The speed and success of the counter-attack over the week-end by the PUK, led by Jalal al-Talabani, may indicate that it is receiving strong support from Iran. Massoud Barzani, the leader of the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP), said in a radio broadcast that Iran had launched "a brutal invasion" backed by the PUK.
Mr Talabani's forces began by taking the border towns of Mowat and Penjwin in northern and eastern Sulaymaniyah province, close to the Iranian border. At 4am yesterday the PUK took Sulaymaniyah, from which the KDP had reportedly withdrawn several hours earlier. In a statement the PUK said there had been "a spontaneous uprising" by local people.
"The area from the Iranian border deep into Iraqi Kurdistan is now in Talabani's hands," a source in the UN Co-ordinator's office in Baghdad was quoted as saying. He said that all UN staff in Sulaymaniyah were safe and the city was calm. It apparently fell without any armed struggle, he said, adding: "It is just a new day. KDP is out and PUK is in. Yesterday we had yellow flags, today we have green ones."
The resumption of fighting will further weaken the Kurds. The sudden collapse of the PUK last month after Mr Barzani called in the aid of the Iraqi army to help him capture Arbil, the Kurdish capital, appeared to have brought an end to the civil war in Kurdistan which broke out in 1994. If the the PUK now presses on and tries to retake Arbil, Mr Barzani is likely once more to turn to the Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.
In Damascus, Bayan Jabr, a representative of the Shia Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, which is aligned with the PUK, confirmed in a statement yesterday that the Kurdish group plans to retake Arbil, saying the town "will be in the hands of the PUK fighters within a few days".
UN sources say that Mr Talabani's forces have captured Chamchamal and there are reports of fighting near Dokan and Koi Sanjaq, well to the west of Sulaymaniyah city. This means that the KDP's rout this weekend has been almost as complete as the defeat of the PUK a month ago.
It is unlikely, however, that the Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein will stand by and watch the defeat of his new ally Mr Barzani by forces friendly with Iran. An official statement, after a meeting of the Iraqi leadership, urged the two groups to settle their differences through talks, and warned against "dealing with the foreigner", a reference to the PUK's links with Iran.
It is is possible that Iran has decided to take a more aggressive stance towards Mr Barzani because of events in Afghanistan. On the heels of its setback in Iraqi Kurdistan, the Iranian leadership saw the Taliban, allegedly allied to Pakistan and hostile to Tehran, capture Kabul in late September. Under pressure on both its eastern and western frontiers Iran may have decided to strike back.
There is another reason why the KDP rolled up so quickly. It never really established control of much of Sulaymaniyah province. One estimate puts its available forces at 30,000 - and these are swallowed up in the roadless interior of Kurdistan.
Driving north from Sulaymaniyah in the direction of Choman on the Iranian border two weeks ago there were no KDP checkpoints in the high mountains.
The political and military vacuum was symbolised by a 155mm heavy artillery piece, abandoned with a flat tyre by the PUK in their flight on 9 September. Neither the victorious KDP nor the defeated PUK had had the confidence to pick up this valuable piece of hardware.
The KDP was visibly overstretched. Not only were there few checkpoints away from the main cities, but there was little military traffic on the roads. In Choman, a huddle of houses beside a stream which marks the border with Iran, the regional PUK commander was confident that he still had 85 per cent of his forces and could counter-attack when he had regrouped.
Nevertheless the speed with which the PUK has reconquered most of Sulaymaniyah province is probably the result of strong Iranian support. This in turn is likely to lead the KDP to turn once again to Baghdad. Neither Iran nor Iraq are willing to see the other's client win a clear victory.Reuse content