Harvey Morris in Arbil, northern Iraq
THE FINANCIAL TIMES : March 16 2003 18:01 | Last Updated: March 16 2003 18:01
Saddam Hussein’s most important Kurdish ally has defected to Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq in what officials here say is an indication that the Iraqi president’s internal support is beginning to crumble.
Jowhad Herki is chief of the powerful Herki tribe and since the 1960s has supported successive Baghdad regimes in putting down revolts by fellow Kurds. He arrived in northern Iraq via London after travelling there from Baghdad for medical treatment. He is a former member of the Iraqi parliament.
“This is a major development that shows that they are abandoning the sinking ship,” said Hoshyar Zebari, a Kurdish leader in the northern autonomous zone. “It will have a major influence on other tribal leaders to close ranks because they have nothing to hope for from Saddam.”
The Herki are the biggest of a number of tribes that allied themselves with Baghdad – usually because of inter-tribal conflicts with rebel tribes – and are known collectively by Kurdish nationalists as Jash or “little donkeys”. Jowhad Herki stayed loyal to President Saddam even in 1991, when other Jash tribal leaders defected to the Kurdish rebel leadership during the uprising that followed the Gulf war.
Kurdish officials say he has several thousand loyal fighters around the strategic city of Mosul, which lies inside government controlled territory. Technically they are still on Saddam Hussein’s payroll, but their loyalty may be in doubt now that their tribal leader has switched sides.
Mr Herki is among a number of tribal leaders who have held talks with Masoud Barzani, the Kurdish leader, in recent days as former enemies attempt to mend fences in what they now assume to be the final days of the Saddam Hussein regime. Others include Omar Surchi, head of the Surchi tribe and a former Jash leader who came over to the nationalist side in 1991. He recently travelled to Arbil to end a long-running feud with the Barzanis.
The Kurds may need all the unity they can muster if they are to confront the threat of a Turkish intervention which the leadership has vowed to resist by force.
Opposition leaders, including Kurdish representatives, are today due to begin talks in Ankara with Turkish and US representatives to try to defuse a crisis that would threaten the northern front in the event of a US-led war in Iraq.
The Kurds will oppose any Turkish intervention into areas they control, even if the Turks were to come as part of a coalition force. Turkey has said it would send in troops to prevent an influx of refugees into its territory, to safeguard Iraq’s Turkoman minority and to prevent the Kurds seizing the oil city of Kirkuk.
The Kurds argue that there will be no flight of refugees into Turkey, as there was in 1991, that there is no threat to the Turkomans from the Kurdish regional authorities, and that Turkey has no right to try to determine post-war Iraqi affairs.
The Kurds are relying on the US to resolve the crisis, arguing that the last thing Washington wants while it wages a war against Baghdad is to have a Turkish-Kurdish conflict raging along the northern front.