Kurdish 'victors' go into retreat

The KDP has had a nasty surprise, and the war continues, writes Patrick Cockburn
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The Independent Online
It was a 155mm artillery piece with a 24ft barrel which troops from the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan had abandoned when it burst a tyre in their headlong flight in early September.

"They were in such a hurry they left it when it got a flat," said Mohammed Salah, a villager in Timar in northern Sulaymaniyah province who had seen them go. "They had two big guns of the same size and two Katyushas [rockets] in the same convoy." Further up the track which serves as a village street for Timar, a huddle of earth-roofed houses, the PUK had discarded some 155mm shells which lay in the grass.

For two weeks nobody had come to pick up the gun or the ammunition. Their fate explains much about the sudden reversals of fortunes in the Kurdish civil war. Even at the height of its victory the Kurdistan Democratic Party, suddenly evicted from Sulaymaniyah province at the weekend, had hesitated to send men to seize a valuable piece of artillery in the mountains which it claimed to have conquered.

Larger armies than the rag-tag militias fielded by the KDP of Massoud Barzani and the PUK of Jalal al-Talabani have been swallowed up in the Kurdish mountains. Saddam Hussein only contained them in the three years before the Gulf war with poison gas and an extermination campaign in which 182,000 Kurds disappeared. It is not surprising Mr Barzani's control is more tenuous.

By yesterday he had lost most of Sulaymaniyah province, which he captured only last month after calling in Iraqi tanks to help him take Arbil, the Kurdish capital. UN officials confirmed Mr Talabani's men had recaptured Khoi Sanjaq, the tumbledown town at the foot of the mountains which was the PUK leader's birth-place and which is 90 minutes' drive from Arbil.

Mr Talabani, in an interview with the Arabic daily al-Hayat, said: "We have no plans at present to retake Arbil because it is surrounded by Iraqi tanks, but we'll leave that to the people of Arbil." The KDP insists Iranian forces are actively involved. It said it repulsed one assault in which "the attackers lost dozens of men and members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards were identified among the dead".

All this is a nasty surprise for the KDP which believed it had conclusively won the civil war that has gone on since 1994. Mr Barzani said he thought Mr Talabani and the PUK were finished unless they got support from Iran - and this may well have happened. Whatever happens in the present fighting, the civil war will go on. The KDP may be forced once again to look to Baghdad for military aid. The 3.5 million Kurds of northern Iraq will be more dependent than ever on neighbouring powers.

Villagers in the mountains in northern Sulaymaniyah province will not be surprised at the reversal of fortunes. Abdullah Hussein, a shepherd in the Shiwakal valley, said: "The PUK still have a lot of men. Do you think they will do nothing?"

The problem for the KDP was spelled out by Jamal Mohammed, the PUK military commander for northern Sulaymaniyah, in his headquarters in a village on the Iraqi side of the Iranian border. He said his men had just beaten off an attack by KDP "using heavy machine guns and Katyushas". Did he expect another attack? "Not for now," he said. "The KDP does not have enough troops and has to move them to wherever there is trouble. They are over-extended."

Jamal Mohammed said he intended to attack when his men had regrouped and this has now happened. The KDP did not have enough men to hold on to their territorial gains. They may also have been intimidated by Iran's long-range artillery. The KDP leaders, buoyed up by their sudden victory last month, may not have realised the support in Sulaymaniyah city for the PUK. They may have underestimated the anger and fear felt by ordinary Kurds because of the KDP's brief alliance with Saddam.