Saddam Hussein's Kurdish gambit--an offer of autonomy and democracy--has drawn two knights from Iraqi Kurdistan into the center of the fray, the wheeling-dealing Jalal Talabani and his soft-spoken rival Masoud Barzani.
As the tragedy of the Kurdish refugees plays out across the Turkish and Iranian frontiers, Talabani and Barzani will weigh the risks of a political deal with the man in Baghdad who has bedeviled their people for more than two decades. On their decision ride their standing at the head of the Iraqi Kurds and the prospects for the return of the refugees.
Talabani, head of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, declared last week that he and Hussein had reached agreement in principle. Over the weekend, said Mohammed Tofik, a London spokesman for the PUK, Talabani went north to the Kurdish heartland to discuss the deal with Barzani. The details have not been disclosed.
Tofik told The Times he was cautiously optimistic that Barzani would concur. "If you have a negotiation you have to have compromise," he said. "The problem is becoming deeper and deeper every day."
But no one speaks with flat assurance on what the Kurds will do. After battling Baghdad since the second decade of this century, the tough mountain people are unified on only one demand: They want to preserve their culture. A lot of Kurdish blood has been spilled to make the point.
After the long years of struggle, Talabani and Barzani have risen to carry the cause, two leaders of sharply different styles, the first a Westernized politician and the second a guerrilla commander, a son of Kurdistan's most powerful clan. They are co-leaders of the Iraqi Kurdistan Front, an amalgam of the eight organizations that speak for the country's nearly 4 million Kurds, one-fifth of Iraq's population.
And they watch each other like the hawks that hunt the high valleys and snow-swept mountains of the Zagros and Taurus ranges, the Kurdish homeland of northern Iraq. "There's always an undercurrent" of rivalry, said Vera Beaudin Saeedpour, a Brooklyn-based Kurdish authority. "One isn't going to let the other supersede."
Talabani, 58, is the public face of the movement. Born in a village near the Iranian border, he left the mountains for school in the city of Kirkuk, took a law degree at the University of Baghdad and ran a few newspapers. Politics began early; in his teens he joined the Kurdish Democratic Party, founded by Barzani's father, Mustafa, a legendary warlord who battled Baghdad's authority for nearly five decades and died in exile in the United States in 1977.
Two years earlier, Talabani had broken away from the Democratic Party to form the PUK.
In his book-lined office in Damascus last month, before his return to Iraq, the portly Talabani, dressed in suit and tie and fiddling with his worry beads, whirled like a dervish as he delivered his political message to a handful of American reporters. He's an agitated man.
The phone rang, a journalist calling from London; Talabani spluttered out his latest position on the Kurdish insurgency then rising in his homeland. An aide came in. There was a radio message from Barzani in the mountains. He rattled off a response in Kurdish. "I told him now is the time to move," Talabani said.
He has always been the Kurd on the move, off to London or Washington to carry the cause. He's fought in the mountains himself over the decades, but compared to Barzani, he is a man of politics. Those politics once were Middle East leftist--he courted Egypt's Gamal Abdel Nasser, Algeria's Ahmed Ben Bella and lived for a year in Moscow--but now, observers say, they are more hard-headed.
In the current talks in Baghdad, Talabani's practicality is center stage. "He will get down and deal," said Saeedpour, the Kurdish authority. "He will have political clout in direct proportion to what he gets for the Kurds."
Barzani came by his influence the old-fashioned way. He inherited it. The Barzani clan is the biggest and richest in Iraqi Kurdistan. His father, Mustafa, famed for his resistance to Baghdad's rule, fathered three sons. Idriss succeeded his father as leader but died in Iran two years ago. Ubeydullah crossed over and served Saddam Hussein as a pliant Kurd in charge of government operations in the north.
Masoud, 44, was born in the short-lived Kurdish state of Mahabad, which the Soviets set up in northern Iran at the end of World War II. He was educated in the West and has traveled widely but in recent years has made his headquarters in the rugged mountains where the borders of Iraq, Iran and Turkey converge.
He is the warlord, a reputed expert in intelligence and tactics, but a quiet man. Reporters say Masoud carries a .38-caliber Smith & Wesson pistol strapped to his hip but once told them he had never had to use it. Reporter Hugh Pope, who met Barzani several years ago, describes him as "soft-spoken, gentle," a man who "did not give the impression of being a powerful or authoritarian character."
Nevertheless, as a Barzani, he holds great power among the Kurds, a society still anchored in the clan culture. It's a system with strengths and weaknesses. As head of Iraq's most important clan, Barzani has an automatic following and his guerrillas, the pesh merga , "those who are prepared to die," are reported to number as many as 30,000. Talabani, from a less influential clan, has fewer than 7,000 fighters, analysts say.
