Kurdistan Caught in Middle of Iran-U.S. Tensions

Last week, President Bush vowed to crack down on Iran, which he accused of giving weapons and support to Iraqi militants. As he made the threat on TV, U.S. forces captured five Iranians in a liaison office in the Kurdish-controlled city of Erbil, Iraq. The move infuriated the Kurds, who have traditionally been America's closest allies in Iraq.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

President Bush's new plan for Iraq includes a crackdown on Iran, which Washington accuses of providing weapons and support to Iraqi militants.

Last week, American forces raided an Iranian liaison office in the city of Irbil in Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq. The Iraqi Kurds are close American allies, but they also have strong ties with Iran. From Iraqi Kurdistan, NPR's Ivan Watson reports that, as tensions between those two countries escalate, the Kurds are worried about being caught in the middle.

IVAN WATSON: Iraqi Kurds are quick to call themselves the best friends the U.S. has in Iraq. At the same time, they can't afford to upset their eastern neighbor, Iran, says Qubad Talabani, the Kurds' ambassador to Washington.

Ambassador QUBAD TALABANI (Kurdish Ambassador): Ultimately, we are neighbors, and I think this is something that I hope our American friends understand. They are here, and America is 6,000 miles away.

WATSON: The Iraqi Kurds have long been performing a delicate balancing act between rivals Washington and Tehran. Last Wednesday, for example, the president of the Iraqi Kurdistan region hosted Kansas Senator Sam Brownback in the morning at his headquarters outside Irbil. In the afternoon, he held talks with a high-level Iranian delegation at the same place.

Just hours later, at 3 a.m., American troops in helicopters and armored vehicles raided Iran's liaison office in Irbil. The operation shocked and embarrassed the Kurdistan regional administration. Fouad Hussein is a spokesman for the Iraqi Kurdistan regional government. He says the U.S. should not fight Iran on Iraqi Kurdish territory.

Mr. FOUAD HUSSEIN (Spokesman, Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government): Iran is not in Irbil, it's somewhere else, so they must not bring their fighting here to Kurdistan.

WATSON: Hussein says the target of the raid was the leader of the Iranian delegation, Mohammad Jafari Said-Arudi(ph). In addition to being the deputy chairman of Iran's Supreme National Security Council, Jafari, as he is known here, is a Revolutionary Guard commander who was implicated in the assassination of an Iranian opposition leader in Vienna in 1989.

U.S. officials have not confirmed they were after Jafari. An American military statement says the five Iranians detained in the raid are connected to the Revolutionary Guard's Qods force that the Americans say has been providing funds and weapons to extremists attacked U.S. forces in Iraq.

(Soundbite of traffic)

WATSON: Today in Irbil, a city that once greeted the Americans as liberators, many Kurds now say they are angry at the U.S.

Mr. AZWAR HASSAN IBRAHIM(ph): (Speaking foreign language).

WATSON: We're unhappy about it, says this 21-year-old fruit seller named Azwar Hassan Ibrahim. The Americans can't do these operations here, he adds, without permissions from our leaders first.

During decades of guerilla war between Iraqi Kurds and the government in Baghdad, Tehran accepted hundreds of thousands of Iraqi Kurdish refugees. At times, it provided weapons and supplies to Iraqi Kurdish rebels. But Kurdish diplomat Qubad Talabani says Iraqi Kurdish leaders have learned not to get too close to their powerful neighbor.

Amb. TALABANI: We've received assistance from Iran in the past, but we've also been bombarded by Iran in the past, and that shows that our region and our history is not black and white and allegiances shift.

WATSON: In fact, at least a half dozen exiled Iranian opposition groups are currently headquartered in Iraqi Kurdistan. They include the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iran, whose armed fighters reside in this abandoned Iraqi army fort.

(Soundbite of metal clanging)

WATSON: The party's fighters say they no longer carry out combat missions against the Iranian regime, but a grey-haired senior rebel here named Mohammad Nazif Kadri(ph) welcomed America's raid against what he called Iranian terrorists.

Mr. MOHAMMAD NAZIF KADRI: (Through translator) The liaison office in Irbil was supporting factions that threatened the security of Iraqi Kurdistan and the rest of Iraq. It was also used for spying.

WATSON: Kadri says his movement has met with U.S. officials on several occasions, both in northern Iraq and in Washington. Over the last year, Kadri's party, as well as two other exiled Iranian parties in Iraqi Kurdistan, have all launched their own anti-Tehran satellite TV channels like this one.

(Soundbite of television program)

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man: (Speaking foreign language)

WATSON: So how is it that the Iraqi Kurds maintain close ties with Iran while also sheltering Iranian opposition groups? Diplomat Qubad Talabani says that's geopolitics as usual in the Middle East.

Amb. TALABANI: It shows how delicately we have to manage these relationships and how we have to integrate this into our daily lives and our relationships with the United States.

WATSON: Ivan Watson, NPR News, Irbil, Iraqi Kurdistan.

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