Kurdish rebels accuse U.S. of abandoning them


ANKARA, Turkey -- Kurdish separatists bitterly accused Washington yesterday of encouraging the overthrow of Saddam Hussein and then refusing to provide urgent materiel, medicine and food, as Kurdish rebels lost control of the northern Iraqi cities of Dahuk and Erbil.

Kurdish sources in southern Turkey said hundreds of thousands of rebel and civilian Kurds were trying to cross the snow-topped mountains between Iraq and Turkey, after Saddam Hussein launched an all-out campaign to regain control of the northern part of the country.

"Everybody is angry with America," said one Kurdish source in southern Turkey. "It said it wouldn't let planes take off in Iraq. Everyone is saying they used planes to attack the cities. What about the cease-fire agreement?"

[The State Department said yesterday that U.S. officials expected to meet this week with representatives of Kurdish rebel groups whose forces appear to have been largely beaten back by the Iraqi military. The department signaled its willingness to meet last week, in a shift from a previous policy of avoiding political contacts with Kurds, who were seeking an independent state.

[A U.S. official said the department also had received requests to meet with representatives of Shiite Muslims battling the Iraqi regime. Given the Bush administration's neutrality in Iraq's civil war, however, "I don't see how we could give any sort of guarantee" of protection to the rebel groups, the official said.]

Despite reports of sporadic fighting in Erbil and claims of a "tactical withdrawal" by Kurdish rebels, yesterday's routing of the rebels appeared definitive, ending the short-lived euphoria of Kurdish guerrillas who had gained control over nearly all of Iraqi Kurdistan for the first time in their people's history.

"There are many civil deaths. They're bombing the cities with napalm and phosphorous," said Akil Renas of the Kurdish Institute in Paris.

And the Associated Press quoted Hoshyar Zebari, a spokesman for the Kurdish Democratic Party in London, as saying that Mr. Hussein used artillery barrages, helicopter gunships, fixed-wing aircraft and multiple rocket launchers in attacking Kurds in Erbil, 75 miles to the south of Dahuk.

The surprise artillery assault on Erbil occurred between Sunday night and yesterday morning, and sent the city's estimated 350,000 residents fleeing their homes to escape the shelling.

There were conflicting reports yesterday of which side held Zahko, the Iraqi city by the border with Turkey. The semi-official Anatolia News Agency and the official Iraqi News Agency reported Iraqi forces in control of Zahko.

But the Associated Press quoted Kamal Fuad, spokesman for the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, in Damascus, as saying that Mr. Hussein's troops withdrew from Zahko under Kurdish fire.

In a statement released in Damascus, Kurdish Democratic Party leader Masoud Barzani appealed to the United States, Great Britain and France -- permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and leaders of the anti-Iraq coalition -- to end Iraq's "genocide and torture of our people."

Mr. Barzani himself was said to remain in northern Iraq. He estimated that 3 million Kurds were fleeing unprotected through the mountains, and asked for food, medicine and tents.

The BBC, whose Jim Muir reported from northern Iraq, also estimated that several hundred thousand Iraqis were escaping over the mountains "ill-equipped to face the bitterly cold nights and with no idea of what future lies ahead for them."

According to Turkish news reports, representatives of Mr. Barzani had visited Ankara seeking to buy food and medical supplies 10 days ago, to no avail.

More recently, an official of Jalal Talabani's Patriotic Union for Kurdistan also sought permission from the provincial governor of Mardin, which borders Iraq, for a convoy of trucks loaded with food and medical supplies to pass from the Syrian border to the Iraqi border through Turkey.

Again, the Kurds reportedly received no answer.

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