"Even the landmines are more predictable than the politics here", said one of the two, glumly weighing up the risks of years in jail if they fell into the hands of Iraqi forces against the thought of abandoning four years trying to help the Iraqi Kurds recover from decades of war and oppression. The Britons decided to stay on, against the advice of the Foreign Office and did not want their names in any papers the Iraqis might read. Similar fears after the most powerful Iraqi Kurd faction aligned itself with Baghdad have persuaded other non-governmental organisations to leave already.
Outside the house rented by the US Office for Foreign Disaster Assistance (OSDA) stood four disconsolate Iraqi Kurds. The last five local OSDA staff left yesterday morning, with their families. "They didn't even pay us for last month. There's a houseful of computers and equipment in there. Will they ever be coming back?" asked one of the guards.
A sense of doom has been gathering over Suleymaniyeh over the past week as the West's security guarantees for Iraqi Kurdistan have been shown to be more psychological than real. This city, the most sophisticated in Iraqi Kurdistan and a long-established capital, may be well clear of current fighting but it is also well south of the allied "no-fly zone" north of the 36th parallel.
Clashes continued yesterday on the road between Suleymaniyeh, which is controlled by the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), and Arbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, seized last Saturday from the PUK by forces of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), backed by Iraqi army tanks and artillery.
Requisitioned buses took a battalion of PUK fighters from Suleymaniyeh to the front line 30km east of Arbil. PUK ribbons and sprigs of fir trees hung from the gun barrels and rockets poking out of the bus windows. A man behind a heavy machine-gun said he intended to "do some slaughtering".
There was no independent confirmation of PUK allegations that Iraqi heavy weapons were again fighting with the KDP. On the PUK side, however, I saw two unmarked Toyota Land Cruisers of a type used in Iran. Inside, groups of men looking like Islamic Revolutionary Guards were heading towards the front line, although not before taking a wrong turn.
"Those Iranians are always getting lost, driving by their map," said an Iraqi Kurd guerrilla at a PUK check-point as the vehicle headed cautiously over the hills to the fighting.
The PUK has allowed the Iranians to operate in their territory for the past six weeks, one of the KDP's reasons for tilting towards Baghdad. The PUK leader, Jalal Talabini, has threatened to call in more Iranian support if he feels Suleymaniyeh itself is threatened.
But while the Iraqi Kurds pursue their factional feuding, and while Baghdad, Tehran and Ankara manoeuvre for strategic advantage, it is the people of the hungry and impoverished town who are suffering.
"For five years we have been waiting for the United Nations, the United States. Nothing's changed, nothing's happened," said a former watch-mender, Abdurahmam Sharis. "If the United States really wants to help us, it would allow the food-for-oil deal to go through. We are still very poor. People are very tired. We want to live," Mr Sharis said. "And tell me why are all the aid agencies going?"
The 30-odd international aid workers still in northern Iraq fear not only for their personal safety - there have been many apparently Iraqi attacks on aid workers in the past - but for that of their staff. Said one: "Listen to this mail we got from (KDP-controlled) Zakho: 'Today KDP forces came to our office and demanded a list of our employees. I denied that I had it, and subsequently burned all records'. Another said: 'KDP guerrillas are now stationed outside our warehouses'."
Even a few official United Nations staff have asked to move away from areas affected by the conflict. But some, like the much-maligned UN guards, are determined to fly the blue and white UN flag to prevent any feelings of local unease changing to fear and panic. "It's at times like this that we are supposed to be here. There is no need to evacuate the UN presence," said Poul Dahl, chief of security for the United Nations in northern Iraq.
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