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In Northern Iraq, Kurds Can Only Await U.S.

Lack of large American presence in the oil-rich region leaves fighters unclear on their role. Turkey had refused use of its land in attacks.

March 21, 2003|Jeffrey Fleishman | Times Staff Writer

CHAMCHAMAL, Iraq — The northern front against Iraq is dotted with shepherds, empty fields and Kurdish fighters like Rebwar Abdul Rahman, who -- wearing a pair of muddy loafers and carrying a Kalashnikov -- would never be confused with the U.S. soldiers marching across the sands of Kuwait.

Rahman has no helmet. No gas mask. No flak jacket. He is armed with a rifle and a handful of bullets. He listens to a scratchy radio and sips tea between mortar rounds. When his shift is over, he hops in a taxi and heads toward this nearly deserted town, where less than two miles away Iraqi troops peek from hilltop bunkers.

The northern front was supposed to have been occupied by 30,000 American soldiers. The plan was to protect this autonomous enclave of 3.7 million Kurds from Saddam Hussein's forces, seize the oil cities of Kirkuk and Mosul and then push south to Baghdad.

But Turkey's refusal to allow U.S. ground troops and heavy armor to deploy from its soil has left the 138-mile-long northern front in the hands of poorly armed and under-trained Kurdish units to fight the Iraqi army.

The issue of who will control northern Iraq after the war is a crucial element in the region's delicate political balance. The stateless Kurds have thrived in the territory staked out for them at the end of the 1991 Persian Gulf War and monitored since by U.S. and British jets. Kurdish leaders have committed to keeping Iraq whole, but Turkey fears that an independent Kurdish homeland could pose a threat to Turkey's integrity and security.

"It's an enormous concern for the U.S.," said one Western diplomat in Turkey. "The U.S. government is very upset."

The Kurds -- whose best fighters are known as peshmerga, or "those who face death" -- are confused about their role in the war. Kurdish military commanders say the Pentagon is sharing little information about its battle strategy.

Gas masks and ammunition promised by Washington have yet to arrive. One military analyst said the U.S. view the peshmerga more as "Apache scouts" than as battlefield partners.

"We don't know what America wants us to do," said Simko Dizayee, military chief of staff for the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, or PUK, which has 10,000 fighters in the field and is preparing to mobilize 15,000 more. "America knows its plan, but they have not told us.... We haven't had any training with Americans. We don't know how to use American weapons."

A Bush administration official said late Thursday that U.S. officials are closely coordinating with Kurdish leaders but declined to be specific.

The lack of a large U.S. presence in northern Iraq -- there are about 150 American soldiers and intelligence operatives -- is creating a vacuum in the early days of war that could lead to attacks by the Iraqi army, widespread looting and ethnic fighting in Kirkuk. The scenario is expected to improve in coming days, when the U.S. begins flying equipment and soldiers to airfields in northern Iraq guarded by peshmerga forces.

Over the last decade, Hussein's "ethnic cleansing" forced tens of thousands of Kurds from Kirkuk, Iraq's richest oil city and a kind of Jerusalem for the Kurds. The ambition of some tribes, clans and political parties is to quickly reclaim the city, a gambit that could spark revenge killings and endanger U.S. troops. Peshmerga in the PUK and its partner in governing the region, the Kurdistan Democratic Party, or KDP, say they will obey U.S. demands not to immediately enter the city.

"If Americans take control of Kirkuk, we accept this," said one PUK military official.

Rivalry Over Kirkuk

But for the last 12 years, Kurdish military and security forces have built a large, armed, underground resistance in Kirkuk. The PUK and KDP have an intense rivalry over who will plant the Kurdish flag in Kirkuk first. Officials in both parties have stated privately that the Kurds will take Kirkuk, not by a military campaign but through an influx of returning refugees.

"If the people exiled from Kirkuk by Saddam Hussein want to return to their homes, why shouldn't they?" said Sami Abdul Rahman, KDP deputy prime minister.

A small contingent of U.S. soldiers on the ground also raises the troubling prospect that Kurdish peshmerga may fight Turkish forces. Turkey is expected to deploy tens of thousands of troops into northern Iraq to provide humanitarian assistance and safe haven for refugees. The Kurds are wary that their longtime enemy will use the war as a pretext for occupying part of the country and preventing Kurds from controlling Kirkuk, which produces 800,000 barrels of oil a day.

A clash between the two sides would create a dangerous sideshow to the larger war in Iraq. U.S. forces, according to military analysts, could become trapped between two allies: Turkey, a fellow NATO member, and the Kurds, whom the U.S. considers a key to creating a democratic Iraq. KDP Prime Minister Massoud Barzani has stated that northern Iraq will become a "Turkish graveyard" if Turkey sends troops across the border.

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