Over the years, rivalry between the Barzanis and Talabanis, as among most Iraqi clans, has ebbed and flowed. Twice in the 1960s, violent clashes took place between the two families. Now, most analysts agree, the two leaders have drawn closer under the pressure of renewed repression from Baghdad.
Gunay Aslan, a Kurdish writer based in Istanbul, says clans often bicker and blood feuds can last for generations, which has allowed the Iraqi, Iranian and Turkish governments to divide the Kurds by playing one clan against another. The currency of allegiance is often guns, authorities on Kurdistan say.
According to Aslan, there are about 30 political organizations representing the 20 million Kurds in Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria. (Kurds also live in the Soviet Union). Almost half those organizations, he said, are clan-based; the others are Marxist-inspired or follow Islamic tenets. The Kurds are Sunni Muslims but most tend to secular lifestyles.
Few Kurdish clan or political leaders have been able to extend their authority across international borders. The Barzanis have influence in southeastern Turkey, close to the family's power center in Arbil, Iraq. But for most, the post-Ottoman decades of separate development within Arab, Turkish and Persian cultures has also meant separate political development.
Within international boundaries, the clan leader, often called aga , or tribal lord, runs politics and the rebels on his turf. An exception is Turkey, where the main rebel organization, the Kurdish Workers Party, traditionally Marxist but now tilting toward Islam, rejects the rule of clan leaders.
Turkey, with more than 10 million Kurds, more than half the total, has absorbed many agas into the government. And Syria, with relatively few Kurds, has seen several rise to high office as well.
An Indo-European people who have lived in their mountains for thousands of years, the Kurds have had a rough 20th Century. They were exploited by Iran's Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi (with U.S. help) and the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to destabilize Iraq--and by Iraq to make trouble for Iran.
The dream of an independent Kurdistan, once on the drawing board of World War I's European victors, died aborning when the Ottoman Empire, which was on the losing side, was chopped up into Syria, Iraq and Iran among other states. Few Kurdish leaders talk of independence now--just of some sort of autonomy to preserve their culture and language. Most of that talk has come out of Iraq.
From time to time, stirred as now by refugee tragedies or guerrilla campaigns, the West pays attention. The Kurdish problem, diplomats call it. It rises and falls. Wrote Helga Graham of London's Observer: "The Kurds top the list of the world's great lost causes. They are the picturesque rebels who, like the mid-calf skirt, have never quite come into fashion."
But for now they are front-page news. Disappointed before by promises of autonomy from Saddam Hussein's Baghdad, and unable to topple even his now-crippled regime by force of arms, the Kurdish leaders, Talabani and Barzani, are talking again of a deal.
Tofik, the London spokesman for Talabani's PUK, said the government is offering a "full and extended version" of an autonomy plan put forward in 1970. It called, among other things, for making Kurdish an official language in Kurdistan and the language of instruction in schools, fair placement of Kurds in government and the army, Kurdish police and security officials in the Kurdish provinces, indemnity for past abuses, a Kurdish vice president, proportional representation in the National Assembly, and a census to determine where Kurds hold a majority.
The Kurds got their vice president, picked by Hussein. But they never got their census, which undercut their ability to negotiate. And the Kurds took up arms again, failing militarily in the mid-1970s, in the mid-1980s, and again this year.
"The Kurds have no friends," says an old proverb of the mountains.
Leading the Kurds Name: Masoud Barzani Title: Co-leader with Jalal Talabani of the Iraqi Kurdistan Front. Age: 44 Personal: Born in short-lived Kurdish state of Mahabad, which the Soviets set up in northern Iran at end of World War II. A warlord, he now lives in rugged mountains where the borders of Iraq, Iran and Turkey converge. Quote: "The Kurdish revolution in Iraqi Kurdistan . . . is a revolution against the oppression suffered by our people from the Ottoman domination to date." Name: Jalal Talabani Title: Co-leader with Masoud Barzani of the Iraqi Kurdistan Front. Age: 57 Personal: A former journalist and lawyer, Talabani was born in an Iraqi Kurdish village, the nephew of a middle-ranking official. He is a graduate of Baghdad University's law faculty. Married, his wife and children live in a town in northern Syria near the border of Iraqi Kurdistan. Quote: "You have to judge political objectives according to realistic expectations," he said. "We don't want to be like the Palestinians and ask for the impossible. If there were a democratic government in Iraq, we would be happy to be Iraqis."
Special correspondents Hugh Pope in Istanbul and Jennifer Toth in Washington contributed to this story.