Allies' friends live in fear of traitor's fate

Crisis in the Gulf: Kurds who helped the Americans expect no mercy.
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Zakho, northern Iraq - The man who came to the door of the building which used to house the western allies' Military Co-ordination Centre in Zakho was clearly frightened. He explained that as a Kurd who had worked for the Americans he had every reason to fear for his life. "Iraqi law is extremely clear," he said. "Anybody who co-operates with foreigners is a traitor."

Inside the long, grey building known as the MCC, bristling with aerials and communications dishes, more than one hundred Kurds, tainted by association with the US, have taken refuge. The Americans and other foreigners, who once co-ordinated the allies' no-fly zone in northern Iraq, left at 4am one morning last week.

The Kurd at the door, who refused to give his name, but spoke perfect English with a slight American accent, said: "When we heard that Saddam had offered an amnesty we were even more afraid."

Complimented on his ability to speak good English, he added ironically: "Yes, I speak the language well because I am one of those corrupted Kurds who deal with foreigners."

In fact President Saddam Hussein's amnesty is even more restrictive than he believed. The previous night Radio Baghdad said that the amnesty did not apply to Kurds who had worked for foreign aid organisations and certainly not those controlled by the Americans. But even this extra threat was not needed to make all Kurds associated with foreign aid or the allied military mission in Zakho, where it has been based since 1991, hope for rescue.

In another part of Zakho, Ron Sobkoviak of Shelter Now, which has been trying to rebuild Kurdish villages for five years, has stayed to try to protect the 150 Kurds who had worked for him.

"How did you get into the compound?" he said sourly. "Did you bribe my guards?" Later one of the guards, named Mohammed, carrying a sub- machine gun, said: "Of course we are scared. If Saddam comes back they will say we worked for the CIA and kill us."

For the moment, of course, there is no visible sign of President Saddam returning. The Kurdish Democratic Party, which invited him to help conquer the Kurdish capital Arbil, insist that the alliance with Baghdad is purely tactical, that all Iraqi tanks and infantry have withdrawn to their old positions. But Mahmoud, a member of the KDP, said: "People here are badly scared. The MCC's presence here was symbolic. If Saddam comes back he will show no mercy."

The Kurds who have moved into the old allied headquarters have presumably done so in the hope that helicopters will rescue them as they did the American officers, now based just across the border at Silopi.

Ron Sobkoviak said: "How can we claim we are helping people if we leave behind those who helped us?"

The dread in Zakho is that President Saddam did not lend his tanks to Massoud Barzani, the leader of the KDP, without exacting a price. This probably includes the removal from northern Iraq of anybody who poses a threat to Iraqi security, notably the Iraqi National Congress, the umbrella organisation which sought to unite opposition to Saddam Hussein.

Run almost as a private company by Ahmed Chelabi, a former banker, there is no doubt that it was a conduit for military and political information for the CIA. But ironically, the INC was unable to deliver the one thing which would have given it credibility in the eyes of the Kurds which was American support.

Apart from the INC, the Kurds who worked for the allied military mission may not be in such immediate danger as they fear. Having used the Iraqi army to destroy his rival Jalal Talabani, Mr Barzani has every reason to try to woo the US, Britain and France to maintain their no-fly zone and prevent him being entirely swallowed up by President Saddam.