ALONG THE IRAN-IRAQ BORDER -- Thousands of Kurdish guerrilla fighters and political cadres in northern Iraq are preparing to maintain law and order if President Saddam Hussein's government collapses, according to the commander of Kurdish guerrilla forces.
But Masoud Barzani, the Kurdish commander, said Iraqi Kurds will not open a second military front against Saddam, as some Western strategists have urged. He noted that Saddam could retaliate against any such uprising by using chemical weapons to punish the Kurdish civilian population, as he did in 1988.
Throughout a three-hour conversation conducted high in the Zagros mountains, Barzani also sought to dispel Turkish fears that Iraqi Kurdish leaders plan to set up an independent Kurdish state following any collapse of the Baghdad government. Turkey has expressed resistance to any such event, which would intensify demands from Kurds in eastern Turkey for autonomy.
Barzani said he favors "dialogue in a democratic atmosphere" with the Turkish government that would be "of mutual benefit" and "remove many of Turkey's misunderstandings, fears and misconceptions." He added: "If Turkey has a political program, then we are ready for discussion."
Barzani is leader of the Kurdish Democratic Party and member of the seven-party United Kurdistan Front. In his first interview since the start of the Persian Gulf War, Barzani seemed less concerned with the military situation than with protecting Iraqi Kurds from further suffering.
The guerrilla leader also expressed fear that Kurdish rights will be ignored by the international community in postwar political and security arrangements.
He charged that U.S. governments had repeatedly "betrayed" Iraq's Kurds in the past two decades and said the United States, the Soviet Union, France and Britain were "morally responsible" for Saddam's "horrendous crimes" against the Kurdish minority in Iraq.
These nations should pay "compensation" to the Kurds, he said, and so, too, should Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and other Persian Gulf states that had provided Saddam "with unlimited credit" to carry out a "genocidal war against our people."
Explaining his charges of "betrayal" by the Americans, he said that, in the early 1970s, then-secretary of state Henry Kissinger had, along with the government of the shah of Iran, promised covert support if the Kurds fought the Baghdad government. But the United States and Iran abruptly cut off the aid after Iran extracted an advantageous border settlement from Iraq in 1975.
Barzani said the 5 million Iraqi Kurds want nothing more than the autonomy Baghdad granted them from 1970 to 1974.
An "independent and united" state grouping Kurds living in a wide arc from Iran and the Soviet Union to Iraq and Turkey remains a "natural right" but lies in the future, Barzani said, because "of the complications of the modern world," especially in a Middle East fearful of modifying frontiers.
Independence should be achieved "not through bloodletting or armed struggle" -- as has been the case in repeated Kurdish uprisings over the past century -- but "only when the international community would allow it" through "mutual understanding" among Arabs, Iranians and Turks, Barzani said.
Mindful that Turkey fears turmoil along its border with Iraq, Barzani said that from 1961 to 1988, the Kurdish Democratic Party controlled the frontier to Ankara's satisfaction. He noted that five years ago he had broken with Turkey's Marxist Kurdish Workers' Party, or PKK, which since 1984 has waged a guerrilla war against Ankara that has cost more than 2,600 lives.
It was Saddam who backed the Kurdish Workers' Party, Barzani said. Barzani pledged that "when the gulf war is over, we again will be in total control of the border and will not readily allow the PKK to operate from bases inside Iraq."
He praised the recent Turkish decision lifting a ban on the use of the Kurdish language as "definitively a positive step." He added that while "we cannot and do not influence events inside Turkey," the "more enlightened the Turkish government is, the weaker the PKK will get."
Looking toward a post-Saddam Iraq, Barzani said he had issued strict orders to his fighters to prevent collective or individual acts of revenge against members of the ruling Baath Party or Iraqi army officers in Kurdistan.
In these Kurdish areas in northern Iraq, Barzani said he was pleased with the results of a general amnesty offer to Iraqi military commanders and Baath officials broadcast three weeks ago. He said that some Iraqi officials have sent him letters pledging support but saying they were too frightened of Saddam to surrender now.