Terrified Kurds flee huge Iraq offensive

Saddam's intervention: Turkey demands immediate withdrawal of troops, while UN delays implementation of oil-for-food deal
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Western policy towards northern Iraq lay in ruins yesterday as Iraqi armour dug in outside the Iraqi Kurdish capital of Arbil and their new Iraqi Kurdish allies established themselves inside the city of 1 million people.

"All the English and American aid workers have left. From time to time, there is still sporadic gunfire," said a United Nations official near the city reached by satellite telephone.

Turkish reporters who had been in the city at the time of the joint attack by the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and their Iraqi backers on Saturday said it had all happened so suddenly that the Iraqi Kurdish civilian population had no time to flee.

"We immediately jumped into our cars with the shells exploding around us. But all the exits of the city were blocked. We had to plead to be allowed through," one said.

The UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali announced last night that, in light of the incursion he was delaying deployment of UN personnel to implement the oil-for-food deal with Iraq. The announcement could mean a delay in Iraq's return to world oil markets, from which it has been barred under UN sanctions since President Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990.

The Iraqi leadership has said its intervention in northern Iraq was a limited operation and that troops would soon withdraw. Some KDP officials said the withdrawal had already begun, others that they "hoped" it would start soon. The party has traditionally been seen as pro- Western, and its spokesman tried hard to justify its alliance with the troops of Saddam Hussein.

"The KDP move to take control of Arbil was a desperate act to defend itself against mounting Iranian-PUK military pressure to end our movement ... the KDP has no intention to invite Iraqi forces back into northern Iraq," he said.

But the Iraqi armour and towed artillery pulled up outside Arbil did not leave yesterday, according to witnesses. And a United States military spokes-man confirmed that technically the Iraqis had not broken UN rules, since the only ban is on using war aircraft or helicopters north of the 36th parallel.

"We are all waiting for a lead," one American officer admitted, as statement after statement from Washington could only talk of ultra-high levels of alertness and possible reinforcements of air bases.

The Turkish military, closely allied to the Americans, has filled all aircraft flying to the east with security forces to join units on the border. Foreign Minister Tansu Ciller yesterday issued a demand that Iraqi forces withdraw "immediately". However, it is hard to imagine how Ankara can get involved in an essentially internal Iraqi matter without risking conflict with both Iran and Iraq.

It is also hard to imagine what allied or Turkish forces can attack. The rationale of allied air patrols is to defend Iraqi Kurds from Baghdad, but the KDP, which now "controls" two of the three provinces of Iraqi Kurdistan, Duhok and Arbil, is openly co-operating with it.

The KDP's about-face signals the likely end of the long uphill struggle by Western diplomats to bring the 3.5 million Iraqi Kurds together as a self-sustaining entity. Struggles over trade, money and power have split them for more than three years.

It is also a heavy blow to the West's use of northern Iraq to exert pressure on Saddam Hussein. That idea was reinforced by unconfirmed reports of a massacre of 97 members of the umbrella opposition group, the Iraqi National Congress, mostly Iraqi army deserters based in a camp east of Arbil.

The KDP's main rivals in the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) pleaded for the US to intervene, saying Iraqi forces were testing their will by shel-ling the town of Chemchemal, close to their stronghold Suleymaniyeh, capital of the third province of Iraqi Kurdistan.

"I am going to tell you frankly. We are going to wait some days, or let us say one week, to see what the reaction is of the United States and the West. If the West betrays us ... we will surely turn to anyone who is ready to help us," PUK leader Jalal Talabani told the BBC. "It means that the West will be finished in the area. The area will be divided into one group pro-Iraqi and one pro-Iranian."

The main political groups involved in the Kurdish conflicts


The main protagonist in the latest round of fighting - raising hackles with its sudden tactical alliance with Baghdad.

Founded in 1946 by Molla Mustafa Barzani, the Kurdistan Democratic Party is the mother of most other Kurdish parties in Iraq and has affiliates in Iran and Turkey.

In 1970, it secured agreement with Baghdad over self-rule in Kurdish areas as well as a Kurdish role in the Baghdad government. This deal, as with others in the past, collapsed when regional alliances changed.

The leader, Masoud Barzani, took over after the death of Molla Mustafa in 1979. Barzani, 50, spent years in exile, living and travelling in the Middle East, the former Soviet Union, Europe and the US. He speaks Farsi, Arabic, and English.

The KDP is seen as a mainly rural party centred on the Barzani tribe. But many educated, urban Kurds also follow Barzani as they see his policies of reconciliation with Baghdad as the only realistic choice. He now controls the central province of Arbil and the north-western province of Duhok, including the border with Turkey, where it charges up to $250,000 per day taxes on the lucrative and semi-legitimate trade between Turkey and Iraq in diesel oil, foodstuffs and medicines.

The distribution of these taxes is a main bone of contention with the PUK.


The Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) has played no role in the current fighting, but Turkey fears that the PKK may have the most to gain from renewed tension and chaos in northern Iraq. During its 12-year struggle with government forces in Turkey, the PKK has ruthlessly established itself as the sole rebel movement of the Kurds of Turkey, who are less well-educated but probably four times as numerous, as the Kurds of Iraq. It has recently proved it can run bases for several hundred militants with impunity inside north Iraq.

The PKK recently removed the hammer and sickle from its flag, but it is still a totalitarian, far-left nationalist movement, run by its leader Abdullah Ocalan. Mr Ocalan's main base appears to be in Syria and the organisation seems to have training bases, again in Lebanon's Syrian- controlled Bekaa Valley.

The PKK is the only group that has openly advocated a separate state to unite all the 20-25 million Kurds split between Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria. Recently it has toned down these demands, but its militant message has found support among Iraqi youth disillusioned with the squabbling of the PUK and the KDP.


The PUK has been the losing side in the recent conflict, and is accused by the KDP of growing links over its eastern border with Iran.

It is led by Jalal Talabani, previously a senior KDP member who clashed with Molla Mustafa before setting up the PUK in June 1975. Talabani then joined with Baghdad against the KDP in a feud that lasted into the 1980s.

Talabani tried to organise the PUK as a more modern political party than the tribal KDP. He developed broadcast and newspaper outlets to reach educated, urban Kurds with a more left-wing message. But gradually the PUK appeared strongest in eastern Kurdistan where Surani dialect speakers are most populous, while the KDP remained stronger in the Kirmanci-speaking north-west.

After the 1991 Gulf war, the PUK appeared reconciled with the KDP. And in 1992 elections, the two parties took 50 seats each in the regional Kurdish government, based in the main city of Arbil. But fighting erupted again in December 1994 when the PUK captured the regional capital Arbil and northern Iraq was in effect split between them.