In Kurdish region, a handful of poorly equipped fighters


CHAMCHAMAL, Iraq - As war to oust Saddam Hussein from power began, the military power aligned against him in northern Iraq was almost nonexistent yesterday, a tiny showing of poorly equipped indigenous gunmen sitting opposite a large Iraqi force.

Kurds were still waiting to see whether the United States would open a conventional northern front, which remained a possibility yesterday after the Turkish parliament voted to allow American planes to fly through Turkish airspace into Iraq.

The vote would allow the Pentagon to airlift troops into Kurdish territory, should it choose to do so.

In the interim, Kurdish fighters were a portrait of both confusion and restraint.

Shooting was light and sporadic yesterday, and in places there was no firing at all

But some Kurds worried that their side of the lines, almost empty, left them vulnerable to Iraqi action and unprepared to check the potential for opportunism, looting and vengeance killings by civilians as the war goes forward.

"The problem is that nobody knows what is going on," said one senior Kurdish official and guerrilla veteran, who spoke on the condition that he not be identified. "To fight you need a plan. Right now no one knows the plan."

The contrast with the southern front in Kuwait, where the United States and Britain have assembled powerful columns of armor, infantry and artillery, could not have been stronger.

The two principal Kurdish political parties, which have administered a region that broke away from the Baghdad government in 1991, have long claimed as many as 50,000 regular fighters between them, and almost as many in reservist militias. The fighters are called pesh merga - "those who face death."

But for all of the pesh merga's considerable reputation as guerrillas, they hardly showed up for the first day of the war, a turnout suggesting that the Kurds have exaggerated their strength.

Those who appeared were operating with no apparent supervision and little ammunition. They mostly milled about.

In this front-line city, for instance, only three fighters could be found at a hilltop fortress that faced the forward elements of an Iraqi corps.

The defense of the city was otherwise left to 250 police officers and customs agents, who were armed with nothing more than rifles and a few light machine guns. They sat in clusters talking, wondering what to do and assuming that American pressure would make the Iraqi government fall.

One senior Kurdish military official said he had not given his fighters instructions except to stay in garrisons, typically miles from the front.

"We didn't move them forward because we don't know yet what is going to happen," said Gen. Mustafa Said Qadir, the military commander for the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, which controls the eastern half of the Kurdish zone.

Massoud Barzani, president of the Kurdistan Democratic Party, which controls the western zone, described similar instructions earlier this week. "Their movement will depend on the developments that take place," he said. "Right now their orders are to stay in place."

Barzani left open the possibility that his forces might play a larger role. "Where there is a vacuum, whether political or not, our forces will act," he said. "Our forces are not only confined to the Kurdish areas."

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