Turkey and other governments welcomed the withdrawal as the beginning of a resolution of the crisis in northern Iraq. But other sources said Iraqi forces remained just outside the city and in de facto control.
The Foreign Secretary, Malcolm Rifkind, suggested a continued Iraqi military presence near Arbil would invite a Western response "sooner rather than later". A withdrawal was insignificant unless the troops moved at least 50 miles away.
Baghdad had earlier announced the removal of its troops, who captured Arbil at the weekend in a two-day combined assault with their former enemies in the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP). But the rival Kurdish faction, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), insisted that the Iraqi soldiers were still present and massacring its members.
The PUK spokesman said: "[Iraqi troops] have committed mass executions in Arbil of PUK members - some of them have been executed in the streets. A few hundred have been killed. Many hundreds have been arrested."
As Western governments considered their response, doubts remained about the precise status of Arbil under the terms of the "safe haven" for Kurds declared after the Gulf war in 1991. The city was not in a zone placed off-limits to Iraqi troops by the West following a resolution by the United Nations Security Council. But United States officials said it was within a "no-fly zone" declared later and insisted that the spirit of UN resolutions protecting the Kurds should apply.
Fighting between the Kurdish factions, rivals who have shifted alliances between Iraq and Iran, ignited in mid-August despite US efforts to broker a ceasefire. The KDP, under Massoud Barzani, looked to President Saddam after the PUK reportedly gained backing from Iran. The PUK leader, Jalal Talabani, has said Iraqi Kurdistan could split into pro-Iraq and pro-Iran regions if Washington and its allies did not respond.
Efforts to convene a session of the UN Security Council were bogged down yesterday as diplomats struggled to assess whether there had been any explicit violation of UN resolutions. Doubts were being expressed privately as to whether there would be enough support in the council for serious UN action against Iraq beyond the usual words of condemnation. Russia and China, both permanent council members, would be likely to oppose any military response, sources said.
The focus of attention at the UN is Resolution 688, which calls on Iraq to end all repression of its Kurdish minorities and to respect their human rights. It was on the back of this resolution that the US and its allies established a "safe haven" north of the 36th parallel.
The allies might argue that Baghdad has already violated Resolution 688 by its actions at the weekend. In theory, any "material breach" of the UN resolutions could open Iraq to reprisals, up to and including military action.
But the case is weakened by the vagueness of Resolution 688, which does little to define what would constitute repression by Baghdad. Still more discouraging for the Americans is the likely resistance of some in the Security Council, notably Russia, which has already called for restraint.
"If they [the US] do take military action, it is more likely that they would do so on their own and come here for the approval of the Security Council after it is all over," one diplomat suggested.
Speaking in Tokyo after meeting his Japanese opposite number, Mr Rifkind hinted that the Government was in favour of some punitive response to the Iraqi assault.
"We know perfectly well that his [President Saddam's] objective is to use any opportunity that presents itself to establish control over the Kurdish areas ...His initial objective has to be to regain what he lost as a result of the Gulf war ... He will be in a stronger position to contemplate aggression against other countries if he has control over the whole of Iraq itself."
British sources said President Saddam's posture since the Gulf war had been to push the international community whenever possible and see how far he got. If not stopped now, he would push further and further.
Leading article, page 13
Letters, page 13Reuse content