Kurdish capital left to lick its wounds as Iraqis withdraw

Policing Saddam: Hugh Pope reports from Arbil, the city Saddam helped the KDP to conquer

The new Iraqi Kurdish rulers of Arbil yesterday proved that the last Iraqi armoured vehicles had withdrawn from the city. They showed foreign reporters a bruised population of 1 million people who are now short of food, must walk miles for water and have no electricity at all.

The last Iraqis withdrew overnight from around the blasted shell of the parliament building to take up position some 10 miles south-east of Arbil, near Kushtepe, United Nations sources and local people said. There, just north of the 35th parallel and the Iraqis' former front line, a mechanised Iraqi battalion of some 50 armoured vehicles and a light, towed artillery battery of 12 guns were parked in a field by the road. The Iraqis did not seem to be digging in and appeared ready to withdraw, the UN sources said.

The soldiers' main purpose at that point between the front lines of the two rival Iraqi Kurdish factions seemed to be to prevent the retreating Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) from trying to launch a counter-attack to dislodge the new masters of Arbil, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP).

In the Iraqi Kurdish capital itself, hundreds of KDP fighters still milled around the entrance to the seat of the administration, the governor's office, or lounged in the shade on pavements in front of closed shop shutters. Only a few shops, selling food, were open in the city.

The KDP seemed in complete control of Arbil, and determined to prevent any looting by revenge-minded fighters. At one checkpoint, a convoy of armed guerrillas was barred from entering, leading to angry scenes and the training of heavy machine guns on the guerrillas until they left.

Thanks to the overwhelming force applied to the Saturday assault, backed by Iraqi light artillery and tank fire, the fight had been short and the damage to the city seemed minimal. Nobody disputed the KDP's figure of fewer than 200 people killed and injured.

A decision to position UN vehicles around the city as soon as the fighting had died down reassured people, encouraged them not to flee, and deterred guerrillas from committing atrocities, the UN sources said.

"In this situation our presence is vital," said the UN chief of security in Iraqi Kurdistan, the former Danish special forces colonel, Poul Dahl. "There is no reason for evacuation."

The mansion used by the PUK leader Jalal Talabani in the city had been wrecked and looted, with black smoke marks scarring the window lintels. The same scene was repeated at many other houses and bases used by senior PUK officials in the city.

Such places were often previously used by top Iraqi officials and had been damaged in the much more destructive PUK takeover of the city in December 1994, part of the factional infighting that has split Iraqi Kurdistan in two.

KDP members were busily painting out prominent placards on former PUK buildings, while women walked for miles under the scorching sun, carrying buckets or water tanks to the few places where generators were pumping water from wells.

Foreign aid sources said that it was likely that the electricity would be restored soon, since the power cut did not appear to be political in origin. It resulted from a break in the power lines between the rival Iraqi- Kurdish front lines. A local ceasefire had to be arranged before the lines could be repaired.

The KDP also took down the Iraqi flags that had been flying beside the Kurdish flag above the parliament and the fortified old town that dominates the city - an apparent concession to foreign opinion shocked by their collaboration with President Saddam Hussein's regime.

Local opinion in Arbil was sharply divided over the weekend's events. Small groups that formed to discuss the question agreed that while they still feared President Saddam, they were sick of the situation and would like to see a return to more central government, while keeping their federal Iraqi Kurdistan.

Some feared the continued presence of Iraqi secret police, although their checkpoints, if they existed at all, seem to have been set up only on Saturday and Sunday. Some townspeople even thought that the Iraqi soldiers had behaved very properly.

"There is little to eat and it's very expensive. But we hope that it is the start of stability," 65-year-old Hussain Rahim said, as he stood in front of the blown-out windows of a tailors' shop and complained that armed men had stolen his car.

Standing underneath the blast-ripped canopy over a shop that sold Turkish Pepsi Cola cooled with ice just brought in from the Iraqi Arab city of Mosul, one man said that he thought the time had come for reunification of the country.

"We embraced America, but we saw nothing from them for the past five years," said long-distance lorry driver Yagoub Othman. "We used to approve of American bombing. But now we don't. We are Iraqis, and proud of it."

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