When it emerged that the Kurds had captured the Iraqi dictator, the US celebrations evaporated. David Pratt asks whether a secret political trade-off has been engineered
04 January 2004
For a story that three weeks ago gripped the world's imagination, it has now all but dropped off the radar.
Peculiar really, for if one thing might have been expected in the aftermath of Saddam Hussein's capture, it was the endless political and media mileage that the Bush administration would get out of it.
After all, for 249 days Saddam's elusiveness had been a symbol of America's ineptitude in Iraq, and, at last, with his capture came the long-awaited chance to return some flak to the Pentagon's critics.
It also afforded the opportunity to demonstrate the effectiveness of America's elite covert and intelligence units such as Task Force 20 and Greyfox .
And it was a terrific chance for the perfect photo-op showing the American soldier, and Time magazine's "Person of the Year", hauling "High Value Target Number One" out of his filthy spiderhole in the village of al-Dwar.
Then along came that story: the one about the Kurds beating the US Army in the race to find Saddam first, and details of Operation Red Dawn suddenly began to evaporate.
US Army spokesmen – so effusive in the immediate wake of Saddam's capture – no longer seemed willing to comment, or simply went to ground.
But rumours of the crucial Kurdish role persisted, even though it now seems their previously euphoric spokesmen have now, similarly, been afflicted by an inexplicable bout of reticence.
It was two weeks ago that the Sunday Herald revealed how a Kurdish special forces unit belonging to the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) had spearheaded and tracked down Saddam, sealing off the al-Dwar farmhouse long "before the arrival of the US forces".
PUK leader Jalal Talabani had chosen to leak the news and details of the operation's commander, Qusrut Rasul Ali, to the Iranian media long before Saddam's capture was reported by the mainstream Western press or confirmed by the US military.
By the time Western press agencies were running the same story, the entire emphasis had changed however, and the ousted Iraqi president had been "captured in a raid by US forces backed by Kurdish fighters".
In the intervening few weeks that troublesome Kurdish story has gone around the globe, picked up by newspapers from The Sydney Morning Herald to the US Christian Science Monitor, as well as the Kurdish press.
While Washington and the PUK remain schtum, further confirmation that the Kurds were way ahead in Saddam's capture continues to leak out.
According to one Israeli source who was in the company of Kurds at a meeting in Athens early on December 14, one of the Kurdish representatives burst into the conference room in tears and demanded an immediate halt to the discussions.
"Saddam Hussein has been captured," he said, adding that he had received word from Kurdistan – before any television reports.
According to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, the delegate also confirmed that most of the information leading to the deposed dictator's arrest had come from the Kurds and – as our earlier Sunday Herald report revealed – who had organised their own intelligence network which had been trying to uncover Saddam's tracks for months.
The delegate further claimed that six months earlier the Kurds had discovered that Saddam's wife was in the Tikrit area. This intelligence, most likely obtained by Qusrut Rasul Ali and his PUK special forces unit, was transferred to the Americans. The Kurds, however, are said to have never received any follow-up from the coalition forces on this vital tip-off and were furious.
Whatever the full extent of their undoubted involvement in providing intelligence or actively participating on the ground in Saddam's capture, the Kurds, and the PUK in particular, would benefit handsomely.
Apart from a trifling $25 million bounty, their status would have been substantially boosted in Washington, which may in part explain the recent vociferous Kurdish reassertion of their long-term political ambitions in the "new Iraq".
For their own part the Kurds have already launched a political arrangement designed to secure their aspirations with respect to autonomy, if not nationalist or separatist aspirations.
To show how serious they are, the two main Kurdish groups, the PUK and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), have decided to close ranks and set up a joint Kurdish administration, with jobs being divided between the two camps. They have made it clear to the Americans that their leadership has a responsibility to their constituency.
Last week Massoud Barzani, leader of the KDP, called for a revision of the power-transfer agreement signed between the US-led coalition and Iraq's interim governing council to recognise "Kurdish rights".
The November 15 agreement calls for the creation of a national assembly by the end of May 2004 which will put in place a caretaker government by June, which in turn will draft a new constitution and hold national elections
"The November 15 accord must be revised and 'Kurdish rights' within an Iraqi federation must be mentioned," Barzani told a meeting of his supporters.
"The Kurds are today in a powerful position but must continue the struggle to guard their unity," he added.
This renewed determination to fulfil their political objectives is shaking up other ethnic residents in northern Iraq, who fear at best being marginalised; at worst victimised. Over the last week there have been increasingly violent clashes between Kurdish and Arab students, and between Kurds and Turkemens, in the oil rich city of Kirkuk.
Such ethnic confrontations point to another dangerous phase in Iraq's power-brokering. If the Kurds did indeed capture Saddam first, and a deal was struck about his handover to the US, then it's not inconceivable that the terms might have included strong political and strategic advantages that could ultimately determine the emerging power structure in Iraq.
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