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CNN LIVE EVENT/SPECIAL

Could Washington Count on Kurds in War

Aired November 1, 2002 - 12:41   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: The Kurds in Iraq make up the largest opposition group in the country. If there is a war again, could Washington count on the Kurds for help? CNN's international correspondent Brent Sadler is in the Kurdish-controlled northern part of Iraq.
Brent, how viable to the U.S., potentially, would the Kurds be as a fighting force?

BRENT SADLER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, the Kurds say that they cannot really be bypassed in any U.S. war plans to topple Saddam Hussein's regime in Baghdad, just a couple of hundred miles from where I'm standing.

This area, of course, the Kurdish enclave, the so-called safe haven, protected today by U.S. and British warplanes patrolling overhead. The Kurds have a force of about 70,000 men in field, as it were, split between two main political parties. They say they are ready, willing and able to support any U.S. military efforts to change the regime in Baghdad, but providing they're given guarantees about their stake in the future of federal Iraq.

Now, we've seen over the past few weeks here, various battalions training in mountaintop areas, also a battalion of women volunteers who were put through their paces on a course we saw in one of the areas under the control of the patriotic union of Kurdistan, General Jalal Talabani.

Now, these women are not front-line fighters. They would be called up for security type duties. So the Kurds say that they should and will play a part in any combined military assault. But at the moment, they're saying they've got no specific plans from the U.S. on the table, nothing specific, in terms of war plans, but they say they want it to happen and are willing to take part in it and expect it to happen. They say not taking down the leadership of Saddam Hussein puts them in even greater risk, they say, than they are today -- Wolf.

BLITZER: As you know, Brent, there for weeks and weeks and weeks here in Washington, there have been suggestions that some Al Qaeda terrorists may have fled Afghanistan and are in actually northern Iraq, the Kurdish-controlled area, where you are, as opposed to, let's say, in Baghdad. Are you seeing or hearing anything about these reports?

SADLER: Yes, indeed, Wolf. Specifically, there is an area bordering Iran. It's about two or three hours' drive from here. Not far from Halabja, that infamous northern Iraqi town, Kurdish town, bombed with poison chemical weapons by Saddam Hussein back in 1988.

Beyond Halabja -- and we can see this video now -- is a mountain range, and it's being called by Kurdish commanders there a mini Tora Bora, an area, they say, of cave complexes, remnants of Al Qaeda, a few dozen, they say, that are still using this area as a hub for moving weapons, moving operatives between Afghanistan through Iran and into what they say is a new hiding place for a pocket of Al Qaeda here in this so-called mini Tora Bora area.

Now, over the past few months, there have been a spate of bombings and assassinations -- assassination attempts against some leaders here, which have really been aimed at destabilizing this Kurdish zone. And that area, say the Kurds, is very important. They want it taken care of, as soon as they possibly can.

BLITZER: Brent Sadler. He's on the scene for us with some excellent reporting, as he always does. Brent, of course, many years in the area, knows it quite well. Thanks for that good report, Brent. We'll be checking back with you tomorrow and every day in the northern part of Iraq.

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