iraq fires first shots

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    Iraq fires first shots

    4.45pm - by PATRICK COCKBURN
    QUSH TAPPA, northern Iraq - Two Iraqi helicopters fired machine guns and rockets into three Kurdish villages in the front line north of Kirkuk today in the first shots fired with intent to kill in the coming war in Iraq.

    "There were two of them, one an attack helicopter and the other normally used for transport, attacking the villages where people herding cattle live," said Mohammed Fateh, a local Kurdish military commander.

    Kurdish officers believe that the Iraqi helicopter attack on the three impoverished and half-ruined villages of Bashtapa, Girdalanka and Sherawa in the rolling green hills south-east of Qush Tappa, was a desperate effort by the Iraqi army to raise the morale of its men and prove that its firepower is still to be reckoned with.

    "Maybe they fear that the Iraqi soldiers want to flee, so they did this to raise their spirits," said General Nasrudin Mustafa, the Kurdish commander for this sector, who had driven up from his headquarters to inspect the front line moments after the strafing took place. Many people from the villages, in the no man's land between the Kurdish and Iraqi army forces, had already fled to the nearby city of Arbil, he said.

    The Iraqi soldiers facing the Kurdish enclave in northern Iraq appear to have recent orders to show that they still have teeth. A few days ago they mortared tracks used by smugglers near Qush Tappa to bring goods from Kirkuk, 65km to the south. But the helicopter attack was the first direct attempt by the Iraqi army to kill anybody in the lead-up to the US invasion.

    The local commanders of the Peshmerga (Kurdish soldiers), dressed in their traditional baggy pants, were also tense, because the Iraqi army had changed the unit facing them and reinforced it.

    General Mustafa, a burly man in black and white turban, whom we had accompanied to the front, calmed them down, saying: "The Iraqis have only switched units around because they are afraid their soldiers will establish links with the Peshmerga. They have also sent in some more tanks and cannon, but not many of either."

    The Iraqi army is deeply sensitive to what happens on this section of the front line, because of fears that the Peshmerga will take advantage of the US air bombardment to recover villages from which they were deported or forced to flee over the past quarter century. Asked if he plans to attack, General Mustafa smiled and said discreetly: "We are waiting for orders from our leadership."

    On the road leading to the front line, which is really a thinly-held series of strongpoints, there are many signs of the coming war. Most of the traffic is battered pickup trucks and orange and white taxis, into which large families are crammed as they drive to safety in mountain villages far from the front.

    Small boys and sheepdogs are herding flocks away from their traditional pastures, where the grass is green after heavy spring rains, to places less likely to be caught up in the fighting.

    In the village of Khalaq Yassin Agha on another part of the front, overlooked by a range of hills held by the Iraqi army, a young man called Nawzad Aziz said: "All the people here have gone. But every family has left one man behind to look after their house."

    On the crest of the hill, Iraqi soldiers had just positioned a heavy machine gun and dug some trenches, but local leaders were surprisingly sanguine. Chato Ramazan, whose headquarters is an old Iraqi army fort of medieval appearance, agreed that most of the people in the village were afraid.

    "But I don't think the army here will fight," he said. "I think that for the first few hours of the war they might fire at us, but then they will give up." For the moment, however, the Iraqi government is keeping a tight grip.

    As war gets closer, a mass exodus is under way from Arbil, the largest Kurdish city, with a population of 900,000. "All my relatives and friends have left because they are frightened of an attack by poison gas," nervously declared Assur, a money changer. "I am going soon myself."

    Many of the shops are shut, and shopkeepers are removing valuable stock like carpets to their homes. Others who are staying have bought large quantities of plastic sheeting to put around doors and windows to keep out the gas. They are also storing drinking water at home, in case it is contaminated by gas.

    One former Peshmerga said he was hurrying to buy a gun in the small local gun market before that closed as well.
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