"They told us we had lost Kurdestan," said President Abolhassan Bani-Sadr soon after the fierce month-long fighting in Sanandaj, Iran, ended recently, "but I said we have faith in the Kurdish people."
Behind those bland remarks some grim facts and figures have been emerging about the second big defeat -- if by no means the final one -- for the Kurdish rebels who have been defying the central authority in Tehran, Iran, since last August.
Col. Abbas Ali Sadri, a granite-faced government officer who directed the battle for supremacy in the Kurdestan provincial capital, said the rebels had thrown about 10,000 fighters into the city. These had been assembled from var ious points in the Kurdish areas.
Fighting them was a not-quite-complete Iranian Army division assisted by units of the pasdaran corps (revolutionary guards), whose numbers have not been disclosed so far.
While the struggle for Sanandaj was going on, other insurgents kept a whole brigade pinned down in Saqqez, about 120 kilometers to the north, while other Army and pasdar units were engaged in Marivan, Sardasht, and Baneh.
The leftist insurgents suddenly gave up the city and retreated into the surrounding hills. The government presented this as a victory to the Iranian public, but, in fact, the guerrillas had merely pulled into the hills to harass the government forces from the sidelines -- a typical guerrilla tactic.
The outlawed Kurdestan Democratic Party has declared that the number of noncombatant civilians killed in the fighting probably was about 1,500.No one knew the exact figure. The guerrillas themselves claimed that fewer than 100 of their men had been killed, while the Sanandaj division commander said his troops had suffered casualties of 500, including both killed and injured.
Both sides probably were playing down their own losses and playing up the other side's. However, just before the fighting ended, foreign correspondents had added up the admitted losses of both sides at about 220 killed.
There were charges and countercharges of atrocities by both sides. Colonel Sadri told a reporter after Sanandaj had been retaken by his men that they had found the bodies of 48 officers and other ranks killed in the earlier part of the fighting, dumped into a ditch outside Sanandaj city.
Within the city itself a number of mass graves were found, one containing the bodies of 11 fanatical pro-government Muslim Pesh Merga militiamen.The Kurds had claimed that during a brief bury-the-dead cease-fire earlier, they had asked the pasdars to take over the bodies of 45 pasdars killed in the fighting, but the government side had not responded.
"We buried them ourselves," a Kurdish source said.
Most of the hundreds of noncombatant civilians reportedly killed in the fighting died because of the heavy bombardment of the city by government forces. They used American-made Phanton aircraft and Cobra helicopter gunships, which poured heavy machine-gun and rocket fire into the positions held by the rebels.
Kurdish sources also claim the government forces had used mortar and artillery fire against them in the city, but Colonel Sadri told reporters later that the artillery fire actually was directed at the rebels' escape and supply routes in the hills outside the city.
When the fighting was over, the government forces discovered just why the rebels were able to hold the city for a month -- much longer than they had held onto Mahabad in an earlier bout of fighting between the guerrillas and the regular government troops in September last year.
The rebels had built a network of trenches in the city and had blocked up the city streets with barricades and other obstructions. They kept in communica tion with one another not only by interlinked trenches but also through the city's sewers.
Pasdar chief Abu Sharif, who sports a Castro-like beard and khaki uniform, told reporters after the fighting that the rebels had even set up their trenches in private houses, though a good number of them did not speak Kurdish. They nevertheless were dressed in the typical baggy Kurdish trousers and shirts, complete with "kamarband" or waistband and colorful turbans, he said.
Neither Abu Sharif, who was appointed President Bani-Sadr's special representative in Sanandaj during the fighting, nor Colonel Sadri have offered an explanation of why the insurgents suddenly decided to pull out of the city after holding it for a month.
Colonel Sadri however said earlier that the government troops and pasdars had managed to cut the rebels' supply lines into the city, through mountain passes in the outskirts of the town.
Despite government claims, it apparently was not an outright victory over the rebels. They are scattered once again in the Kurdish hills and are making it difficult for government troops to maintain their own supply lines.