WASHINGTON AND AMMAN, JORDAN — The five-year US policy of providing a "safe area" for Kurds in northern Iraq is effectively dead, following factional fighting that is allowing Iraqi President Saddam Hussein to reestablish his ruthless security apparatus in the tense region of northern Iraq.
The fighting, and the prospect of again facing Iraqi forces, has sent tens of thousands of Kurds fleeing to Iran, a development reminiscent of the Iraqi crackdown that triggered the US-led Operation Provide Comfort in 1991.
Analysts say developments in Iraqi Kurdistan in the past 10 days have redrawn the strategic map of the area.
It's unclear if neighboring Iran, facing a tide of as many as 300,000 refugees, will counter Saddam's efforts. So far it has been reluctant to fill the vacuum left in the region by US military inaction.
Turkey will welcome Saddam's reemergence in the area if he ends the chaos that has allowed Kurdish rebels to stage raids inside Turkey.
Overall, the impact of the Kurdish crisis makes it clear that Washington is less interested in the Kurds' welfare than in safeguarding the oil-producing states to the south.
"Basically what you have now is geopolitics determining what we do or don't do in Kurdistan," says Shibley Telhami, director of the Near East Studies program at Cornell University, in Ithaca, N.Y.
Some analysts say American inaction has eroded US credibility in the region.
"At this point you really have to question just what the purpose of keeping Provide Comfort flying is. It is really revealed to be a flying paper tiger," says Alan Makovsky of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, who was the State Department's liaison to Operation Provide Comfort in 1992.
Since the US cruise- missile attacks last week, President Clinton has taken no action to stop the Iraqi president from continuing to reassert his power in the Kurdish enclave, an area roughly the size of New Jersey.
Instead, White House and Defense Department officials have made clear that they have no intent of intervening in the dispute between rival Kurdish factions.
"Our ability to control internal events in Iraq is limited," conceded Mr. Clinton.
"This is totally selling out the Kurds," says Najmaldin Omer Karim, an American physician who heads the Kurdish National Congress of North America. "To just ignore the Kurds as if nothing happened and just pack your bags is unconscionable."
Strategic interest is oil
US officials say American strategic interests lie in protecting Kuwait and Saudi Arabia by shoring up and expanding a no-fly zone in southern Iraq. A similar no-fly zone is maintained over northern Iraq.
Iraqi newspapers trumpeted the success of Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) forces as a major victory for the Iraqi president. "Today the Iraqi flag flies high and the US flag is only at half mast," declared an editorial in the government newspaper Al-Jamhouriya. It said events in the Kurdish region were the worst setback for the US since Vietnam.
State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns said the US would continue maintain the Kurdish safe haven and northern no-fly zone, and would attempt to mediate between the warring factions.
"We can't assume that Saddam is going to control everything in Iraq and everything is going to stay constant," Mr. Burns said. "We also don't want Saddam to have unfettered maneuverability."
Kurds see the episode as another example of their people being dumped by world powers more intent on geopolitical considerations than on their fate.
"It is a sad day for the people who counted on American commitment and American resolve," said Barham Salih, a Washington spokesman for the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), a KDP rival group.
"Iraqi security is spreading from town to town," says Mr. Karim. "Many people have already been killed. In the coming days you will see thousands of people taken away and probably executed."
Fighters of KDP, backed by Iraqi troops and armor, routed the forces of the PUK, taking control of virtually all major towns and cities in the region. The military blitz began two weeks ago with a surprise attack by the KDP and Iraqi troops, armor, and artillery on the Kurdish administrative capital of Arbil.
The city was a PUK stronghold and the attack caught the party leadership by surprise. The PUK has been on the defensive ever since.
Clinton ordered cruise-missile attacks against Iraqi radar as punishment for Saddam's incursion. But the 44 missiles did not prevent Saddam from sending his troops to accompany KDP fighters in their victorious sweep this past week.
Though Iraqi troops are not believed to have played a direct role in the fighting, analysts say the mere presence of Iraqi forces nearby was enough to persuade PUK fighters to retreat in many instances.
The final blow to the PUK came on Sept. 9 when the KDP, led by Masoud Barzani, took control of Sulaymaniyah, the largest city in the Kurdish region and the last stronghold of PUK leader Jalal Talabani.
According to Kurdish analysts in Washington, the KDP is permitting Iraqi security agents to reestablish themselves in Kurdish cities for the first time since a Kurdish uprising following Iraq's defeat in the Gulf war.
The agents are conducting interrogations, arrests, and executions of Kurds suspected of harboring anti-Saddam sentiments, including many who worked on a Central Intelligence Agency covert project to topple Saddam.
The CIA operation was abandoned and US officials fled northern Iraq following the KDP-Iraqi surprise attack on Arbil Aug. 31.
Many local Kurdish agents were left behind. Opposition groups claim more than 100 have been executed, and there are reports that 200 more remained holed up in their base as Salahuddin, near Arbil.
Clinton has distanced himself from the situation. He said the US would do all it could to help those who worked with the CIA to get safely out of Iraq.
The KDP victory has imposed a form of stability in northern Iraq that has been absent since the two Kurdish factions began fighting over tribal and fiscal disputes. The PUK has recently received arms and support from Iran, prompting the KDP to turn to its former enemy, Saddam.
The PUK made clear any peace that involves Saddam won't last. "In aligning with Baghdad, the KDP has mounted a tiger which will destroy us all," it says. "Once Saddam controls Kurdistan he will no longer need his Kurdish ally, and will consume what remains of the Kurdish people."
The Kurdish safe area was set up in 1991 by US-led forces after an outcry over mass executions of Kurds by the Iraqi army. Saddam had aimed to quell a Kurdish revolt sparked by Iraq's defeat in the Gulf war.
*Staff writer Jonathan Landay contributed to this report.