Kurdish soldiers wait impatiently for the fight

Patrick Cockburn,Northern Iraq
Friday 21 March 2003 01:00

Yusuf, a young Kurdish soldier in a black uniform, stared across the bright green fields just north of the Iraqi front line and said: "I am feeling frustrated because I want to go to Kirkuk and our leadership won't let us attack."

We were trying to get to three Kurdish villages in no-man's land that had been strafed by two Iraqi helicopters earlier in the week. A peshmerga officer at the most advanced Kurdish outpost shook his head and said: "We're very close to the Iraqi army here. They will see you coming and shoot you. I can't let you go on."

It was easy to see what he meant. The land was covered in young grass, shooting up after the spring rain, but otherwise it was devoid of cover. In the middle distance was a low range of purple hills behind which lay the city of Kirkuk and its oil wells, a prize the Kurds would love to seize but dare not, for fear of Turkish reaction.

Earlier some families of Kurds from the town of Alton Kupri, which we could see glinting white in the distance, had made their way on foot to this outpost. Yusuf said: "They were very frightened. Baath Party members are going around searching houses."

He said the reason was that somebody had stripped down pictures of Saddam Hussein from a wall in Kirkuk and replaced them with pictures of Jalal Talabani, the leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, the party that has traditionally had most support in the city. This had increased the Iraqi government's fears that an uprising is imminent.

Although the peshmerga on the front are impatient, a sense that a battle is imminent is not discernible. The Kurds have made it clear that they have no intention of doing anything until the full weight of an American air attack has broken the back of the Iraqi army.

Nevertheless, more groups of peshmerga have been appearing. Yusuf denied that he had seen any US special forces, which are being assigned to the peshmerga.

Thirty miles east along the front line at the village of Khalaq, on a hill above the swollen river Zaab, the Iraqi army positions are visible. A dark shape marks a watchtower on top of the hill, behind which, say Kurdish officers, is artillery which could easily hit Khalaq or the two highly vulnerable bridges over the river.

Bais Zrar, local leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), which rules this area, was secretive about what was going to happen. He said: "They have brought up more men and artillery, but I don't think they will fire their cannon and I don't think they will fight." He denied his view was based on contact with the Iraqi soldiers on the hill opposite.

Mr Zrar said the Iraqi army had closed the main bridge over the Zaab, which leads to the northern Iraqi capital of Mosul, the previous day. A month ago this crossing point was crowded with traffic. Yesterday the village was empty and its shops shuttered.

But American plans for taking northern Iraq by ground assault are in ruins. The latest vote yesterday by the Turkish parliament gave the US over-flying rights but Ankara will not even let the US Air Force refuel its planes in Turkey. America will have to rely on airborne and special forces – and the peshmerga – to attack the Iraqi army in the north.

And the Turkish parliament has also agreed that Turkish troops could be sent abroad – meaning Kurdistan. If they do cross the border, then the KDP forces controlling it would have to turn their peshmerga to face north rather than south, and fight the Turks rather than the Iraqi army.

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