West flounders as Saddam goes to war again

The Iraqi dictator, Saddam Hussein, sent tanks and artillery into the Kurdish "safe haven" in the north of the country yesterday to help one of the two main Kurdish factions seize control of Arbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan. With the Iraqi flag fluttering above the city, President Bill Clinton put US forces on high alert and authorised their repositioning to meet the threat.

Iraq's deputy prime minister, Tariq Aziz, said Baghdad had responded to a request for assistance from Masoud Barzani's Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), one of the two main Kurdish factions, which yesterday was reported to have wrested control of Arbil from its rival, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) of Jalal Talabani. "We decided to launch a limited military operation in defence of our sovereignty, our people and their properties," the Iraqi News Agency quoted him as saying.

Last night a spokesman for Iraq's Revolutionary Command Council said Iraq would soon withdraw its troops "in accordance with the plan agreed upon to extend aid and support for Mr Masoud Barzani and his comrades in their resistance to Iranian aggression". The PUK receives Iranian backing.

The factional fighting has left an American-sponsored round of ceasefire talks in London in tatters. A session due to be held yesterday was cancelled. The 3.5 million Kurds of northern Iraq have been protected by the allies against Baghdad since the end of the Gulf war. But US military spokesmen were hard-pushed to explain what they could do about the encroachment. "We are maintaining routine patrolling. There is no increase in forces," said Major Lewis Boone of the European Command, in charge of the 80-plane allied force known as Operation Provide Comfort watching over northern Iraq.

The Iraqi-backed attack on Arbil will put at risk a painfully-negotiated deal, reached in May but not yet implemented, to allow Iraq to sell $2bn worth of oil to buy food and medicines.

A PUK spokesman, Burhan Saleh, said the capture of Arbil, during which the city was subjected to tank and artillery shelling, was "an Iraqi government operation", and the KDP "a side-show". His leader, Jalal Talabani, said he had given Washington three days' warning of the attack, and won a promise of "lethal" retaliation, "but they failed to act decisively".