Barzani asks Iraqis for help against the Iran backed Kurds


IRAQI backed Kurds raised the stakes yesterday by calling for military intervention by President Saddam Hussein unless western countries pressured Iran to stop backing a rival militia, writes Ian Black.

Mr Massoud Barzani, leader of the Kurdish Democratic Party, warned he would again ask Baghdad to step in to counterbalance Tehran's support for the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. "If Iran has the right to support the PUK, why shouldn't we have the right to demand support from Iraq?" he said.

In attacks last weekend the PUK won back most of the ground it lost to the KDP in August and September when Iraqi troops and tanks helped capture the key city of Irbil, prompting US missile attacks on targets in southern Iraq.

PUK forces have closed in on Irbil in recent days but have said they will hold back from attacking the city for fear of prompting new Iraqi intervention.

US and British diplomats insisted again yesterday that there were no signs of large scale Iranian involvement in the PUK offensive, as claimed by both the KDP and Baghdad. But they acknowledged that there was logistical and financial support and some backing from Tehran backed Iraqi exiles.

"Neither the Americans nor the British want to admit to Iranian involvement because they do not want to take any action," charged a KDP official. "If they admit that the Iranians are involved then they have to act."

Western sources reported Iraqi troop movements, increased radio traffic and logistical preparations though there was no confirmation of a dramatic claim by the PUK that elite Republican Guard units were moving north from Baghdad to take offensive action.

Diplomats say both Kurdish factions are playing a propaganda game intended to maximise foreign concern.

"If Barzani says his last resort is to invite in Baghdad then he has to have an Iranian scarecrow," said one US official. "And both sides want to paint the other as black as possible. Barzani's credibility has been badly tarnished by his collaboration with Saddam. Both sides are trying to get us more directly involved."

The PUK said: "We call upon the world, especially the United States, to prevent another onslaught by Saddam's forces against the people of Iraqi Kurdistan. The makings of a new humanitarian disaster exist. Faced with yet another Iraqi aggression, many Kurds will feel they have no choice but to flee to the mountains, joining the tens of thousands there already."

Officials from the two warring Kurdish factions were yesterday meeting the Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, Mr Robert Pelletreau, in Washington as part of US efforts to end the conflict.

But more important separate meetings have been arranged for next week between Mr Pelletreau and the two Kurdish leaders, who are refusing to deal directly with each other.

US officials said they were deeply concerned that the situation could get out of hand, again highlight divisions in allied ranks and present President Clinton with an unwanted foreign policy crisis on the eve of the election.

A well placed source said: "The situation is very fluid, changing from hour to hour. It is very risky. Either the Iraqis or the Iranians could try to take advantage and it is easy to stumble into a confrontation."

Highlighting mounting regional anxiety, Egypt yesterday asked Iraq's neighbours to refrain from trying to exploit events in Kurdistan.

The UN senior arms envoy, Mr Rolf Eke us, will arrive in Iraq tomorrow to talk to officials about the country's weapons programme, said a UN source in Baghdad.

Mr Ekeus will stay until Monday and will be accompanied by UN arms experts.