Sweeping unopposed across northeastern Iraq, government-backed Kurdish guerrillas overran Sulaymaniyah, their rivals’ main stronghold, Monday, and captured a key hydroelectric dam. Their advance sent thousands of the defeated Kurds fleeing toward the Iranian border.
One column of Massoud Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party moved on trucks from the northwest into Dukan, site of a major power-generating dam that provides electricity to the recently captured city of Irbil. A second column driving from the east rolled without a fight into Sulaymaniyah, headquarters of the rival Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, headed by Jalal Talabani, according to Barzani lieutenants and U.N. observers.
The swift advances left the Kurdish forces who have allied with President Saddam Hussein in control of most of the Kurdish-inhabited swath of northern Iraq that has been under U.S. and allied protection since just after the 1991 Persian Gulf War. It raised the prospect that Saddam’s government in Baghdad, if it continues to work in tandem with Barzani, can move to reassert a degree of Iraqi authority over the area.
That would mark a major setback for U.S. policy in the region, which has sought, with little success, to use the separatist Kurds and their mountainous homeland as a springboard for broader opposition to Saddam and his military in the Iraqi heartland to the south.
Ross Nuri Shaways, a senior Barzani lieutenant in charge of the western military thrust, said here that 5,000 guerrillas entered Sulaymaniyah from the east Monday evening and were “warmly greeted with flowers by the population,” estimated at 500,000. His report was later confirmed by U.N. observers.
The Barzani force from the east began its drive Monday near the Iranian border at Halabja, where Saddam’s army killed a reported 5,000 Kurdish civilians with poison gas while putting down an insurrection in 1988. The force then fought an engagement with Talabani’s guerrillas at a the road junction town of Said Sadeq before racing unopposed to Sulaymaniyah itself.
There was no word on the fate of Talabani and his headquarters staff. They were presumed to have fled along with thousands of his followers heading toward the nearby border with Iran, which has aided Talabani’s faction in the past. “I’m sure he’s on his way to Iran,” boasted Shaways.
Barzani and Talabani were the two main leaders of the Iraqi National Congress, a U.S.-sponsored opposition group composed mainly of Kurds but also comprising dissident Iraqi Shiites and secular Sunnis who deserted Saddam’s government or military establishment in Baghdad. Since Barzani and Talabani fell into a blood feud in 1994 - culminating in Barzani’s pact with Saddam and their Aug. 31 attack on Irbil - the group has fallen apart.
Although some Iraqi troops and heavy armor remain in the Kurdish-inhabited areas, there has been no sign of Iraqi participation in Barzani’s military campaign since the Talabani forces were driven from Irbil with help from Iraqi artillery, armor and an estimated 30,000 troops. No Iraqi troops or equipment were seen in the drive on Dukan. But Iraqi plainclothed security forces have remained active, reportedly rounding up army deserters and other dissidents who had joined the U.S.-financed opposition headquartered in Irbil.
As Barzani’s forces closed in, thousands of Sulaymaniyah residents were reported heading to the mountains near the Iranian border in a small scale replica of the mass exodus that followed Saddam’s repression of a rebellion that broke out - with urging from the United States - after the Gulf War in 1991. At that time, 2 million Kurds fled toward Iran and Turkey. The human flood led the United States and its allies to declare a ban on Iraqi flights north of the 36th parallel and launch Operation Provide Comfort to help the refugees resettle in the villages that dot the rugged border mountains near Turkey, Iran and Syria.
A radiant Barzani, who showed up here to congratulate his men on their day’s work, made clear as his troops moved forward that he intended complete his sweep of Iraqi Kurdistan’s principal population centers. “I see no reason to stop us,” he said in an impromptu meeting with his senior lieutenants under a tree shortly before Sulaymaniyah fell, “and people in Sulaymaniyah itself are asking us to come.”
He was also buoyed by an impressive list of victories elsewhere. Localities that fell Monday to the KDP included the cities of Rania and Qalat Diza and three strategic towns - Galala, Choman and Kasri - on or near the strategic Hamilton Road linking the extreme northeast with Iran.
Asked if he had expected such a rapid advance, Barzani said “Not at all. Yesterday we never planned to take Kuysanjaq,” a city 50 miles due east of Irbil. “Today our plan was to go just three miles.”
About 5,000 infantrymen - armed with anything from rocket-propelled grenades and Kalashnikov assault rifles to truck-mounted rocket launchers and anti-aircraft guns used for direct fire - moved fitfully down the road against only sporadic resistance from Talabani’s defenders. Time and again, the KDP fighters cheered and shouted “Rayankirt,” meaning their foes had fled.
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