ERBIL, Iraq -- President Saddam Hussein is preparing to attack the independent Kurdish enclave in northern Iraq in an attempt to retake part or all of the territory, Western diplomats in the region and Kurdish military commanders say.
The assault, which the officials said could start as soon as the first week of June, appears to be intended to recapture Kurdish-held territory south of the no-flight zone that coalition forces established two years ago, they said. But according to Western intelligence reports, a drive to recapture the entire area has not been ruled out.
Coalition leaders, including the Americans, the French and the British, have repeatedly said they have no mandate to intervene south of the security zone, which runs roughly along the 36th parallel. But Kurdish leaders said they hope that if an attack began, Western nations would come to their aid.
Iraqi forces have been building up men and materiel along the 280-mile-long front line, Kurdish commanders said. And Mr. Hussein has repeatedly assured his people recently that the Kurdish enclave would soon return to Iraqi control.
"The Iraqi forces have moved long-range artillery, trucks and tanks up to the front in the last few days," said Jabar Farman, defense minister for the Kurdish government. "But they have concentrated the buildup in the areas south of Erbil and Sulaimaniya. In June we expect the Iraqis to strike in the areas below the security zone, and if the Iraqis think they can get away with it, they will try to take the entire north."
The security zone is monitored by a small military mission in the border town of Zakho and patrolled often by coalition aircraft based in Turkey. There are no Iraqi forces or officials in the zone.
Baghdad has imposed an embargo on goods and trade with the 3.5 million Kurds, isolating them from the rest of the country. As international relief agencies are running out of money and supplies for their Kurdish operations, the enclave's economy is floundering, with prices rising, shortages common and factories idle.
The Kurds, who formed their own government last year, also control areas south of the zone, most notably the city of Sulaimaniya, with 800,000 inhabitants. It is this city that Western diplomats and Kurdish leaders expect Mr. Hussein to aim for initially.
In interviews in Washington, Clinton administration officials on Friday expressed concern about the Iraqi buildup. But they said they did not believe the Iraqi offensive would try to recapture territory in the northern zone.
Iraqi forces, numbering more than 100,000 men and equipped with tanks and helicopters, chase lightly armed rebels along the front line. The 30,000-member Kurdish forces, who lack anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons, would be no match for the Iraqi Army. And even Kurdish commanders say they would, at best, be able to stave off the Iraqis for a day or two.
"The most glaring lie in Saddam Hussein's propaganda machine, that repeatedly promises the Iraqi people a return to normalcy, is the presence of foreign troops in the north," said a Western diplomat in the region who monitors Iraq. "Iraqi forces are ready to move. They are all in place. There will be little warning. When the Bosnian crisis flares, perhaps during the upcoming Muslim holidays in June, the Iraqis may try and strike."
The buildup comes as Mr. Hussein faces mounting popular discontent. He has been unable to control runaway inflation, and saw the United Nations officially redraw the border with Kuwait, depriving Iraq of several oil wells and two strategic islands. U.N. sanctions, which do not permit Iraq to sell oil freely, are expected to be renewed.
"He likes to provoke trouble when he is in a tight corner," said a Western diplomat based outside northern Iraq, "and we are coming to another period when things are looking tight."
But the increased Iraqi military activity also comes as Western governments appear to be backing away from the Kurds. The U.N. World Food Program and the United Nations have told donors that their resources are running low and that contributions are needed if current aid programs are to continue.
Many relief agencies that operated in the north a year ago have shut down or drastically reduced staff, especially after several aid workers were shot. A Belgian and an Australian were killed this year.