Michael Ware


TIME: Lying in Wait in Kurdistan


Along a vast front line snaking through northern Iraq, in bunkers and staging posts only a few miles from an estimated 50,000 anti-Baghdad Kurdish fighters, Saddam Hussein has stationed tens of thousands of badly fed, sadly equipped conscripts from his I and V Corps of the Iraqi army. But the Kurdish fighters, known as the peshmerga (those who face death), are not worried about their enemy's proximity. These bedraggled Iraqi soldiers are unwilling to die for a leader they loathe.

Saddam has made a different calculation. He believes that in the event of war, fear of his wrath and uncertainty over his demise will press his men into one last battle. Crossing the heavily mined no-man's-land near the Kurdish town of Chamchamal in recent weeks, two Iraqi deserters have brought tales of a buildup. They say Saddam is pushing heavy armor and ammunition forward. A Kurdish security official, among the first to interrogate the men, says, "They don't want to, but Baghdad is ordering these units to fight."

As U.S. forces continue to encircle Iraq in a looming military action, Saddam's troops are preparing for possible showdowns with both American and Kurdish forces. But the Kurdish fighters seem more concerned about the presence of another foe: Ansar al-Islam, the terrorist-backed, Baghdad-aligned militia based in Kurdistan, whom they know to be a far fiercer enemy than the Iraqis.

Along the Iraqi front, all units have been put on full alert. Just north of the Iraqi-held oil city of Kirkuk, a side road likely to be used by U.S. combat troops is being buttressed with Iraqi tanks, "all camouflaged so only the gun barrels are obvious," says an officer at a nearby Kurdish gun position. In this district around Qurtan Jukoy, the Iraqis have closed many of the smaller roads used by civilians passing between the lines. For more than 10 days, Iraqi engineers have been gouging deep trenches to slow the approach of soldiers.

The peshmerga are watching and waiting, eager to engage. On the main artery from the Kurdish city of Arbil to Kirkuk, Kurdish fighters man a gun post at Dawla Bakrah. They claim to have recently exchanged fire with the Iraqi heavy guns sighting their position. Taxi drivers, pumped by both sides for intelligence, have warned the peshmerga of recent activity that appears to involve the placing of explosives on the roads. Rumors are trickling in of Saddam's men sealing off Kurdish quarters in Kirkuk at night to bury mysterious barrels. Farther east in the tiny hamlet of Taqtaq, peshmerga deputy commander Dlawer speaks of Iraqi rocket batteries arriving at Kirkuk.

Not far from the Iraqi city of Mosul sit at least three key oil fields. Peshmerga fighters in Shaykh Shirwan village, surrounded on three sides by Baghdad's V Corps, say reconnaissance teams and intelligence sources have spotted tanks being dug in around the oil wells over the low rise separating the forces. Until two weeks ago, 2nd Lieut. Ali Qadir Jadir was with one of those tanks. A Kurdish conscript, he deserted from the 34th Armor Brigade of the V Corps' 1st Mechanized Division, leaving behind 155 men and 28 tanks. The weary junior officer was not the only one in his unit inclined to surrender. By his account, "all they think about, from the cooks to the officers and even the Republican Guard embedded with us, is how they're going to give up in a couple of weeks."

For the peshmerga, it's more welcome evidence that the battle may already be won. "When the war starts we'll need a big committee to take care of prisoners," says a Kurdish official on the Dawla Bakrah line. "It will be out of control, far more than we expect." The Kurds believe Iraqi conscripts will raise their hands in the air once it's clear that Saddam is finished and the Americans are guaranteeing amnesty.

Civilian administrators in Saddam's provinces sense which way the wind is blowing. A local businessman told Kurdish intelligence agents that he had met with a top Iraqi official in a northern city. When the businessman asked for a travel certificate allowing movement from the Kurdish area to Iraqi territory, the official advised him to wait a month and receive the permission from the Kurds. "We've already discussed this and decided to stay in our homes when the war begins and wait to see whether you come to execute us or free us," the official confided.

Nearby, a grittier enemy is priming for battle. In a small pocket of northeastern Iraq, up to 700 well-trained, battle-hardened terrorists backed by al-Qaeda await U.S. forces, eager to enmesh them in a repeat of the Afghan confrontations in Tora Bora and the Shah-i-Kot Valley. They are the Kurdish Islamic militants of the Ansar al-Islam militia, fundamentalists who have imposed a Taliban-like order on the villages they now control. Western and local intelligence sources say the militants receive support from Saddam's state security agencies and hard-line Iranian interests as well as al-Qaeda veterans from Afghanistan and elsewhere.

For more than a year, Ansar has waged a bloody military campaign against the secular administration of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, one of two political parties controlling the Kurdish region in northern Iraq. In the snow-clad mountains looming over the hamlet of Halabja, where 5,000 people were killed in a 1988 Iraqi chemical bombardment, peshmerga front lines are hit almost daily by mortar barrages. The jihadists, known to decapitate and burn prisoners alive, overran a Kurdish position Dec. 4 of last year, massacring more than 40 men. Now their supply lines are feverishly channeling materiel forward, including new 120-mm mortars that have begun raining down on Kurdish trenches. In the past month, these extremists have been fortifying their bunkers, bolstering their numbers. Last week trucks visible through field binoculars delivered the latest batch of reinforcements.

General Sheik Jaffa, who directs the front-line Kurdish forces, believes Ansar is bent on war with America. He claims that the audiotape allegedly made by Osama bin Laden that aired on al-Jazeera Arabic satellite news network in February was aimed at these fighters. Their increased activity suggests they are answering bin Laden's call to assist Saddam in any U.S.-led war.

While the Pentagon is focused on overthrowing Saddam, it is not overlooking Ansar. In the Kurdish eastern city of Sulaymaniya, there is speculation in political and military circles that an American offensive against the Ansar redoubts may kick-start the broader war against Saddam. After Ansar thrashed the Kurds in December, a U.S. intelligence team toured the peshmerga front lines. On a few occasions since then, Westerners have been seen coming and going from the Kurdish bases around Halabja. Last week soldiers told Time that a convoy of pickups with tinted windows left General Jaffa's compound with an escort of local bodyguards that contained "U.S. officers."

For months the peshmerga had opted not to go on the offensive, not daring to assault Ansar's mine-laden defensive positions. Last week that changed. On the eve of Feb. 15, 10 Kurdish commandos took the fight to the terrorists. They stole up on an isolated enemy bunker and briefly captured it, killing an unknown number of the 25 militants they found. Three nights later, they did it again. They have been emboldened by their belief that a U.S.-backed offensive is imminent. Jaffa won't be drawn out on any such plans and refuses to discuss the possibility of U.S. involvement in his operations. But he seems to be counting on it. "This is a war, and they attack us," he says. "We must fight them in many different ways until we launch the last great offensive."