Michael Ware


TIME: The War and Kurdistan


On the Iraqi Front

As the first cruise missiles plunged into Baghdad on Thursday morning the conscripts of the 8th Division of the Iraqi army's 1st Corps hunkered down in their gunpits. During the bombardment hitting far to the south the Iraqis sat tight while below them the Kurdish villagers of Shorish waited hopefully for American bombs to rain down. But they did not come.

Dawn had already broken on an overcast day on the northern front. Throughout the attack the troops showed no signs of movement. It wasn't until mid-morning, after Saddam's I'm-still-here television address, that his soldiers appeared above ground. Soon dozens of men were walking ant-like in single files along the ridge carrying packages that could not be made out through binoculars. A large military truck came over the rise, stopping at the major bunker before passing along between a number of smaller others, stopping at points and triggering great commotion. "This is very, very unusual," said Kurdish peshmerga (meaning "those who face death") Abdullah Sajit, who could not bear to turn his binoculars away for a moment.

About 40 Kurdish intelligence and security officials watches from a cinderblock house in Shorish no more than a quarter mile from the nearest Iraqi bunker. "We're waiting for any soldiers to come down and surrender," said one. Deserters had successfully made for this spot countless times in recent months, but none did so today. After a little more than an hour the welcoming committee left, leaving a handful of soldiers behind to patrol.

Peshmerga scouts keeping close eye then noticed at least two strange figures moving along the Iraqi line but not wearing Iraqi military uniforms. After close study Sajit, acting as an observer, concluded they were "mujahedin", fundamentalist Muslim militants from either Iran or Palestine known to support Saddam. This was not taken as a good sign. "They will be making sure the soldiers stay and fight," said Sajit with a sigh.

At 10:30 a.m. a dozen Iraqi soldiers came halfway down the hill, congregating beside a small bunker. For ten minutes they met and seemed to huddle together. "Look, they're dancing," exclaimed one of the young peshmerga. The Iraqis had formed a small, tight circle and were kicking their legs and bouncing about. Laughter passed from one peshmerga to another until the lower voice of a veteran fighter said, "They're not dancing". Moments later the flash of a mortar firing came from the midst of the Iraqis. The peshmerga scrambled for cover. Seconds later the round detonated nearby.

A heavy machinegun, a 12.7mm DSHK chattered short bursts. Then another flash from the freshly-placed mortar pit and a second round came soaring in. This time it detonated above the ground in a filthy black cloud. Villagers and onlookers scattered and ran to their homes.

Around 11 a.m., just over a small rise out of sight from Shorish, another DSHK let loose in long streams for almost a minute. A young Iraqi conscript had attempted to desert and was cut down by his own men. It was the third deserter killed this way since Monday after months of almost free passage for fleeing soldiers. "The ones the other day were torn up and the Iraqis took one of their bodies away in a blanket. This one will not be different," said Sajit.

By lunchtime the front was returning to normal. On the Kuridsh front the Iraqi's first reactions to the U.S. attack was over.