Fleeing government forces, as many as 3 million Kurdish refugees were stranded Wednesday in snowcapped mountains without food or shelter, relief workers said. Many were reported dying of hunger and exposure.
The official Iraqi News Agency, meanwhile, reported that government forces had recaptured the last large city in Kurdish rebel hands - Suleimaniyah, 160 miles north of Baghdad.The Iraqi news agency said Kurdish residents of Suleimaniyah "received our soldiers with cries of joy and cheers for Iraqi President Saddam Hussein."
A rebel spokesman in Syria confirmed the city had been taken by government forces and also said Iraqi troops controlled the city of Zakho, on the Turkish border. The government had announced the capture of the city on Monday.
The Kurdish leader, Kamal Fuad of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, said there was still fighting outside Zakho and elsewhere. Citing information from radio contact with rebels inside Iraq, Fuad maintained the rebels still controlled much of the area outside the cities.
Many of the exhausted and demoralized refugees, whose exodus nearly has emptied major cities in their traditional homeland, were trying to reach the Iranian border but apparently were being turned away.
Relief workers in this town 25 miles from the Iranian border called the situation a catastrophe in the making, with 2 million to 3 million refugees already living in the mountains under harsh conditions.
"The hospitals, which are overflowing with wounded, have run out of all medicine," said one of the officials, speaking on condition of anonymity.
One hospital has performed 1,800 major operations in the past week, an official said.
Most were civilians wounded during the government attack on Kirkuk, the most southerly major city the Kurds seized in their failed uprising. The hospital official said many have phosphorous burns and little chance of survival.
A rebel official in Diana said many refugees already have died of hunger and exposure, and many more are expected to die.
The official said 20,000 vehicles carrying tens of thousands of refugees have piled up by the Iranian border, but "our neighbors have not allowed a single person in."
However, Iran's official Islamic Republic News Agency reported the country was accepting some refugees from the Kurdish area of Iraq. Thousands of Iraqis from the south, mostly Shiite Muslims like the majority in Iran, were fleeing into Iran.
The Kurdish refugees are also trying to get into Turkey, which has restricted entry.
The refugees formed a column of more than 60 miles stretching from the outskirts of Erbil along twisting roads into the mountains as far as Diana. They were packed tightly into all manner of vehicles, some riding in carts, still others on mules.
Refugees said they had been attacked by helicopter gunships on their way out of Erbil, which is 310 miles north of Baghdad, and many were killed.
"We need help. The helicopters are killing us. We have no food. We will die. Why is the United Nations doing nothing to help us?" said a young woman engineer, her voice choking with emotion.