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Last Updated:  Wednesday, 12 March, 2003, 15:02 GMT
On the front with Iraqi deserters
The BBC's John Simpson
By John Simpson
BBC world affairs editor in Irbil, northern Iraq

The soldiers and politicians in Iraqi Kurdistan, which has been free from Saddam Hussein's control since the last Gulf War, believe that morale among Saddam's men on the other side of the front line is extremely low.

A peshmerga soldier in northern Iraq
The front line is quiet for now
According to Iraqi deserters, almost everyone from generals to private soldiers is thinking about his own future and how best to escape from Saddam's control.

Of course, deserters usually tell their hosts what they think they want to hear. But this kind of story proved to be precisely true back in 1991, when the Iraqi army surrendered in its tens of thousands directly as the coalition forces advanced.

Now the Iraqi army is much weaker, and they know this war is likely to end with Saddam Hussein's overthrow.

For the soldiers defending Iraq, the case for surrendering is even stronger than it was 12 years ago.

We spoke to two recent deserters: an air force pilot and an officer in the Iraqi special forces who had fought in Saddam Hussein's wars for 15 years or more - a tough and impressive man, wounded more than once in his country's defence.

I asked if it were true that Iraqi death squads would be stationed behind the frontline troops, to shoot them if they tried to escape.

The special forces officer confirmed this, but said it had also happened during the Iran-Iraq War from 1980 to 1988 and during the last Gulf War.

In 1991 the death squads surrendered along with everyone else.

Stand-off

For now, the front line between the Kurdish forces and Saddam Hussein's men near Irbil is entirely quiet - no firing, just a good deal of wary manoeuvring.

A KDP gunman in northern Iraq
It is not known what combat role may be taken by Iraqi Kurds
Sometimes the Iraqis move back to more defensible lines, sometimes they move forward to consolidate one of the ruined villages in no-man's-land.

It is obviously not in Saddam Hussein's interests to stage any attacks at present, with the international diplomatic situation so finely balanced.

For the moment then, there is a stand-off along the front line, and military discipline is being fully maintained on the Iraqi side.

As a result, the number of deserters coming across is still pretty small.

Kurdish question

Directly the bombs start falling and the American special forces attack the huge oilfields at Kirkuk, which are still under Saddam Hussein's control, the Kurds confidently expect that the Iraqi forces opposite them will collapse very quickly.

Whether some of the Kurdish forces will head off towards Kirkuk, which is a Kurdish city, is not clear. The Kurdistan Government says it will abide by the wishes of the Americans and stay put.

Turkey represents a major problem for the Kurds, since it claims the right to send its troops into Iraqi Kurdistan if there should be serious unrest here.

The Kurds say they will resist.

In the rest of Iraq the American attack may well succeed very quickly, and order will probably be restored quite soon.

That seems less certain in this volatile region though.

Kurdistan can expect more political chaos before its future is finally settled.


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