Western diplomats and opposition leaders said yesterday.

Still, with President Clinton giving the green light on military and economic retribution, the Iraqi leader has again put himself on a fine line.


The Iraqi attack on Erbil Saturday helped the Kurdistan Democratic Party rout its rival, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, from the mountainous city. Hussein's decision to enter the factional fighting was a gamble that seems to have given him at least a short-term payoff, according to the Western diplomats, Middle East experts and opposition leaders.

"He did what he did to show the people inside [Iraq] that he is still strong," said Dr. Tahsin Muallah, a leader of the Iraqi National Accord, an Amman-based opposition group with financial backing from the United States and other Western allies.


The factional fighting among the two Kurdish groups, Massoud Barzani's Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), and Jalal Talabani's Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), is a long-standing dispute between political and tribal rivals.

The conflict affects Turkey, which has been battling Kurdish separatists in the south. And it has involved Iraq's longtime enemy, Iran, which has lent its support to the PUK in the past.

Iraq's intervention on the side of the KDP may keep Iran's influence in the area in check, according to Western diplo- mats. The military campaign also gave him an opportunity to thwart U.S. efforts in the region. The Americans have tried to broker a cease-fire between the rival factions.

About 40,000 Iraqi troops, accompanied by tanks and aircraft, stormed Erbil, the seat of a Kurdish government and Parliament formed jointly by the two Kurdish factions in 1992.

The city of 800,000 is about 20 miles north of the 36th parallel, a demarcation line that Iraq has been barred from crossing by Western allies after the 1991 Perisan Gulf war. The allies maintain a no-fly zone over this area.

The Iraqi military action complicates an already complex situation. The United States twice tried to broker a cease-fire among the Kurdish factions. The two sides had met Friday in London under sponsorship of the United States.

While the United States has portrayed the Erbil offense as repression of Iraq's Kurdish minority, analysts said Western allies would have a hard time justifying a military response for that reason. The KDP asked Iraq to intervene on their behalf, they said.

"Nobody has really controlled the Kurds before," said one Western diplomat.


While the United States has reason to hesitate before pushing into an area where feuds and internal squabbles recall the Balkans, the Clinton administration was not expected to let RTC Hussein have free rein in northern Iraq.

"If Saddam goes on without a retaliatory step, he is victorious," said Muallah.

The United States may be relying on a section of United Nations Resolution 688, which calls on Iraq to stop repressing its minorities, including the Kurds. That resolution, however, does not have any enforcement provisions, according to one Western diplomat.

"It's going to be very difficult to couch any military response [under that provision] when you have the Kurdish minority asking [the Iraqis] to come in," said the diplomat. He also noted that U.N. Resolution 688 calls for dialogue between the Kurds and Baghdad.

While Hussein's attack on Erbil "certainly has breached the American understanding" of the ban on Iraqi movements north of the 36th parallel, Hussein apparently violated no binding agreement, the diplomats said.

Diplomats also believe that Hussein sought to protect his oil pipeline, which travels through Kurdish territory, by siding with Barzani.


While the United States has Muallah, of the Iraqi opposition group, and others said Iraq's intervention's also provided economic benefits for KDP and Hussein's regime.

By strengthening the KDP, Hussein also helps to maintain the group's interest in the lucrative oil smuggling that occurs between Iraq and Turkey.

Pub Date: 9/03/96