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Kurds Continue Fleeing Despite Amnesty Offer

September 11, 1996|HUGH POPE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

ISTANBUL, Turkey — Although Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and his Kurdish allies both offered them the olive branch of amnesty, thousands more Kurds on Tuesday fled areas that have fallen to the Baghdad-backed Kurdish faction.

Estimates varied greatly on the number of refugees streaming from the eastern cities of Sulaymaniyah and Dukan, captured Monday by the Iraqi-supported Democratic Party of Kurdistan (KDP), which is led by Masoud Barzani.

Neighboring Iran appealed Tuesday for international assistance in handling as many as 200,000 people.

Most U.N. sources, however, spoke of 50,000 Kurds and others pouring out of Sulaymaniyah, which had been a guerrilla stronghold of the rival Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and its leader, Jalal Talabani.

Only about 10,000 people had reached the Iraqi-Iranian border, where they were camping in minefields and lacked proper food and sanitation, observers said late Tuesday.

The observers also noted that once it became clear that the frontier was closed and that Iraqi troops were taking no direct part in the KDP occupation of Sulaymaniyah, many refugees began to return to the northern Iraq interior.

In Sulaymaniyah, there were reports that a carnival atmosphere prevailed as Barzani and his forces exulted in their apparent victory, which gave them seemingly undisputed mastery over the 3.5 million Kurds living under guerrilla rule in northern Iraq.

Barzani's forces were reported to have conducted an impromptu parade, with fighters carrying AK-47 rifles riding through the city streets in pickup trucks.

By nightfall, Sulaymaniyah's population, 750,000 before the fighting began, seemed to be swelling with returning Kurds traveling home by truck, taxi and on foot. Shops had reopened and residents had swapped flying their green PUK flags for the yellow of the victorious KDP. Merchants were plastering their businesses with photocopied pictures of Barzani.

Outside the city, about 20 miles northeast at the former PUK headquarters, KDP fighters looted everything they could carry. Soldiers and villagers towed away air conditioners, wire, pipes--even lightbulbs, Associated Press reported.

At Talabani's nearby two-story villa, looters filled trucks with furniture not destroyed in a fire. KDP soldiers claimed Talabani ordered the blaze set when it was certain that the area would be overrun.

On a nearby hilltop, KDP fighters picked through a hut, taking blankets, kerosene lamps and bedding. They also took artillery shells and ammunition from a blackened armory.

"It's much better doing this than having them shooting at you," Hassan Abdul, an 18-year-old KDP fighter, said as he carried a mortar shell above his head.

In Sairan Ban, one of at least four border crossings where U.N. officials had expected as many as 75,000 Kurds in all to gather after the KDP takeover of northern Iraq, there were expressions among the thousands there of fear and loathing about the Iraqi regime.

"We're afraid--we don't trust the government of Saddam Hussein," an educator from Sulaymaniyah told Reuters news service.

Such mistrust, analysts said, seemed warranted among those Kurds who recalled that Hussein eight years earlier had attacked Kurdish villagers with poison gas.

Those who trudged to the crossing at Sairan Ban found it shut, leaving thousands of refugees backed up, hanging from cars that jammed a dusty road from Panjwin, 18 miles away. Tractors pulled wagons piled with belongings.

Apparently to avert this sort of an exodus--a ragtag and often piteous spectacle, the likes of which moved Western nations after the 1991 Persian Gulf War to create a northern haven for the Kurds to protect them from harassment by Iraqi forces--both Hussein's government and its KDP allies spoke in extremes of amnesty for their Kurdish opposition.

Baghdad broadcast a promise to end the 5-year-old Iraqi government embargo on Kurdish areas and talked of re-integrating Iraq by reviving 1970s negotiations on autonomy for an area known as Iraqi Kurdistan.

As for Barzani, while relishing his faction's triumphs, he announced his own amnesty for all members of Talabani's group. After a victory tour of Sulaymaniyah, he talked of free elections, this even though a first attempt at such a vote in Iraqi Kurdistan in 1992 ended up in a dead heat between the KDP and the PUK.

"The first thing he has to do is to stabilize the situation on the ground, to heal the wounds, to encourage tolerance," said Hoshyar Zebari, KDP spokesman in Europe. In Barzani's name, he asserted that there had been no comprehensive deal struck yet with Baghdad and claimed that when there were any dealings on the future of Arab-Kurdish relations in Iraq, it would be done in public.

"Saddam has benefited, definitely," Zebari said, from the current instability in the region--tumult that has led U.S. forces to conduct cruise missile attacks and to expand a southern "no-fly" zone over Iraq right to the suburbs of Baghdad. "But this was a limited tactical encounter to resolve the problem of Irbil, to break the logjam."

Irbil, the Iraqi Kurdish capital, fell to Barzani's forces Aug. 31 with the support of Iraqi artillery and armor.

As for the PUK, it continued to complain, calling the KDP a pawn of the Iraqi regime, which the rival faction asserted has killed 180,000 Kurds and razed 4,000 Kurdish villages.

"In aligning with Baghdad, the KDP has mounted a tiger which will destroy us all," the PUK said in a statement.

"Once Saddam controls Kurdistan, he will no longer need his Kurdish ally and will consume the KDP and what remains of the Kurdish people."

* IRAQ MEASURES DEBATED: U.S. is weighing more punitive measures against Iraq. A10

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