British Marines, Iraqis in Shootout at Saddam’s Palace in Northern Iraq
ZAKHO, Iraq (AP) _ As allied forces tried to persuade more Kurds to return home to northern Iraq today, British and Iraqi soldiers exchanged gunfire at a summer palace of Saddam Hussein’s in the area, British military officials said.
No British casualties were reported, and there was no word of Iraqi casualties in the shootout near the northern city of Sirsenk, well within the allied ″safe haven″ zone intended to protect the Kurdish refugees.
The British officials said the incident involved a British patrol and several Iraqi soldiers inside the palace complex, which is surrounded by 12- foot walls. It is five miles east of Sirsenk airfield, where the British marines have their headquarters.
Also today, Secretary of State James A. Baker III asked the Soviet Union for support in authorizing a U.N. police force to replace American and other allied troops protecting Kurdish refugees in northern Iraq.
But Soviet Foreign Minister Alexander A. Bessmertnykh, who met with Baker in Cairo today, did not say publicly whether Baker had persuaded him to back an expected U.S.-backed resolution in the Security Council. Iraq rejected a previous U.N. effort to establish a police force in northern Iraq.
The shootout was reported by the British Defense Ministry and confirmed by the British Embassy in Ankara, Turkey.
The first Iraqi gunfire at the Royal Marines patrol took place at about 10:30 a.m. local time, when three rounds were fired from the palace complex in front of a patrol, said James Gee, a spokesman for the British Defense Ministry at Silopi, Turkey.
At 1:13 p.m, one round was fired at the standing patrol from the same area, and it was answered by one round, Gee said.
At 1:20 p.m., two men emerged from a block house on the palace wall and began to fire long bursts of automatic fire at the patrol. Fire was returned and the two men dropped from sight, he said.
Shortly afterward, two more shots were fired at the patrol. No further fire was returned, Gee said.
Under an agreement with the allies, a small number of Saddam’s troops were permitted to stay to guard the palaces and villas Saddam built in the mountain valley.
In another development today, the United Nations today took nearly 130 tons of wheat and other supplies to a provincial capital controlled by Iraqi forces, as the allies sought to persuade Kurdish refugees to return from mountain camps.
Plans call for U.S. and other allied troops to eventually leave the area, turning over the entire relief effort to the United Nations and other agencies. Who will protect the Kurds after the allies go, however, worries the refugees.
Officials said the repatriation of refugees from the harsh camps on the mountainous Turkish border has continued, and one major settlement that housed 100,000 refugees is nearly empty.
Yet Kurdish leaders representing the people of the provincial capital, Dohuk, on Sunday frustrated efforts to speed the repatriation by deeming inadequate a U.S.-brokered security agreement in the city.
Kurdish leaders are reluctant to encourage a return to the city, which had 350,000 people before the Persian Gulf War and the following Kurdish rebellion. The leaders want guarantees of allied protection or a delay until they secure an autonomy agreement with Saddam Hussein. Dohuk lies outside the allied zone.
A Kurdish rebel leader struck a note of hope Sunday, however, by announcing that the guerrillas and the Baghdad government are close to reaching an agreement on Kurdish autonomy in northern Iraq.
The Kurdish elders who refuse to leave the mountain camps say that they would return to Dohuk if such an agreement could be reached.
U.S. Army Capt. Joseph Woodbury, of the allied relief headquarters in Silopi, Turkey, said the eight-truck U.N. convoy today transported to Dohuk 128 tons of wheat, flour, rice, vegetable oil and other supplies.
That is enough for 18,000 people.
Foreign and Turkish journalists accompanying the convoy were turned back from a checkpoint outside Dohuk manned by Iraqi soldiers, the semi-official Anatolia news agency of Turkey said. No reason was given for the action.
The supplies were apparently taken to Dohuk, 35 miles south of the Turkish border, in the hope that its citizens will return soon.
They are among an estimated 250,000 refugees still in the Turkish camps. An additional 1 million Iraqis fled to Iran border after a Shiite Muslim uprising failed after the Persian Gulf War.