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Northern Iraq Kurdish Fighters Ready to Join Fight

Tens of thousands of armed Kurdish fighters in northern Iraq are ready to join the fight against Saddam Hussein's army. They are waiting for the right time.

An official in charge of foreign affairs for one of the two main Kurdish opposition parties says their militia forces will join the war if they are attacked by the Iraqi army.

In an interview with the Egyptian government-owned newspaper Al-Ahram, Hushyar Zibari, of the Kurdistan Democratic Party, says otherwise, the Iraqi Kurds have no role in the current war.

The U.S. representative of the other main Kurdish party, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), Mohammad Sabir, says Kurdish troops are waiting for an invitation from Washington.

"We are a partner for the United States," he said. "We are cooperating together with the United States. And up to now, the United States is not asking, not making a request to participate in the fighting against the Iraqi military forces. But if the United States asks the assistance from the PUK forces, certainly we are participating."

There are about 70,000 fighters in the joint Kurdish regular forces. And Mr. Sabir says there are about 20,000 additional reserve fighters.

He says the Kurdish army is well-trained and experienced in fighting against the Iraqi army. However, Mr. Sabir says the Kurdish fighters are equipped only with light weapons, such as Kalashnikov and other Russian-made rifles, and some artillery.

The three million Kurds in northern Iraq have been fighting against the government in Baghdad for several decades. After a Kurdish uprising at the end of the first Gulf War in 1991, allied forces installed a no-fly zone in northern Iraq, allowing the Kurds autonomy within a protected region.

The Kurdish army is under joint command of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and the Democratic Party of Kurdistan. Although the two parties both oppose the rule of Saddam Hussein, they have a history of rivalry and confrontation. Mr. Sabir says the parties are now cooperating in all areas and will continue to do so once Saddam Hussein's government is ousted.

He says they will operate as different political parties in what he hopes will be a multi-party political system.

Mr. Sabir dismisses concerns by some in Turkey, Syria and Iran that Kurds might use the current war as an opportunity to create an independent Kurdish state. He and Mr. Zibari of the KDP both say their parties want the Kurdish areas of Iraq to be part of a federal system encompassing all of Iraq. In Mr. Sabir's words, we respect the territorial integrity of neighboring countries.

However, both men express concern that fighting might erupt if Turkish troops enter Kurdish controlled northern Iraq.