The outcome of the confict will be watched with intense interest by neighbouring governments in Turkey, Iran, Syria and Iraq, which, together with the US, have fought for influence in the Kurdish mountains since the Gulf war in 1991.
Hoshyar Zebari, a leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party, said yesterday: "Iranian forces have started intensive artillery bombardment of our positions and are using helicopters to ferry troops behind us."
Both sides agree that clashes are more intense than at any time since 1994, when the KDP and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan effectively divided Kurdistan between them. Mr Zebari said his party had been forced to abandon one position under intense Iranian artillery attack after losing 25 dead and 75 wounded.
There are no independent accounts of the fighting. Some Kurds who belong to neither party confirm the intensity of the bombardment, but thought it possible that Iran had provided the PUK with heavy guns. The KDP says it has intercepted radio conversations between the PUK and Iranian artillery.
The heaviest fighting is for control of the vital Hamilton Road, built during the British occupation of Iraq, which runs though Kurdistan towards the Iranian border. Giving a different account of the start of the fighting, Dr Latif Rashid, a spokesman for the PUK, denied that his party was receiving Iranian support and said the latest fighting started when "some 500 to 600 men in a KDP unit defected to us last week".
The PUK, which controls south and east Kurdistan, is attacking key positions of the KDP who hold north and west Kurdistan. Mr Zebari says: "It is the heartland of our support." He said he was confident that his party, led by Massud Bar-zani, could hold its ground, but not if the PUK was "backed by howitzers and Katyusha rocket- launchers provided by Iran".
Since the Kurdish civil warstarted two years ago, Iran has increased its influence in the region and is probably backing the PUK in its offensive. This is the continuation of Iranian policy of alternately backing both parties in Kurdistan and seeking to limit the influence of the US and its Gulf war allies. The US still provides air cover for the threemillion Kurds in north-east Iraq to prevent the return of Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi leader.
Despite the continuation of "Operation Provide Comfort", US interest in Kurdistan has been intermittent. This week's fighting has pre-empted a fresh US mediation effort, but past attempts to get the KDP and the PUK to agree have failed. Both Turkey and Iran consider they have the right to send in troops in pusuit of their own Kurdish rebels. In July, Iran sent troops far into Kurdistan with the apparent agreement of the PUK. KDP leaders now say they are being punished by Iran for refusing to co-operate in the raid.
Kamran Karadaghi, a commentator on Kurdish affairs, says: "The Iranians are sending a message to the US and Turkey which is that it is the main player in northern Iraq." Turkey has so far reacted mutely to the fighting, fuelling speculation that improved relations between Ankara and Tehran following the visit of Necmettin Erbakan, the Turkish prime minister, to Iran may have made Turkey more tolerant towards Iranian intervention.
For its part, the PUK, led by Jalal al-Talabani, accuses Mr Barzani of looking for support from Baghdad, alleging his troops have received armoured cars from Iraq. There is probably some truth in this, since all the Kurdish parties maintain links with neighbouring countries which pay intense interest in their affairs. But any real improvement in the relations between the KDP and Baghdad is likely to be vetoed, for wholly different, reasons by Iran and the US.Reuse content