Anxiety has grown over recent weeks in Washington and other allied capitals about a possible Iraqi troop incursion into the Kurdish security zone established after the Gulf war. There is particular concern about the vulnerability of Arbil, a city of about 1 million Kurds.
Western officials have confirmed the main coalition allies are ready to respond to an invasion of Arbil with a full-blown air assault from Nato bases in eastern and southern Turkey and from US carriers in the Gulf region. 'If they attack the Kurds there will be a coalition action against them,' a high-level source said.
Consultations between the allies have been especially intense in the past few days, the sources added, saying that as well as Britain, France and the US, Turkey has given its blessing to the plan, guaranteeing use of its air bases. Six British bombers stationed at Incirlik, in the south, would take part in the campaign.
'We have known for some time that Saddam might be keen to get into a scrap with the Kurds again,' a Western diplomat said yesterday. 'They have the forces in place to surge into the north if they choose to do so.'
US intelligence suggests that about 40 per cent of the Iraqi army - about 150,000 men - are stationed in the area, and the number is rising. The coalition campaign would be likely to focus first on crippling Iraq's military communications and supply lines, hoping to cut off the invading forces from Baghdad.
Officials confirmed that it could also involve destroying targets in Baghdad itself, perhaps in a repeat of the kind of cruise missile attack launched by the US last weekend.
'It would be a very major air campaign,' Anthony Cordesman, a special advisor to the Senate Armed Services committee, suggested yesterday. He added that it could also lead to a change in allied policy towards Kurds, perhaps including arming them and supporting an independent Kurdistan.
The prospect of a response from the air - deployment of ground troops has been ruled out so far - does not necessarily reassure the Kurds. 'If Saddam is determined to send his troops in, it will be really very difficult for the allies to stop him just from the air,' Hoshyar Zebari, a Kurdish spokesman, said. 'That is the nightmare that hangs over us.'
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