Key city falls to Iraqi-backed Kurds

Last stronghold falls: Guerrillas abandon Sulaymaniyah as support from the Iranians fails to materialise
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The conflict in Iraqi Kurdistan escalated yesterday, as the faction backed by Baghdad was reported to have seized a key city.

The Kurdistan Democratic Party said in a statement that its fighters entered the city of Sulaymaniyah, Iraqi Kurdistan's second largest city, at 7 p.m. local time

With Masoud Barzani's KDP guerrillas advancing unstoppably along the mountain roads of Iraqi Kurdistan, cadres of Jalal Talabani's retreating Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) were yesterday reported to be melting away from their last stronghold, the eastern city of Sulaymaniyah.

A senior UN official in the area earlier said that the KDP captured the city after its rival faction, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, abandoned its positions there.

Stafford Clarry, head of the UN Guards Contingent in northern Iraq, said the city was quiet and that about 50,000 of the city's normal population of 400,000 have fled since Sunday night.

Sulaymaniyah was the last stronghold left in the hands of the PUK after it lost Irbil, the area's de facto's capital, on Aug. 31 in a KDP offensive backed by the Iraqi army.

The capture of Sulaymaniyah means that Saddam now enjoys his strongest influence over northern Iraq since the US-led forces established a Kurdish "safe haven" there after the 1991 Gulf War.

The KDP later issued as a statement saying it was "in control of all the three Kurdish provinces. "The bitter and tragic episode that was caused by the fratricidal war imposed unreasonably by Talabani's PUK in their quest for total hegemony is finally over."

Mr Barzani was backed by Iraqi firepower when it launched its blitzkrieg seizure of the Iraqi Kurdistan capital of Arbil on 31 August, but there has been no further confirmation of frantic PUK allegations of direct Iraqi involvement.

The United States has also played down the reports. The US Defense Secretary, William Perry, said some Iraqi troops "are still nearby and still dangerous" but that "we should not be involved in civil war in the north".

The KDP claimed that there had been an anti-PUK uprising in the city before the KDP's expected arrival, but one aid worker in the city told the BBC that there had been no fighting.

KDP forces advancing from the west were expected to link up soon with KDP forces near the eastern Iranian border and the town of Qaladiza. Some reports said the important Dukan Dam had already been captured with its hydro-electric plant that supplies power to most of eastern Iraqi Kurdistan, including Arbil. The city's 1 million people have been without power or water for nine days.

Mr Talabani's last desperate bet on Iranian assistance seemed last night to have failed. The KDP alleged he had withdrawn to the Iranian border town of Penjwin with his closest retainers.

"The Iranians are not going to bet on a losing horse. That is how power politics works," one senior KDP official said.

The politics of a future KDP-dominated administration will probably shift towards federal re-integration with Iraq, even though many Iraqi Kurds remain deeply antagonistic towards Saddam Hussein and fearful of any return of his secret police.

On Thursday, Mr Talabani said that he thought this was part of a realignment that would link Baghdad, Iraqi Kurdistan and the new administration of Turkey that is pushing for closer trading relations with Iraq.

"It is a kind of complicity from the Turks. The Turks are encouraging the relationship between Masoud and Saddam."

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