Talabani returns and promises to bring peace to Kurdistan

THE KURDISH leader, Jalal Talabani, promised to restore peace in Iraqi Kurdistan yesterday by unilaterally withdrawing his fighters from the front line of the month-long conflict that has brought the 3.5 million Iraqi Kurds to the brink of civil war.

'This was some kind of madness, even I do not understand why it happened,' he said at his office in a mansion outside the Iraqi Kurdish regional capital of Arbil. He said his Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) fighters would withdraw from positions in the mountains north of Arbil around the headquarters of his rivals in the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) of Massoud Barzani.

About 100 prisoners held by the PUK would be released, propaganda attacks halted and PUK gunners brought down from rooftops in Arbil, he added. He said the PUK had abandoned its occupation of the Iraqi Kurdistan parliament, taken over when a land dispute on 1 May flared up into a serious inter-Kurdish conflit.

Mr Talabani's return to Kurdistan on Thursday after a long absence has already lowered tensions on roads and flashpoints. No fighting has been reported for more than 24 hours around Arbil, where the eastern territory controlled by the PUK and western part controlled by the KDP overlap.

But fighting was still reported around Penjwin between the PUK and Islamists supported from over the border by Iran. Mr Talabani accused Iran and Iraq of conspiring in recent meetings to destroy the Kurdish enclave, set up under Western protection after the Gulf war in 1991. 'If Iran continues to invade our country we will resist,' he said, accusing Iran of cross-border attacks, shelling and massing troops.

But Mr Talabani agreed the Kurds had been very destrutive on their own. About 60 of his men had been killed in the fighting and a similar number were killed on the other side, he said. Other estimates speak of 400 dead, including a number of massacres.

The fighting in Kurdistan was aggravated by Mr Talabani's absence, but he said he had not been able to get back safely. US helicopters attached to Operation Provide Comfort protecting the Kurds have not flown near Arbil since two were accidentally shot down in April. In the end, it was a Turkish helicopter that took Mr Talabani home.

It is unclear how quickly the two main Kurdish guerrilla armies can start working together again after the fighting. Most of the population voiced disgust with the internecine conflict. Mr Talabani said he was ready to accept Mr Barzani's proposal to bring forward elections due next year. This might produce one leader to replace the unwieldy power-sharing deal reached after the inconclusive elections of May 1992.

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