07Jul

Thousands of Iraqi Refugees Flee to Turkish Tent City

About 2,000 Iraqi refugees streamed into Turkey in 24 hours, the semi-official Anatolia news agency reported yesterday, the largest group of arrivals in such a period since fighting started between Kurdish rebels in northern Iraq and Iraqi soldiers after the end of the Gulf war.

Sahabettin Karput, the governor of southeast Hakkari province, next to Kurdish-dominated northern Iraq, said that the refugees were of Turkish origin, Anatolia reported. Mr. Karput said the Iraqi refugees were initially sheltered in a tent city along the border and would be transferred to refugee camps after medical examinations. The latest arrivals brought to 3,000 the number of refugees since Thursday, he said.

Iraqi government forces led by three of Saddam’s closest associates last night reported big successes in a lightning offensive to smash the Kurdish. Izzat Ibrahim, Saddam’s number two and deputy commander of the Iraqi armed forces, announced the capture of Irbil and Dahuk, a smaller town used by Kurdish leaders to direct their revolt.

At the same time Iraqi officials took foreign reporters to the oil city of Kirkuk, until Thursday the Kurds’ biggest prize. “We toured enough of the town today to be able to say with some confidence that the government’s forces now control it again,” Edward Stourton of Britain’s Independent Television News, reported last night.

President Bush is widely seen as unwilling to intervene in the fighting inside Iraq for fear of going beyond the United Nations resolutions agreed last year after rounds of behind-the-scenes diplomacy, and for fear of igniting a controversy among Americans about his promise that the Gulf war would be “no Vietnam”.

The White House succeeded in winning the initially reluctant support of the American public for a war against Saddam by portraying the allied response as a moral reaction to a territorial dispute. Joining the Kurds or the Iranian-backed Shias, however, would open the Bush administration to criticism that it was putting American lives at risk for a philosophy or a style of government, as Washington had done during the war against communism in Vietnam.

Administration officials were noticeably silent at the weekend about American policy toward the fighting in the north and south of Iraq. As is common when the White House wishes to keep a low profile on an issue, none of Mr. Bush’s military advisers appeared on yesterday’s current affairs talk shows.

Leading American newspapers have added to the debate by publishing front-page accounts of the atrocities committed by Saddam’s Republican Guard on civilians, including the town of Samawah, about a mile from the area under allied control. The Washington Post yesterday quoted American troops as being frustrated by having to stand idle as enemy soldiers attacked women and children later brought to an American observation post for medical treatment.

“It’s very hard sitting here, not being able to do what we can,” Army Lieutenant Thomas Isom, aged 26, told the Post. “We have shown more discipline in the last four days than in the whole war. If they asked for volunteers, there is not a man here who would not go north to finish the job.” Despite similar reports in past days, the American public so far has shown little sign of support for the intervention of American forces as families celebrate the homecoming of relatives.

Democratic members of Congress, who have been trying to refurbish their reputations since a majority vote against Mr. Bush’s Gulf policy in January, are silent as they try to refocus attention on domestic issues, including education and crime. But the Bush administration has come under criticism from commentators to the right for leaving Saddam in power and from those on the left for leaving a fermenting mess inside Iraq without helping the insurgents in their fight against government troops.

Middle East analysts in Washington say that the Kurdish rebellion in northern Iraq may be the country’s last chance to overthrow Saddam and the Baath party.

Unlike the Shias, the Kurds have widespread, recent experience of rebellion against Baghdad, they are far better organized and more united, and their mountains are ideal for sustained guerrilla warfare. Even if they lose their big cities to the Iraqi troops, Saddam’s weakened army would appear to have little chance of defeating the Kurds this time, and the rebellion is expected to prove an efficient war of attrition, eventually forcing the collapse of Baathist rule at the center.

The attitude of the outside world, particularly Washington, to the Iraqi civil war may therefore affect the length of the country’s ordeal, not its eventual outcome.

David Howell, the Conservative chairman of the House of Commons select committee on foreign affairs, yesterday demanded a course of action on the part of the allies that verged on direct military intervention in Iraq.

In an interview with the BBC World Service, he urged that, apart from humanitarian aid, diplomatic recognition be extended to the Kurdish and Shia rebels in Iraq and that special forces be instructed to train their fighters. He also wants the United Nations to pass an emergency resolution to uphold the human rights of the various minority groups in Iraq.

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