Tens of thousands of fleeing Iraqi Kurds - displaced by factional warfare and refused entry to Iran - headed back toward an uncertain fate in the city of Sulaymaniyah Tuesday while thousands of others pressed on in a search of refuge in the rugged hills along Iraq’s border with Iran.
Seeking to halt the panicky exodus, the Iraqi government of President Saddam Hussein declared a general amnesty for all Kurds who - with U.S. encouragement and help - had defied Saddam’s authority in northern Iraq since the United States and its Persian Gulf War allies proclaimed the region a Kurdish “safe haven” in 1991.
The amnesty declaration, which also nullified all travel and trade restrictions between Iraq and the Kurdish region, was met with scorn in Washington.
“I … wonder if it’s the same kind of beautiful words and nice reassurances that (Saddam) issued in March of 1991 before he began his military campaign to exterminate the Iraqi Kurdish population in the north,” said State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns.
The Kurdish refugees - estimated by U.N. officials to number about 50,000 - fled Sulaymaniyah and nearby towns and villages in northeastern Iraq over the last several days as a Kurdish militia faction recently allied with Saddam advanced unimpeded toward it. That faction - the clan-based Kurdistan Democratic Party, led by Massoud Barzani - captured Sulaymaniyah without a fight Monday, pushing aside supporters of a rival faction - the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, led by Jalal Talabani.
The easy victory capped a campaign by Barzani’s forces to control the entire Kurdish north - a drive launched Aug. 31 with the capture of Irbil, the region’s de facto capital, and powerfully backed by 30,000 Iraqi troops, tanks and artillery. It also sealed the collapse - for the moment, at least - of the U.S.-sponsored insurgent Kurdish regime that has had virtual autonomy in northern Iraq since the gulf war.
During their first full day in control of Sulaymaniyah, Barzani’s forces seemed to be making a determined effort to behave correctly in what long had been a Talabani stronghold. They posted guards outside warehouses stocked with humanitarian supplies and at other points in the city of 400,000 that could be targets for looters. Barzani himself visited the city for the first time in two years to relay Saddam’s offer of amnesty to all Talabani followers and to Talabani himself, who was reported to have fled to Iran.
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