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Rival Iraq Kurd Lawmakers Show Unity

October 4, 2002

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IRBIL, IRAQ (AP) _ Lawmakers from rival Iraqi Kurdish factions met for the first time in eight years Friday, in a rare show of political unity ahead of a possible U.S. attack on Iraq.

The Kurdistan National Assembly session brought together legislators from the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and the Kurdistan Democratic Party, as well as representatives of northern Iraq’s Christian minority.

The assembly was elected in 1992, but this was the first time the full 105-seat chamber has met since 1994, when political tension between the two parties’ leaders exploded into a four-year civil war.

Relations between the two camps have gradually improved since a 1998 U.S.-brokered truce, and the northern area of Iraq that is home to Kurds became relatively safe and prosperous.

The two leaders, Jalal Talabani of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and Massoud Barzani of the Kurdistan Democratic Party, sat next to each other Friday in the assembly’s cramped chamber. The local and foreign guests included Danielle Mitterrand, widow of French President Francois Mitterrand and a longtime advocate of Kurdish rights.

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell sent a message commending the Kurdish lawmakers for their show of unity but warning ``the road ahead is difficult.″

``Now that you share the same assembly room, I am sure that you will also share a commitment to the security, prosperity and freedom of all Iraqis both in the home areas you represent and in Iraq as a whole.″

The show of harmony between Barzani and Talabani, both foes of President Saddam Hussein, comes as the United States prepares for a possible attack on Iraq and the removal of the Iraqi leader. Washington accuses Saddam of stockpiling weapons of mass destruction and of harboring terrorists.

``Our goal now is not just to make Kurdistan free, but to make Iraq free,″ said Barzani.

Rising Kurdish nationalism has worried neighboring Turkey, a close U.S. ally which has a 12-million strong Kurdish community of its own, as well as Iran and Syria. All three oppose any partitioning of Iraq.

``This meeting should not exceed its limits, it should not be presented to others as a sign of a move toward the declaration of independence,″ Turkish Foreign Minister Sukru Sina Gurel told CNN-Turk television.

Kurds insist they don’t want a new nation, just a semiautonomous enclave within a federal Iraqi government in Baghdad.

In the 1980s, Saddam’s forces allegedly abducted more than 100,000 men from Kurdish villages and gassed Kurds in the town of Halabja in 1988.

``Our people have been striving for a long time,″ said Rosh Noori Shawais, the assembly’s speaker. ``They have been subjected to chemical bombardment and oppression. They deserve legal rights within the framework of international law.″

Northern Iraq has been under U.S.-British aerial protection since shortly after 1991 Gulf War, when the Iraqi army suppressed revolts by the Kurds and Shiites in the south.

The Kurdish groups now control three of Iraq’s 18 provinces and govern 3.5 million of Iraq’s 22 million people.

Several Kurdish officials have said they won’t take part in any U.S. plan to oust Saddam. But many Kurds speak privately of a possible Kurdish assault to capture the oil-rich and traditionally Kurdish city of Kirkuk.

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