Michael Ware


TIME: Iraq Jockeys for Position in Kurdistan


As Saddam Hussein prepares for a possible U.S. invasion, his troops are quietly jockeying for strategic position in Kurdistan. One example came last week in Duanzasimam, a dust-blown village of about 600 people separated from the Iraqi frontline bunkers by a ripple of dirty brown ridges. On the morning of February 28, Salam Rahim heard the unmistakable, and familiar, crack of explosions skirting the hamlet. He reached for the Kalashnikov he keeps on his sitting room floor as his wife and children ran out the gate. "The women and children were scared and half of the people fled to the mountain behind us," he says. "Once we heard the mortars all the armed men of the village ran to the hill near the Iraqis."

On the slopes a dozen villagers joined a ragtag band from the Kurdistan Communist Party that maintains the sole defensive bunker in the area. In all, no more than twenty-five men headed out to meet the Iraqi column. What they found was a company of about 100 infantry soldiers, backed by armored vehicles and at least two or three tanks. As the Iraqi column neared they spotted the local men with their rifles. The men waited for the Iraqis to turn on them.

It appears, however, Baghdad had dispatched its troops on orders with strict rules of engagement. Instead of easily overwhelming the hastily collected defenders the Iraqi advance halted and eventually turned back, just three hours after the operation began. They covered their retreat with renewed mortar fire and drove their trucks, armored vehicles and tanks back over the ridge, re-entering their own lines.

These forays, the villagers say, are a means to test the border villages' resolve and sympathies. According to Tariq, one of 50,000 peshmerga (one who faces death) stationed on Kurdistan's front lines with Iraq, the Iraqis are "taking the pulse of the people to see whether they are with the regime or not." The ultimate aim, he says, is to gain advantage and push deeper into the Kurdish region. Baghdad's orders not to engage any opposition, says communist commander Rahim Samin Omer, allows them deniability. "When they see men approaching they withdraw and say they were only doing an exercise."

Kurdish soldiers and intelligence officers on the front claim the February 28 operation was well-rehearsed. Ten days before the assault peshmerga positions along the line of control were swamped by an artillery barrage as infantry maneuvers played out on the Iraqi side. "It kept our heads down while they practiced and tried to gauge how many were in their target villages," says a security official at the crossing checkpoint. On the day of the attack they claim artillery fire hit other positions further inside Kurdistan that could have offered support to the villages under threat.

As at other vantage points dotted along the Iraqi front, the peshmerga near Duanzasimam say they have watched Saddam's forces prepare for American bombers. Bunkers are being reinforced, ammunition is being brought forward andtanks are being deployed around Tuz Khurmatu and, more worrying, mysterious covered vehicles the peshmerga say "are like the ones Colin Powell had pictured at the UN" are supposedly arriving at night at a nearby airfield. Tougher restrictions are being imposed on the civilian traffic passing into Baghdad's territory. At Chamchamal, west of Sulaimaniya, fewer and fewer cars are allowed to cross each day. At Kifri, further south, goods had been smuggling back and forth thanks to bribes to the Iraqi border guards. On March 1 Iraqi secret police posed as travelers and arrested the Iraqi border detail in a sting. Since then nothing has made it through. Trucks and aged Land Rovers that a week ago carried lucrative petrol and foodstuffs now make do with fare-paying passengers. Taxi drivers say the underpaid Iraqi soldiers are asking for "pocket money" so they can return to their homes before the war. It's a war the Kurds of Duanzasiman hope comes soon, and with decisive result. "Tell the Americans not to betray us like they did before," says one angry man. "Please do not forget us."