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Life Resumes in Kurdish Capital After Weekend Battle

Cityscape: No Iraqi troops are in evidence and damage appears light. One resident hopes 'it is the start of stability.'


IRBIL, Iraq — Sign painters, patient women seeking water and a soft drink salesman mingled with dust devils under a broiling sun Wednesday as its new Iraqi Kurdish rulers displayed this bruised but breathing city to foreign reporters.

Of Iraqi troops there was no evidence. But their scarring passage had left the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan shell-pocked, and its 1 million inhabitants without electricity and short of food and water.

The last Iraqi army units withdrew from Irbil overnight Tuesday to 10 or so miles southeast of the city, local residents and United Nations sources said. Armored personnel carriers and towed artillery seemed to be positioned to forestall any counterattack by troops of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), while Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein's new allies, the Democratic Party of Kurdistan (KDP), consolidated control of the city.

The new governor--a KDP official named Fadil Mirani, who learned his English selling used cars in the United States--presided over the city from a two-story, stone-clad administration building. Hundreds of KDP soldiers were camped around it Wednesday before shuttered shops.

Mirani told reporters that Irbil was reawakening: No one had fled, he said, and civilians were being encouraged to get on with their lives.

"This wasn't us fighting together with the Iraqi government. This was us fighting, supported by their artillery," he said. "Sometimes you must respond to the necessity of circumstances. What do you think--we should wait for them to finish us?"

After decisive Iraqi artillery and tank fire, the KDP swept into the flat, dusty city with little resistance; a KDP count of about 200 dead and injured seemed fairly accurate to foreign observers.

Damage and looting appeared lighter than when the PUK seized Irbil from the KDP in December 1994, residents said. This time, the parliament building took several direct hits, and a bus in front of it was badly shot up. The mansion used by PUK leader Jalal Talabani was wrecked and looted, and so were many other houses used by PUK officials.

Hussein Rahmi, 65, lost the windows of his tailor shop to an explosion and his car to armed men.

"There is very little to eat, and it's very expensive. But we hope that it is the start of stability," he said.

In the Turkish capital, Ankara, a spokesman for the PUK said Wednesday that six of its fighters had been executed in Irbil on Tuesday and that Iraqi secret police disguised as Kurds were still making arrests. PUK spokesman Shazad Saib said that two of the Iraqi president's sons had visited Irbil on Tuesday to confer with KDP leader Masoud Barzani.

There was no confirmation of the visit or the alleged executions, and a spokesman for the KDP in Ankara insisted, "There is not a single Iraqi soldier or civilian remaining in the city."

Reports circulating in diplomatic circles in the Turkish capital said the weekend violence may have temporarily exhausted passions among the feuding Iraqi Kurds and that they might now be willing to reopen negotiations. The United States is seeking to revive peace talks between them that broke down in London last week.

In Irbil, apprehensions endured. At the entrance to the city, witnesses said, hundreds of KDP fighters hoping to enter were faced down by colleagues at a KDP checkpoint who trained a machine gun on the new arrivals and sent their cavalcade of cars back out of town.

Reporters arriving Wednesday were greeted by the sight of dozens of people with buckets walking toward the few wells where generators were pumping. Some women carried clothes to wash, others dirty dishes.

The Christian quarter just west of the city center was quite busy but clearly suffering from lack of water and electricity. One family had built a fire under a huge black caldron to do the washing.

A few shops were open in the city center, mainly food and beverage stores. But debris lined some streets, and most people seemed to be sticking close to their houses. KDP painters were busy painting out prominent signs on buildings controlled until Saturday by the PUK.

Under a canvas awning on one corner, a group of men sat before a shell-damaged building and debated the KDP's wisdom in having struck an alliance with Hussein.

Nobody likes him, it turns out, but most want stability and a functioning central government for Iraq, in which the Kurds would live in a nominally autonomous region.

One enterprising soul had blended American Pepsi from Turkey with ice brought up from the Iraqi city of Mosul and was doing good business as rhetoric added to the heat from the sun.

"We embraced America, but we saw nothing from the past five years. We used to approve of American bombing. But now we don't. We are Iraqis," said Yaqoub Othman, a 47-year-old truck driver.

There was a murmur of approval but also support for a dissenter, a 33-year-old father of one who identified himself as Kemal.

"We don't want the KDP or the Iraqis," he said. "We want to live. We want laws. How do we live without water, electricity and medicines? And then these factions bomb us. . . . "

Times special correspondent Pope reported from Irbil and staff writer Montalbano from Ankara.

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