Kurd factions clash near Arbil as Iraqi force stands aside


RIVAL Kurdish factions in northern Iraq clashed near the city of Arbil yesterday as the US said the Iraqi army was pulling its forces out of the region.

UN officials in Arbil said the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) traded heavy machine gun and mortar fire around the village of Degala, 20 km south-east of the city.

Degala commands access to the road to Sulaymaniyah, the stronghold of the PUK leader, Mr Jalal Talabani.

Iraqi troops do not appear to have intervened, one UN official in Arbil said, contacted by telephone. The troops were not fighting but were dug in behind their new-found KDP allies.

"It doesn't look to me that the [lraqis] are preparing to withdraw," said the official, who asked not to be named.

The Iraqi regiment, which has remained in the area for the past week, was equipped with troop transport vehicles, artillery pieces and tanks but was in a "defensive position", he said. He gave no toll for the inter-Kurdish fighting.

The PUK said earlier that Iraqi government troops, who drove the PUK out of Arbil last week, had launched a new offensive at Bastana between Arbil and the PUK-held town of Koi Sanjaq, further south.

Some 150 Iraqi tanks were gathered along with ground forces, the PUK said in a statement. "Heavy fighting continues between the Iraqi forces and Kurdish forces in the area."

A PUK spokesman in London, Mr Latif Rashid, said KDP fighters were being supported by the Iraqi army. "The KDP and the Iraqi government are the same thing now," he said. The KDP, meanwhile, gave no confirmation of the fighting.

The Kurdish rivals also clashed yesterday in Halabja, in the Sulaymaniyah area near the Iranian border, said the Iraqi National Congress (INC), a coalition of Arab and Kurdish opposition groups.

Turkey said yesterday it planned to station troops in a number of "security zones" in northern Iraq to prevent the infiltration of Turkish Kurdish rebels.

Foreign ministry officials said the security zones were being set up because of the volatile situation in Iraqi Kurdistan.

The officials said the decision was made after extensive diplomatic consultations, adding that the deployment of troops had not yet begun.

A US Defence Department spokesman said earlier that Turkey informed Washington of its plans to establish a thin security zone along its border with Iraq.

But the Foreign Minister, Ms Tansu Ciller, said in Ankara earlier yesterday that a Turkish military operation to pursue Turkish Kurd PKK separatists was "not on the agenda".

"What is on the agenda is that we will not allow infiltration" of the region by rebels of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) from bases in northern Iraq, she said.