Kurds control most of city, U.N. aides say


BAGHDAD, Iraq -- After the first serious outbreak of fighting in northern Iraq since the violent aftermath of the Persian Gulf war, Kurdish guerrillas control most of a major city in the region and are engaged in a tense standoff there with surrounding government forces, United Nations officials said yesterday.

The officials, reporting by radio from the city of Sulaimaniya, told U.N. officials in Baghdad that the guerrillas took control of large areas of the city Thursday after clashes with government forces that resulted in scores of casualties.

The clashes occurred after American-led forces early this week completed their withdrawal from an enclave they had occupied in northern Iraq near the Turkish border to protect returning Kurdish refugees from attack by Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's forces.

Nearly 1 million Kurds fled to neighboring Turkey and Iran in March when the Iraqi army crushed a Kurdish uprising against Mr. Hussein after his defeat in the gulf war.

The violence in Sulaimaniya raised the question of whether the American-led allies would need to return to ensure the safety of the Kurds. But President Bush, who is visiting Turkey this weekend, said yesterday that while he was concerned about the fighting, he did not foresee responding by sending in the American-led rapid deployment force being established in Turkey to be ready to return to northern Iraq on short notice.

Sulaimaniya is south of the 36th parallel, the southern boundary of the zone once occupied by the allied forces.

While it is not known what provoked the violence, a four-month truce in the north, put into effect as Kurdish leaders sought to negotiate a new autonomy pact with Baghdad, now seems to be seriously fraying.

In the only official Iraqi government reaction so far, Information Minister Hamed Yussef Hamadi said the attack on Sulaimaniya was not carried out by Kurdish guerrillas but by Iranian infiltrators. The Iraqi government has frequently asserted that the Kurdish and southern Shiite uprisings in March were really the work of Iranian infiltrators.

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