Barzani ponders the price of KDP victory

Kurdish conflict: Vanquished rival warns that Saddam will 'consume us all', as fall-out from crisis begins to be felt in the US
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The Independent Online
Masoud Barzani savoured the fruits of victory yesterday as the single-handed capture of the city of Sulaymaniyah by his Kurdistan Democratic Party guerrillas showed that his strength was greater than mere reliance on the support of President Saddam Hussein of Iraq.

The losers, Jalal Talabani's Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, fled to the Iranian border with thousands of civilians. Iran said 200,000 refugees were pressing to come in; independent reports gave figures of 2,000 to 10,000 camping in minefields without sanitation or food.

The PUK fighters were apparently victims of their own propaganda about the advance of overwhelming Iraqi army units, of whose presence there was no independent confirmation. Thousands of other civilians melted away to home villages in the countryside to wait for the situation in the city of 750,000 people to stabilise. Having suddenly attacked the PUK during US- and British-mediated ceasefire negotiations, Mr Barzani, surprised as as anyone else at the speed of his success, tried to appear magnanimous in victory by announcing an amnesty for all PUK members, including Mr Talabani.

KDP looting and burning was reportedly restricted to rivals' bases. Some Iraqi Kurds who had fled Sulaymaniyah were reported yesterday to have started to return. A few shops reopened and people swapped green PUK flags for the yellow of the victorious KDP.

Some analysts believe Mr Barzani, rather than President Saddam, has been the main winner in 10 days' fighting that have made him master of the 3.5 million Kurds in the three provinces of northern Iraq. "In immediate terms the KDP is the winner. In the strategic picture Baghdad is coming out very nicely indeed," said Rosemary Hollis, head of the Middle East Programme at the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London. "The KDP could still get in trouble. But . . . one shouldn't put too much stress on the Iraqi control of the KDP. From their perspective, they could prove quite right to have bet on a new relationship with Baghdad."

Even though the policy of a Western-protected "safe haven" has collapsed, the first benefit for ordinary Iraqi Kurds may be quick to come. President Saddam announced an end to the internal embargo placed on Kurdish areas since 1991.

The measure blocked normal supplies of everything, even schoolbooks, to the landlocked north. Kurds wishing to travel to government-held areas to visit relatives or buy essentials had to travel to the Iraqi army lines in batches of 60 at a time.

But few Iraqi Kurds can forget it was a brief spurt of Iraqi artillery and armoured support that set the KDP off with the seizure of the Iraqi Kurdistan capital of Arbil.

Baghdad was not slow to claim the victory as its own. The fall of Sulaymaniyah, Iraqi newspapers said, was a crushing defeat for the United States. The PUK also thought so, saying the KDP was a pawn of a regime that has killed 180,000 Iraqi Kurds, including 8,000 members of Mr Barzani's clan, and razing 4,000 Iraqi Kurdish villages. "In aligning with Baghdad the KDP has mounted a tiger which will destroy us all," a PUK statement said.

"Once Saddam controls Kurdistan, he will no longer need his Kurdish ally and will consume the KDP and what remains of the Kurdish people."

Analysts doubted, however, that President Saddam would want to risk moving openly into the north. The KDP is clearly also betting on this, believing any such action would provoke more American retaliation like last week's cruise- missile strikes.