'The situation could be a catastrophe. There is no doubt it will come to mass movements of people,' Gualtiero Fulcheri, the UN relief co-ordinator in Iraq, said last week in Baghdad. Many were bound to freeze to death if they were still without heating when winter bit in November, he said. 'If there is a very cold winter, they will start moving to Turkey, to Iran.'
Desperate for heating fuel before the onset of winter, the Kurds are cutting down trees across their rolling hills and valleys, threatening an ecological disaster that may be irreversible. Mr Fulcheri said he had asked the Iraqi government to allow the UN to bring in kerosene to allow the Kurds to cook and heat their homes. He had not yet received a response. A so-called Memorandum of Understanding between the UN and Baghdad, authorising the UN presence, lapsed in June, and an increasingly defiant Saddam has refused to renew it.
Stymied by the Iraqi leader, who appears intent on forcing UN personnel from his territory by refusing to extend or renew visas, the UN admits that its humanitarian programme in Kurdistan is 'at a standstill'. To make matters worse, a terrorism campaign is being waged against foreign aid workers, undoubtedly ordered by Saddam, though sometimes using Kurdish mercenaries. There has been a score of attacks on UN or other foreign aid workers over the past two months.
British aid officials say that Saddam's intelligence agents are offering lucrative rewards to anyone who kills, wounds or kidnaps a foreigner. As famine bites, takers are easier to find. The officials believe such a bounty was behind the capture last month of British traveller Michael Wainwright, and that a similar policy beyond Iraq's southern border - snatching foreign workers from Kuwait - led to the detention of another Briton, Paul Ride, and several other foreigners in recent months.
To thwart Saddam and save the Kurds, the world body is considering an emergency pounds 33m programme to bypass Baghdad. US officials were in Ankara last week to persuade the Turkish government to agree, but aid officials are worried that the UN move may be too late.
'The world community seems to get going only when the word 'emergency' is used,' said Joan Anderson, Gulf co-ordinator for the Save the Children Fund, who is just back from Kurdistan. 'The UN should bite the bullet. It is no longer possible to channel aid via Baghdad. It must set up a humanitarian route through Turkey.'
Michael Stopford, of the UN Department of Humanitarian Affairs in New York, agrees. 'Food supplies from Baghdad to the Kurdish-controlled north have dwindled to 10 per cent of what they used to be. Fuel has been
cut off altogether,' he said. 'Through attrition (lack of visas) our staff will disappear. From 500 humanitarian personnel and 500 guards, we are down to about 70 aid workers and 100 UN guards.'
Specifically encouraged by President George Bush, Iraq's Kurds rose against the defeated Saddam after the Gulf war ended in March 1991. But the dictator rallied his troops to crush the rebellion, sending up to two million refugees streaming across snowbound mountain paths to neighbouring Turkey and Iran. Many died, mostly the elderly and young children, but the number was never known as relatives buried them were they fell.
Held back now by an allied 'no-fly zone' over Iraqi Kurdistan, Saddam appears bent on starving out Kurdish opposition. His ultimate aim, the Kurds believe, is to turn them against their recently elected leaders and force them to look to Baghdad for their own survival. The irony is that the Kurds, who rose in support of the allies 18 months ago, are the worst-hit victims of the UN embargo against Iraq.
A year ago, Saddam used the embargo as an excuse to blockade the Kurds, cutting supplies of essential goods to a minimum. The Kurds survived largely through black market imports over the border from Turkey. But the border has been closed for most of this year as a result of Turkey's war with its own Kurdish rebels.
'Nothing is being allowed north,' said Jemera Rone of the Washington-based Middle East Watch, who was recently in the area. 'Saddam's troops are even draining petrol from private cars' tanks at checkpoints, leaving drivers just enough dregs to get a few miles into Kurdistan. They are also taking any food people are carrying and throwing it on to the roadside to spoil. 'It's very, very grim. The Kurds didn't have any food for themselves but, as always, they managed to find some for us and insisted on feeding us. They are disillusioned, insisting that 'Bush did this', or 'Saddam is just a puppet of Bush.' '
Save the Children's Joan Anderson said: 'I saw women and children 20 miles from Arbil, who had obviously travelled from the city, guarding piles of branches by the roadside. That would just be enough for them to cook for three or four days. To heat their homes in winter, kerosene is vital.
'The hospitals have a serious lack of supplies. There is a shortage of surgical gloves. More and more babies are being born premature because of their mothers' malnutrition.'
Save the Children was importing goats from Iran and distributing them to peasants to allow them the luxury of milk and yoghurt, Ms Anderson said.