Hundreds of thousands of Kurdish rebels and civilians fled into snowcapped mountains Monday after government forces using heavy artillery won control of the northern cities of Dohuk and Erbil.
Having retaken the two cities, pro-Saddam forces reversed the greatest gain of the decades-long Kurdish rebellion against Iraqi control - the capture of three major cities in the traditional Kurdish homeland in northern Iraq.While battles thundered around Dohuk and Erbil on Sunday, the government proved its control over the northern oil city of Kirkuk by showing the battle-ravaged city to Western reporters.
In yet another indication of success for pro-Saddam forces, Turkey's semi-official Anatolia news agency reported that government troops Monday recaptured the Habur border post on the border with Turkey.
The agency said Habur, the only border crossing between the two countries, was seized after intense fighting with Kurdish rebels who had held it for about two weeks. The Anatolia report supported the contention by Iraq's official news agency that loyalist troops also seized Zakho, a town almost on the Turkish border, Monday.
Kurds were fleeing into the mountains along the Iranian border by any means possible, turning roadways Monday into ribbons of moving humanity.
Many women and children were forced to walk. Some, too tired to go on, lay on the roadsides without food or water. Refugees could be seen camping in the mountains, in the open without protection from rainstorms.
Pro-Saddam forces began their offensive against the Kurds last week after a string of victories against Shiite Muslim insurgents in the south and the United States' declaration of neutrality in Iraq's civil war.
The string of government victories was spurred by the U.S. decision not to heed rebel requests to down the helicopter gunships that have been so effective against insurgents.
The United States has shot down two Iraqi warplanes that took to the air in violation of the temporary cease-fire that ended the Persian Gulf war - but declined to move against helicopters.
Kurdish rebels said small bands of their fighters were trying to hold off the government assault Monday in Erbil, which is 75 miles southeast of Dohuk.Residents took flight from Dohuk, which is 30 miles south of the Turkish border, in the middle of the night as the government unleashed a devastating artillery barrage on the city of 350,000.
Kurdish fighters also were in flight, though many insisted the fight was not over.
"Do not think we are finished. We are used to mountain warfare," said one. "This is not the first time we have been forced to retreat. We always live to fight another day."
Some Kurds, however, said the mass flight was having a disastrous effect on morale, especially after initial successes against Saddam Hussein's forces.
Refugees asked why President Bush and his U.N. allies have allowed Saddam to use artillery and helicopters to break the Kurdish rebellion.
"Why have they abandoned us to Saddam?" was a question addressed repeatedly to Western reporters.
U.S. military commanders in Saudi Arabia said Sunday that they were proceeding with their scheduled withdrawal from the Persian Gulf region of about 3,000 troops a day.
They said they plan to begin pulling out the 100,000 U.S. troops in occupied Iraq, comprising the Army's entire VII Corps, within days after a permanent cease-fire is ratified by the United Nations.
More than one-quarter of the American troops sent to the region have already departed, leaving fewer than 400,000, the commanders said.