Rival Kurds sign peace accord

Hopes rise that war has ended, though old mistrusts persist in dividing rivals

After two months of fighting, rival Kurdish parties have signed a peace accord which brings an end to the latest phase in the civil war in Kurdistan. The agreement, mediated by the US, Britain and Turkey at a two-day meeting in Ankara, commits both sides not to seek support from outside powers.

The war has seen rapidly changing fortunes on the battlefield. The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan led by Jalal al-Talabani first attacked, allegedly with Iranian support, on 17 August. Facing defeat the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Massoud Barzani allied itself with Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi leader, and drove Mr Talabani out of most of Kurdistan, only to see him, again with Iranian support, regain most of his losses in a counter-offensive.

"This is a good blueprint for re-establishing the Kurdish regional government in northern Iraq," said Robert Pelletreau, the US Assistant Secretary of State at the end of the meeting. A blueprint is what it is likely to remain since the divisions between the two sides are too deep for a joint administration to be formed.

According to the agreement Kurdistan will be divided along the battlelines as they were on 23 October, prisoners will be released and neither side is to disrupt the distribution of humanitarian aid. The accord is to be monitored by a group including members of the Assyrian and Turcoman minorities in northern Iraq. The involvement of the Turcomans shows greater Turkish influence, while the US has abandoned the Iraqi National Congress (INC), an Iraqi resistance movement partly financed by the CIA. In the past the US has proposed the INC as a ceasefire monitor.

Despite the declarations by the PUK and KDP that they will not rely on outside powers, the civil war over the last two months has sharply increased the influence of Baghdad and Tehran in Iraqi Kurdistan. "Both parties have fallen further into the hands of Iraq and Iran," says Laith Kubba, an Iraqi opposition intellectual. "First Barzani won his victory because of the support of Saddam and then the Iranians put Talabani back in business."

The Kurdish civil war, which began in 1994, has seriously damaged aspirations for Kurdish self-determination which had soared in the wake of the Kurdish uprising at the end of the Gulf war. "Unfortunately in defeat the Kurds do not compromise but look for an outside supporter," says Kamran Karadaghi, a Kurdish journalist.

The accord may open the way for the implementation of the oil-for-food deal, to be worth $2bn every six months, which was agreed between Iraq and the UN in May. This could prove to be vital for the many Kurds who had heard rumours of immanent UN food aid in the sowing season, and therefore delayed planting crops this year.

Iraq has criticised the agreement. Al-Iraq newspaper said yesterday: "The peace imposed by America [in northern Iraq] is fragile and shaky because it is implemented in order to achieve American interests." Nevertheless Saddam Hussein has been able to prove that he still has a potent army by his brief intervention on 31 August when his tanks helped the KDP take the Kurdish capital Arbil. The successful counter-offensive by the PUK, apparently with heavy Iranian support, has made Mr Barzani more reliant on Baghdad than if he had won an outright victory.

The swift reconquest of his old base in Sulaimaniyah province by Mr Talabani shows that he has popular support among its 1.2 million people. But having lost the Kurdish capital Arbil his PUK party will be more than ever reliant on Iran. The extent of this reliance was hinted at in letters that had passed between the two parties, and that were found by the KDP in September.

In the overall balance sheet in this latest round of the civil war Iraq and Iran have both strengthened their positions. The US has lost a little credibility by failing to stop Saddam Hussein using his tanks. The biggest losers are the Kurds themselves whose divisions have prevented them establishing a Kurdish power, let alone an independent state, in the mountains of north- eastern Iraq.

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