Kurds fear Saddam poised to strike

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SADDAM HUSSEIN has deployed a third of his army in the north of Iraq, where they are waiting for orders from the President to launch an attack on important Kurdish towns that the West would be powerless to prevent, a top Iraqi Kurdish official said yesterday. The move would be a final send-off to George Bush from President Saddam, who is feeling emboldened by the limited nature of the allied strike in the south this week.

Military intelligence from the past two days revealed nine divisions were massed along the frontline with a plan to cut off Arbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, said Hoshyar Zebari, the most senior adviser to the Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani. 'They are just waiting for Saddam's decision to go ahead. He will probably make up his mind in the next few days.'

President Saddam could also decide to bide his time, but intelligence from Iraq suggested an attack was more likely. 'He is doing this to humiliate Bush before he goes. In the next two or three days, he will want to escalate to show he is in control of all of his country,' said Mr Zebari. 'The West could only respond with an air strike once they have moved in, but by that time they would already have inflicted the damage.'

The mandate for such allied action would have to be UN Resolution 688 designed to prevent President Saddam suppressing his own population. Even then, an air strike would not be of much use against moving armoured convoys, and as President Saddam knows, the deployment of Western ground troops is most unlikely.

Arbil is in the no-fly zone imposed by the UN north of the 36th parallel, but that does not prevent President Saddam from moving his army in. But the Iraqi forces would probably also move in on Chamchamal and Kifri south of the parallel, 'cities which are very fragile', Mr Zebari said, in an effort to disrupt the relative stability the Kurds have enjoyed for the past year. 'We have prepared as best we could. Trenches have been dug and peshmerga (Kurdish fighters) deployed, but it will be very difficult if they are using their armoury.'

The allies would have to use their bases in Turkey to defend the north. The Turks would probably agree reluctantly to the bases being used - if only to prevent an influx of Kurds fleeing Iraq. But, said Mr Zebari, 'there were some 130 planes used in the allied strike on the south. In Turkey, they have less than 80 planes. They might not be able to do much.'

Mr Zebari said President Saddam was feeling further emboldened by remarks made by president-elect Bill Clinton suggesting he would be ready to have a normalised relationship with the Iraqi leader if he changed his behaviour and that he was 'not obsessed by the man'.

'It was a disastrous statement,' Mr Zebari said. President Saddam was believed to be aware the Bush administration had reached the conclusion he must be removed. 'But he knows Clinton doesn't have a personal vendetta against him as Bush does, and this reinforces that conviction.'

None the less, he added, 'what Bush has done is very useful to bind the next administration to a continuous policy, and to ensure that the first priority in Clinton's foreign policy will be Iraq'.

ANKARA - About 150 Kurdish separatists, half the population of a rebel camp in the eastern mountains, are believed to have been killed in two days of Turkish air raids, Reuter reports.

Unidentified military officials in Bingol province said the estimate was based on video recordings made by attacking Cobra and Sikorsky helicopters, the semi-official Anatolia news agency said. A senior regional official in Diyarbakir said the operation was over but did not confirm the casualty toll.

The helicopters launched the raid on Thursday against about 300 rebels of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) who were hiding in a camp on Serik Hill in the mountains of the province. 'The area is completely surrounded by security troops. The PKK has received a very severe blow,' Anatolian quoted an official as saying.

The Turkish military strike was the bloodiest in a single battle inside Turkey since September, when 174 PKK guerrillas and 29 soldiers were killed. The regional official said Turkey had to give the guerrilla group a serious blow before March, when weather conditions improve.

(Photograph omitted)