Beaten Kurdish chief warns of new offensive

A commander tells Patrick Cockburn that the PUK is rallying its forces again
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The Independent Online
Choman, Iraq-Iran border - "First we have to collect our troops. Then we will no longer stay on the defensive," said Jamal Mohammed, a senior field commander of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), at his headquarters in a narrow, easily defended valley in the high mountains on the Iraqi side of the border with Iran.

Looking relaxed and not afraid of attack by the victorious Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), he said 85 per cent of his forces were intact after the PUK was driven out of two-thirds of Kurdistan this month.

In the first interview by a senior PUK officer still fighting in Kurdistan since the defeat, Jamal Mohammed, also known as Mamosta Jamal, told The Independent he and his men would fight "so long as Massoud Barzani [the leader of the KDP] has an agreement with the Iraqi government". Sitting in a mud-roofed house at Choman, surrounded by heavily armed pesh merga (Kurdish soldiers), he seemed not to care if the KDP knew where he was; he said his position, down atrack cut into the side of mountain, was too strong for him to be driven out.

A neatly dressed man in brown Kurdish military uniform with a field radio clipped to his belt, he said there had been fighting the previous day. Asked if there was a chance that he and his men might lay down their arms, he said any agreement depended on the KDP breaking relations with Baghdad. Otherwise he would launch a counter-attack.

Eight hours' drive away the previous day, the KDP, at its headquarters at Salahudin, had insisted that the PUK and its leader, Jalal al Talabani, were a spent force. Sami Abd al Rahman, the KDP spokesman, said: "Talabani has only 2,000 men with him. He can only do something if Iranians support him and use their long-range artillery."

But the 3.5 million Kurds in northern Iraq still do not know whether the Kurdish civil war, which raged for two years, is over. The PUK suffered few casualties because of the speed of its retreat and still has many partisans. In the isolated villages of eastern Sulaymaniyah province, a stronghold of Mr Talabani, people said they expected more fighting. Abdullah Hussein Aziz, a shepherd, said: "The PUK still have a lot of men. Do you think they will do nothing?"

In this vacuum the pesh merga of the PUK will be almost impossible to repress. But to make a real comeback the PUK will have to persuade the Kurds that Mr Barzani's alliance with Saddam Hussein during the war marks the return of Iraqi rule.

Abdullah Hussein, the shepherd we met, said: "We are scared that the Iraqis took Arbil and the UN did nothing." A young pesh merga to whom we gave a lift said he had joined the PUK the previous week, "because when I heard of the deal with Iraq I became angry".

The KDP portrays the PUK as the catspaw of Iran. This was denied so repeatedly by the PUK pesh merga at Choman as to excite some suspicion. The village straddles the Iran-Iraq border and one villager was fording the river to visit the Iranian half of Choman, where an Iranian army tent was visible. The PUK pesh merga insisted that although their families were in camps in Iran, they had to give up their guns if they crossed the frontier.

The PUK pesh merga appeared baffled by their sudden retreat, but not demoralised. Majid Haji Ali, who said he had fought for 17 years, says: "If Barzani is ready to give human rights to everybody, we are crazy people to stay in the mountains." He did not look as if he expected to go home soon.