Secret War: As Kurds fight over a road, Saddam tightens his grip

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The Independent Online
Two Kurdish warlords are fighting a savage battle for the control of the strategic Hamilton road, which runs through the heart of Kurdistan. At least 600 Kurds have died in the fighting. But the war is allowing Saddam Hussein to regain his power in Kurdistan.

To control the road is to control the heart of Kurdistan. It starts in Arbil, the Kurdish capital, and runs through the Kurdish mountains, twisting and turning along the side of precipices and through river gorges, to the Iranian border.

Called the Hamilton road after AM Hamilton, the New Zealand engineer who built it in the 1920s, it is the strategic key to the Kurdish mountains. In a land without roads, it is the road. For 70 years, Kurdish warlords and foreign armies have fought to control it, until every foot of its weathered tarmac is bathed in blood.

In the last month, the Hamilton road has seen attack and counter-attack by the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), led by Massoud Barzani, which controls western Kurdistan, and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), led by Jalal al-Talabani, which controls the east. The PUK has fired Iranian- supplied Grad missiles at Mr Barzani's headquarters at Sari Rash. He countered by using Turkish artillery fire and airstrikes to drive Mr Talabani's men off the heights they captured overlooking the road.

In this fierce civil war, which is dooming Kurdish hopes for self-determination, at least 600 Kurds have died. Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi leader, able to play each side against the other, is again becoming again the predominant power in Kurdistan from which he withdrew in 1991.

It is also a largely secret war, so far as the outside world is concerned. Almost the only point on which Iraq, Turkey and Iran - the neighbours of Iraqi Kurdistan - are agreed, is that reporters must be kept from the battle zone. All three countries want to fight their proxy war in the region without publicity.

The fighting in the last month ended a ceasefire, brokered by the United States, Britain and Turkey, which had lasted a year. Then Mr Talabani did a deal with Baghdad. He agreed to close down the headquarters of the Iraqi National Congress (INC), the umbrella group uniting the Iraqi opposition, in Sulaimaniyah, his capital. In return, President Saddam promised not to intervene if the PUK attacked the Hamilton road (though the Iraqi leader would not let them attack Arbil, which his tanks had captured for Mr Barzani last year).

The PUK offensive began on 12 October. Mr Talabani's men attacked Shaqlawa and Mr Barzani's headquarters. In the Harir mountains they captured heights overlooking the road, which is the supply route for the KDP's frontline. At the northern end, they took Haj Omran, the border crossing with Iran, where they were aided by Turkish Kurd guerrillas of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). Haj Omran is important because the Hamilton road is not just a military supply line. It is a main route for truck traffic into and out of Iran en route to Baghdad and Turkey. The KDP draws as much as a 20-25 per cent of its revenues from this trade which the PUK wants to take over.

"Jalal [al-Talabani] always miscalculates," says one Kurdish observer. "He told his people the Americans had turned against Massoud and Saddam would do nothing. He had support from the Iranians. His misjudgment was that he did not think the Turks would intervene strongly."

It was an expensive mistake. The Turks sent in 10,000 men, though these took no part in the ground fighting, and deployed its heavy artillery and airforce. The Harir and Safeen mountains, where the PUK was advancing, are bare of cover. Turkish artillery was effective and Mr Talabani's men suffered heavy casualties.

The only part of the Hamilton road the PUK and their Turkish Kurd allies still hold is at Haj Omran on the Iranian border. The reason is probably that the Turks do not want to provoke the Iranians by launching airstrikes so close to their border. Mr Barzani has mobilised 10,000 Pesh Merga (Kurdish soldiers), but he will not want to humiliate the Iranians by pushing further into Mr Talabani's territory.

For the moment, the fighting is over. The Hamilton road remains mostly under the control of Mr Barzani. Turkey has again shown its willingness to intervene deep in Kurdistan. The US and Britain have shown they are increasingly marginal players in the region. Bizarrely, the PUK gets $500,000 (pounds 300,000) a month from the CIA, its other two key supporters being Iran and the Turkish Kurd guerrillas.

The biggest winner is Saddam Hussein. Last year he saved Massoud Barzani and the KDP from defeat by Mr Talabani by sending his tanks into Arbil. This year, Mr Talabani has himself established links with Baghdad.

The continuation of the Kurdish civil war suits Iraq, Iran and Turkey. It makes it easy to manipulate the KDP and PUK, and it discredits the Kurdish claim to self-determination. With neither side able to emerge as the outright winner, the struggle for the Hamilton road will go on.