- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 16, 2002

DOHUK, Iraq Soldiers of the Kurdistan army march in circles to martial music on a cracked, weed-choked asphalt parade ground. The band can't keep a beat, and the cymbal is cracked and bent. But the soldiers can't help but smile at the handful of visitors here to watch.
They may be poorly trained, ill-equipped and upset at receiving little or no help from the United States, but they have a front-row view of Saddam Hussein's war preparations.
Even the Kurds' U.S.-made camouflage uniforms were bought on the open market.
"They haven't given us anything," says Babekir Zebari, commander of the army in the Kurdish Iraqi province of Dohuk. "And there has been no communication or any word."
Unlike the neighboring countries, "Kurdistan" has no draft, and military service is voluntary.
It also has no air force. Under rules of the U.S.- and British-patrolled no-fly zones, it probably couldn't fly one anyway. The military has one or two tanks and a few rocket-propelled grenades, military officials say.
The combined Kurdish forces total 75,000 men (and a few women) and control three of Iraq's 18 provinces in an area populated by 3.5 million of Iraq's 22 million inhabitants.
The Kurds fought Baghdad on the ground for most of the 20th century.
The Iraqi positions today are just a few hundred yards from the Kurdish villages, a clear violation of the three-mile U.N.-mandated demilitarized zone along the 36th Parallel separating northern Iraq from the rest of the country.
The Kurds say Saddam has pulled back his forces from the front toward the center of Iraq, fortifying positions around the oil-rich cities of Mosul and Kirkuk, which the Kurds claim.
"Lately, it seems [the Iraqis] don't know what they're doing," said Barzan Ahmad, a Kurdish intelligence officer stationed near the city of Kalak, near the Iraqi front. "Activity has increased. They keep moving their heavy equipment back and forth. Occasionally they fire their weapons into the air."
Disappointed by their experience in Afghanistan where ethnic Tajik forces of the Northern Alliance occupied the capital, Kabul, despite U.S. orders not to American commanders appear to be shying away from a battle plan that relies on an ethnic minority as a ground force.
Washington also faces the prospect of upsetting Turkey, which is home to U.S. military bases needed for an air assault on Baghdad.
Turkey fears that a Kurdish entity in Iraq may inspire its own 15 million restless Kurds to rebel.
But Kurdish military and public safety officials say it would be helpful if the United States would share some of its information regarding Saddam's arsenal, if only so they can protect the civilian population in case of a biological attack.
Among Iraqis, Kurds suffered the worst under Saddam, who used chemical weapons on the civilian population of Halabja and abducted as many as 150,000 males from Kurdish villages under revolt.
After the establishment of the no-fly zone over northern Iraq after the Gulf war in 1991, the Kurds began building an autonomous proto-state with its own flag.
Students in northern Iraq study in Kurdish, with Arabic as a second language. A U.S.-brokered truce four years ago between the warring Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan factions brought a peace and stability that the Kurds had never before experienced.
The Kurds say publicly that those gains will be at risk if the United States attacks Iraq. "We don't want to attack Iraq; we want to defend Kurdistan," says Hamid Afandi, a Kurdistan Democratic Party official.
But in private, the Kurds are enthusiastic about a U.S. assault. "Where are the Americans?" asked a high-level military official in Erbil, northern Iraq's largest city. "We don't see them. We don't hear from them."
Unlike Afghanistan's mountainous terrains and narrow passes, which favor guerrilla ambushes, central Iraq's flat deserts make it impossible for the lightly armed Kurdish forces to mount a serious challenge to Saddam's motorized and armored forces.
Kurdish officials say they would be slaughtered by the Iraqis. Mr. Zebari sighs when asked about the state of his army's preparedness. "Until 1991," he says, "we were Peshmergas," ragtag mountain fighters who mounted guerrilla attacks on Iraqi forces throughout the decades-long struggle for autonomy from Baghdad.
Then came the civil war, when the guerrilla fighters of the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan turned their Kalashnikovs on each other in a battle that cost an estimated 1,000 lives.
Only since 1998, says Mr. Zebari, has the army tried to professionalize. "We've been trying to learn military discipline," he says but adds that the Kurds will need more than discipline to defend themselves in one of the toughest geopolitical neighborhoods on the planet.
"We have only three advantages," Mr. Zebari says. "Our willingness to sacrifice our bodies, our high morale. And if those fail us, we always have the mountains."


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