Iraqi soldiers and tanks are massing on the border of Kurdistan in a warning to Kurdish leaders not to ally themselves with America against President Saddam Hussein.
The Iraqi leader also sent a high-level delegation to Kurdistan, the three provinces in northern Iraq that enjoy de facto independence, to express dismay at talks the Kurds held with the CIA in the United States.
Massoud Barzani and Jalal Talabani, the leaders of the two main Kurdish parties, had been flown to meet the CIA in Virginia because the agency wanted to establish two full-time missions with their headquarters in Kurdistan to co-ordinate action against Iraq.
But the price the Kurds demanded was a guarantee that America would promise to defend them from retaliation by the Iraqi armed forces. The CIA was unable to give the guarantee, says The Washington Post. The Kurds refused to allow the bases, but their consideration of such a move appears to have made President Saddam nervous.
The Kurds control the only territory in Iraq not under the authority of the Iraqi leader. They have tried to keep on good terms with the Iraqi government and with Washington, but if President George Bush is determined to overthrow the Iraqi leader they want to be on the winning side.
The visit to Virginia by Mr Barzani, the head of the Kurdistan Democratic Party ruling western Kurdistan, and Mr Talabani, who controls the east, was confirmed yesterday by Mahmoud Othman, a veteran Kurdish leader, in an interview with Radio Free Iraq.
Iraqi forces have moved forward on a broad front south of the unofficial border with Kurdistan, sources in the area say. The troops are unlikely to attack but their presence is a clear warning by Baghdad that it will not allow Kurdistan to become a haven for its enemies.
The three main Kurdish cities, Arbil, Sulaimaniyah and Dohuk, are within a couple of hours' tank-drive from the Iraqi front line and vulnerable to long-range artillery fire. They could not be defended for long by Kurdish light infantry.
In the past few months, the Kurdish leaders have been toying with the idea of playing a role against President Saddam similar to that of the Northern Alliance against the Taliban in Afghanistan. But the Kurdish leaders know they are militarily inferior to the Iraqi army, and probably would not commit themselves to Washington unless there were American ground forces to protect them.
The Iraqi government is convinced America will eventually try to overthrow it, and the Iraqi security forces will try to crush any rebellion before it gathers pace. Iraqi checkpoints and military posts have been set up on roads south from Baghdad to Basra, the area that was the heart of the abortive Shia rebellion of 1991.
Saddam's security officers are everywhere in the Shia holy cities of Najaf and Kerbala on the Euphrates river, recent visitors say. In Baghdad last week, the dictator ordered government ministers, officials and senior advisers to report for training with the Kalashnikov automatic assault rifle.
The Iraqi leader wants to make clear he will crush mercilessly any US-backed rebellion, but he is unlikely to invade Kurdistan, except as a last resort. Such an attack, he reasons, could give America and Britain the pretext for a new bombing offensive. For the same reason, Iraqi negotiators have shown greater flexibility in talks with the United Nations about the return of weapons inspectors to Iraq. They were withdrawn in December 1998.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies