DAMASCUS, SYRIA -- The broad mobilization of Arab and Western governments against President Saddam Hussein of Iraq has inspired new hope among the myriad groups of Iraqi dissidents and rebels headquartered here and in Tehran.
The anti-Saddam militants, organized in a dozen groups under Kurdish, Islamic and Arab nationalist banners, have scheduled a special leadership conference here this week to forge a common front able to speak for all of the often quarrelsome groups in a search for financial and political backing in the new atmosphere created by Iraq's Aug. 2 invasion of Kuwait.
Jalal Talabani, head of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, said the eagerness in Arab and Western capitals to overthrow Saddam has increased chances of support not only for Kurdish guerrillas but also for other anti-government rebels in Iraq. But this support can be organized only if the various groups put aside their differences and form a clear-cut Iraqi opposition front that speaks with a single voice, he explained.
"If there will be outside help, or encouragement from outside, then the Iraqi opposition will be able to mobilize tens of thousands of Iraqis," he asserted in an interview here. "And if unity can be achieved, I think it will be possible to get support from Arab countries, and at least moral support from other countries, such as the United States."
The anti-Saddam opposition has tried for years to organize a common front without success, largely because its groups are so diverse. They range from communists to Shiite Moslem fundamentalists sheltered in Iran to secular Baath Party dissidents allied with the party's rival Syrian wing. But the Persian Gulf crisis has created a now-or-never opportunity that rebel leaders of all stripes are eager to exploit, creating pressure for unity.
Talabani said he has approached Saudi Arabia and Kuwait's exiled leadership for backing since the crisis erupted. While there was no commitment, he said, both governments seemed to receive the request favorably. The United States, on the other hand, has kept at arm's length, largely out of consideration for Turkey, he added.
Turkey, a neighbor of Iraq and a member of NATO, has made its territory available for the buildup of U.S. forces around Iraq and thus is a key member of the alliance against Saddam. But the government in Ankara long has faced a Kurdish rebellion of its own, with frequent reports of clashes in remote Kurdish areas. It could be expected to oppose aid for Kurdish rebels in Iraq lest it spill over into Turkey.
In addition, while the United States has supported Kurds in their complaints about human rights violations, it has never clearly backed the Kurds' demand for a national homeland in their traditional area at the intersection of the Turkish, Iraqi and Iranian borders.
A diplomatic source said there has been no discussion so far between U.S. and Iraqi rebel representatives about U.S. backing for a guerrilla campaign inside Iraq. A Syrian official, asked whether the rebels could be used to weaken Saddam, scoffed that they have no credible military forces.
Although Syria long has offered sanctuary to Iraqi dissidents, it has been reluctant to see its territory used as a jumping-off point for large-scale subversion on Iraqi territory. Any attempt to activate rebel groups in military action against Baghdad also would require renewed cooperation from Iran, where some Kurdish guerrillas have found refuge, along with Shiite activists who were persecuted in Iraq during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war.
This could prove difficult at a moment when Iran appears to be going along with Saddam's attempt to mend relations and overcome the war's bitter heritage. Tehran and Baghdad renewed diplomatic relations last week after several years of estrangement, and about 50,000 war prisoners from both sides have returned home since Saddam last month accepted Iran's terms for a formal end to their conflict.
The Kurdish guerrilla forces are the only Iraqi rebels known to have a tested armed organization, which includes the Kurdish Democratic Party headed by Massoud Barzani. They have been largely quiescent, however, since Saddam's army used poison gas against them shortly after the Iran-Iraq war ended, forcing thousands of Kurds to flee into Turkey as refugees.
Despite the quiet since then, Talabani said some armed Kurdish guerrillas remain in Iraq and could be reactivated with outside encouragement. "We have thousands of armed men, some in Iraq, others in Iran," he claimed.
Six Kurdish rebel groups, including Talabani's, have formed the Iraqi Kurdistan Front, which makes up one of the opposition's three main groupings.
For years, the Kurds have been fighting for autonomy at a pace largely set by the interests of other governments. A large guerrilla campaign aided by U.S., Israeli and Iranian intelligence services fell apart in 1975, for example, when Saddam and the shah of Iran reached agreement in Algiers on their borders and use of the Shatt al Arab waterway.
The Kurds renewed their battle in strength during the Iran-Iraq war with Iranian help. But Iran's acceptance of a U.N.-mediated cease-fire in August 1988 freed the Iraqi army for the ruthless campaign that culminated in poison-gas attacks.
Another Iraqi rebel current is represented by the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, headed by the Iranian-supported Shiite leader Bakr Hakim, who lives in Tehran. It comprises Al Daawa, the Organization of Islamic Action and the Mujaheddin. Sunni Moslem rebels have formed their own group, the Iraqi Islamic Party.
The third stream, secular political groups, includes dissident Baathists, Nasserites, the Iraqi Communist Party and various nationalist movements that oppose Saddam's Baathist government.
Despite the diverse and even contradictory aims of the various groups, Talabani said their leaders in preliminary discussions have agreed on the principles of a set of common goals. These include overthrow of Saddam's government, convening a constituent assembly to organize free elections and prior accord that no one group monopolize power at the expense of others, he said.