The leader of Iraq's Kurdish resistance movement said yesterday that a broad array of opposition groups that met in Damascus last week have agreed to join forces if necessary to overthrow Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and seek national elections for a democratic successor.
Jalal Talabani, who led a guerrilla army against Baghdad during much of the eight-year Iran-Iraq war and whose forces suffered chemical weapon attacks on a number of occasions, said in an interview that he was in Washington to measure support in the Bush administration for aiding a rebellion inside Iraq.
"We did not request a meeting" at the State Department, Talabani said, but administration officials at various levels have been made aware that he is in town, he added. In 1988, when the Bush administration was seeking to strengthen its overall relationship with Baghdad, Talabani was granted a meeting with a mid-level official at State in a move that was strongly protested by Iraqi leaders.
While the Bush administration has begun studying a long-term program to destabilize the Iraqi leader whose armed forces now occupy Kuwait, Talabani's arrival in Washington did not draw any immediate interest from the State Department, the Pentagon or Central Intelligence Agency, Talabani said.
A State Department official said yesterday that administration officials would not meet with Talabani. "Our concern for the Kurds is for their human rights and not as a nationality to be broken off from a republic."
Talabani's guerrilla attacks in northern Iraq from 1986 to 1988, along with those by the forces of the Barzani clan further north near the Turkish border, seriously destabilized a large section of the country and tied down tens of thousands of Iraqi garrison forces.
Saddam issued a death sentence against Talabani while offering an amnesty to his fighters at the end of the war. Later, Saddam extended the amnesty to Talabani personally, saying that Talabani's forebears in Iraqi Kurdistan had once sheltered Saddam's forebears during the rule of the Ottoman Turks. But Talabani has preferred to remain in exile, fighting for greater autonomy for the 3 million Kurds and control of Kirkuk, a Kurdish capital that also is the center of Iraq's petroleum industry.
In the interview, Talabani said if U.S., Arab and European countries would finance and equip the more than 10,000 paramilitary troops he could put in the field, they could bring effective pressure on Baghdad and foment further rebellion inside the country.
"We think that if the opposition groups can reach agreement, this will inspire the Iraqi people and the army to act to do something against Saddam Hussein," Talabani said, adding that his fighters would need gas masks, antitank and antiaircraft missiles, including Stinger missiles, to take on well-equipped Iraqi forces in mountainous northern Iraq.
"We prefer to unite our forces and do it by ourselves," Talabani said. "The regime of Saddam Hussein should be overthrown by Iraqi forces."
The Kurdish leader, who spends his time between Tehran, Damascus and European capitals, said Iran stopped providing direct financial assistance to his fighters earlier this year.
He also said he tried to warn U.S. officials in mid-July that Iraq was preparing a military plan to invade Kuwait. At a meeting with U.S. Embassy officials in Paris, Talabani said he passed on the information, but it was greeted with skepticism by U.S. officials. Yesterday, a State Department official said there would be no comment on Talabani's claim.
Talabani said the coalition of opposition forces that met in Damascus includes five Kurdish guerrilla groups in alliance with the Tehran-based Islamic Revolution of Iraq led by Shiite Moslem cleric Mohammed Baqer Hakim. Also included in the coalition is the underground Communist Party of Iraq, the Iraq Socialist Party and a rival wing of the Baath Socialist Party that currently rules in Baghdad.
Talabani said he has met with representatives of each of these groups in Damascus and each has agreed in principle to support a program to overthrow Saddam and set free elections under a democratic structure that would provide for a constituent assembly and respect for human rights. Under this plan, Kurdistan would remain a part of Iraq, but the Kurds would gain greater autonomy.