Washington, 18 October 1996 (RFE/RL) -- The director of the U.S. State Department's Near East Bureau is traveling to Turkey this weekend in a bid to persuade the leaders of two rival Kurdish factions to agree to a ceasefire.
Robert Pelletreau, an assistant secretary of state, is to meet separately with Massoud Barzani, head of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), and Jalal Talabani, leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK).
The initiative was announced by State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns earlier this week. Burns said the motivation is to "convince them it really is in their immediate interest to move towards a ceasefire and not to allow Iran and Iraq the opportunity to inflame the situation further."
With Iraqi backing, Barzani's KDP drove PUK fighters from most major towns in Northern Iraq in August and early September. But PUK is currently moving in force to regain the terrain.
Yesterday, KDP representatives met with Pelletreau and other State Department officials in Washington. Details are sketchy, but reports say the United States urged the KDP to accept an immediate ceasefire.
KDP spokesman Hoshyar Zebari said KDP officials question what assurances they will have that a possible ceasefire will not be violated. Zebari said U.S. officials had promised to work actively to ensure that any ceasefire or settlement will hold.
Back in the region, however, United Nations relief officials describe the situation as "tense calm." This could change any time. PUK yesterday said Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's Republican Guard troops were heading north, presumably to launch an attack on Iraq's Kurdish areas. PUK urged the United States to thwart the move. In a statement faxed to Dubai, the PUK said,"the latest Iraqi mobilization should make clear that Saddam learned no lesson, understood no message." There has been no independent confirmation of the report.
Last month U.S. forces fired cruise missiles at air defense sites in southern Iraq and extended a no-fly zone there after Iraqi troops helped the KDP capture Arbil, the main city in Northern Iraq.
This week, State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns said the United States is "bothered greatly" by the factional fighting in Northern Iraq.
"Any further fighting will simply harm longer-term Kurdish interests and reward those beyond the Kurdish communities and Kurdish populations who do not have positive designs on the Kurds," he said.
The Kurds, reportedly numbering between 24 and 27 million and inhabiting an area shared by four Middle Eastern states -- Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey -- are sometimes described as the world's largest ethnic group without a nation.
The PUK said that in the absence of action to help the Kurds,"the makings of a new humanitarian disaster exist." The statement said another Iraqi advance would prompt many Kurds to feel they have no other choice but to flee to the mountains, where tens of thousands are already encamped.
The Iranian news agency (IRNA) is warning that the refugees' plight will worsen in the wake of a sharp drop in temperature and heavy rains in the region. IRNA says the refugees lack "proper heating equipment and warm clothing. The agency also quoted Iranian Red Crescent official Seyyed Qasem Hassanzadeh as saying that available supplies are only enough to cater for the refugees for one month.
Iran, which said in late September that it was sheltering 65,000 refugees, has repeatedly said the international community is responsible for their plight. The refugees fled to Iran from Northern Iraq after the fall of Arbil on August 31.
Also yesterday, Iran expressed regret over remarks by Turkish Foreign Minister Tansu Ciller that Tehran might be meddling in inter-Kurdish fighting in northern Iraq. IRNA reiterated Iran's formal denial that it is backing the PUK in its current drive against the Baghdad-backed KDP.
Iraq justified its August incursion by accusing Iran of interfering in the north.