Kurdish leader pleads for West's help

Policing Saddam
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Qalaat Chowlan - As his chastened guerrilla forces battled against another assault in northern Iraq, the Iraqi Kurdish leader defeated in last weekend's battle for Arbil warned that unless the West acted against what he called for renewed aggression by President Saddam Hussein he might call in Islamic forces from just over the border with Iran.

"First we are asking our British and American friends to protect our people from Saddam. If they say no, then we will go to the devil himself, anyone who is ready to support us," Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) leader, Jalal Talabani, said, anxiously rallying support through a battery of satellite telephones from his eyrie in the mountainous north-eastern corner of Iraq.

Mr Talabani said he sent the same message to Turkey, Syria, Israel, Saudi Arabi and others. But he said he would even consider calling on Iran or the large forces of the Iranian-trained "Badr Brigade" of fugitive Iraqi Shia Muslims camped not far across the frontier.

"We are waiting for the Americans. We will see what they will do. If we are frustrated we will look to other friends. We will not commit suicide," he said.

Mr Talabani's rivals in the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) said yesterday's attack was launched 30km (20 miles) from their newly captured Iraqi Kurdistan capital of Arbil. They said the aim was to push PUK forces further east. There was no independent confirmation of Mr Talabani's charge that Iraqi artillery and 60 Iraqi armoured cars and tanks in the area were backing KDP forces as they had done in the fighting on Saturday.

Mr Talabani's wife, Hero, who had been in her Arbil mansion at the time of the KDP's Saturday attack, was safely at her husband's side in Qalaat Chowlan, a former camp for senior Iraqi officers 30km north-east of Sulemaniyeh.

"I was still in our house when they captured both the gates. We had to fight our way out with a group of Peshmergas, it was street fighting, unbelievable ... It was two days before I reached safety," Mrs Talabani said.

The road from the KDP-held area through the front lines to Suleymaniyeh seemed quiet and lightly militarised, although local people on the PUK side of the fighting said many ambulances had passed during the day. Suleymaniyeh itself seemed calm. The main city of the easternmost of the three provinces of Iraqi Kurdistan, it is the only one now controlled by Mr Talabani's PUK.

In Arbil, more people had emerged from their houses and a few more had opened shops. Owners of petrol tankers resumed distribution of fuel smuggled from Iraq. A United Nations-supervised operation close to the front lines appeared to be making progress towards restoring power.

The power cut had made the dominating sight in Arbil one of women and girls walking to wells with colourful buckets. Mr Talabani said he had ordered electricity to be restored as soon as possible, but it seemed unlikely he would make a quick peace with the new masters of the city.

"We are doing this because it is our city. Mr Barzani [Masoud Barzani, KDP leader] is only there because he went in riding Saddam Hussein's tanks. We will fight to regain it," Mr Talabni said .

The PUK leader said he had no information about any new American peace initiative, but at a press conference on Wednesday Mr Barzani said he felt positive towards a statement of readiness for mediation from the United States. Both seem unsure what Washington's policy is. Mr Talabani was particularly bitter because he had believed US assurances that they would never allow overt Iraqi ground intervention north of the 36th parallel, where the allies enforce a no-fly zone.

Mr Talabani also voiced concern about the intended actions of the Turks, saying that a significant Turkish force had crossed the border in the middle of the Iraqi-Turkish border and that others appeared ready to implement a security zone in northern Iraq.