Kurdish rebels recaptured a key city Sunday from a rival faction that seized control of northern Iraq last month with the help of President Saddam Hussein.
Iraq urged the two groups to settle their differences through talks and sternly warned the advancing faction against “dealing with foreign powers,” a reference to the group’s ties to Iran.
Clashes between the two Kurdish factions in August led Saddam to send forces into the northern “safe haven” protected by U.S.-led forces. The United States responded by bombing Iraqi military sites in the south.
There was no indication Iraqi troops were involved in the latest fighting.
A statement by the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan said its forces entered Sulaymaniyah, the region’s second-largest city with 1 million people, at dawn Sunday after a “spontaneous uprising” that ejected the forces of the Kurdistan Democratic Party.
It said Massoud Barzani, the KDP leader, fled the city and took refuge in the northern oil city of Kirkuk, which is controlled by the Iraqi government.
In a statement, the KDP’s office in London confirmed that its forces “evacuated the city to avoid bloodshed and fighting.”
The group claimed Iran had “entered the war” and that thousands of Iranian Revolutionary Guards, backed by artillery, had pushed through the border into Iraq.
Later Sunday, the KDP claimed that it repulsed movement west of Sulaymaniyah by Patriotic Union forces that were “relying on heavy Iranian shelling.”
“The attackers lost dozens of men and members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards were identified among the dead,” the KDP claimed.
The PUK has denied Iranian forces were involved. There was no immediate comment from Iran.
In Baghdad, the Revolutionary Command Council - chaired by Saddam - and the ruling Baath Party issued a blunt statement.
“We have consistently given severe warnings in the past against dealing with foreign powers,” it said. “We call upon the parties that have returned to fighting to expel the foreign forces and not to deal with them.”
The Iraqi leadership said it was prepared to invite all parties to peace talks in the capital, Baghdad.
Jalal Talabani’s forces were driven out of Sulaymaniyah, 170 miles north of Baghdad, on Sept. 9 in a KDP offensive that began 10 days earlier and brought most of northern Iraq under its control. The offensive began when Barzani’s forces, with help from the Iraqi army, captured the key city of Irbil from the Iran-backed PUK.
Saddam’s intervention was punished with U.S. missile attacks on Sept. 3-4 and led to an American military buildup in the Persian Gulf.
The recapture of Sulaymaniyah followed a statement Saturday by the Kurdistan Democratic Party that PUK forces backed by Iranian troops and artillery crossed into Iraq from Iran the previous day. On Saturday, the PUK recaptured several towns in northern Iraq that form an arc about 30 miles northeast of Sulaymaniyah.
The two Kurdish groups have been at odds for years.
The KDP accuses the PUK of having close links with Persian Iran, thus giving Iraq’s non-Arab neighbor an unwelcome foothold in the affairs of Iraq’s Kurds.
They differ over what policies should be adopted in dealing with the Iraqi government, with the KDP favoring finding an accommodation with Baghdad over their demands for autonomy.
The Western countries set up the northern safe area to protect the Kurds from Saddam’s military after a failed 1991 rebellion in which the KDP and PUK joined forces.
The Kurdish factions have opposed the Baghdad government for decades. But since the safe haven was established at the end of the 1991 Persian Gulf War, they have mostly quarreled with each other.
The United States mediated a cease-fire last year between the Kurdish factions. But it collapsed Aug. 17 when the two groups resumed fighting amid differences over customs revenues from a road between Turkey and northern Iraq.