Rebels fear Saddam onslaught

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Iraqi Kurds are fearful that Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi leader, is planning a fresh incursion into Kurdistan as Iraqi infantry and tanks mass in the plains below the Kurdish mountains. Iraq has accused the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), one of the Kurdish factions, of stopping the flow of water from two large reservoirs under its control.

Iraq captured Arbil, the Kurdish capital, last August from the PUK after intervening in the Kurdish civil war and handed it over to the Kurdistan Democratic Party, the rival Kurdish faction. In the last week the government in Baghdad has claimed that Iraq is being deliberately denied water because the PUK controls the reservoirs at Durbendikhan and Dukan in eastern Kurdistan.

A PUK spokesman said yesterday in Ankara: "Recent deployment of Iraqi armour in the area of Kifri, south of Durbendikhan, has further increased concerns for possible Iraqi aggression." If the Iraqi troops do attack there is no way the lightly armed and poorly trained Kurdish forces could stop them driving a wedge into the PUK zone.

Over the past four days the equivalent of three divisions, one armoured, have been moved close to the front line of Iraqi government controlled territory, according to the Iraqi National Congress, an Iraqi opposition group. In recent days the Iraqi press has cited the Arab saying: "Cutting off heads is better than cutting off food." The same phrase was used when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990.

The PUK denies that it is reducing the supply of water to Iraq, which flows from the two reservoirs they control. It says that there is less water because of poor rainfall. It is unlikely that the PUK would deliberately provoke Iraq at the moment because it is heavily reliant on Iranian support and has little money. Its rival, the KDP, controls the lucrative cross border trade in oil products between Iraq and Turkey.

The Iraqi motives for increasing the political temperature at the moment are unclear, but the Kurds are nervous because three times in the past - the invasion of Iran in 1980 and of Kuwait in 1990 as well as the incursion into Kurdistan last year - Saddam Hussein has gone further than anybody expected. The failure of the US and its allies to use their planes, which overfly northern Iraq, against his tanks last year has underlined his military predominance in the area.