Sanandaj, Iran — The Kurds call it "Noor Afghan," the slow-falling, bone-white flare dropped by the Iranian Phantom F-4 jets before the air raids begin. The flare cought our jeep climbing on a narrow dirt road that threaded up the mountains outside Baneh, where a few days before, the rebels had stormed an Army garrison and pinned the soldiers into a corner with mortars and machine-gun fire.
But the garrison troops were far from helpless. Even though we were riding with no headlights, they knew we were there. Red tracers hummed angrily above the roof of the jeep. Their falling mortar shells had cratered the road.
That was when they were firing in the dark. Now the sky exploded stark white.
"Jump out quick!" yelled the driver. It wasn't easy. Seven of us were crammed inside the jeep, four newsmen and three rebels, one badly injured. He was the first rebel to penetrate the Army garrison during the big assault, and when his Soviet-type Kalashnikov weapon jammed, the soldiers had blasted him with a grenade.
Somehow, we all scrambled into a nearby ravine.
The jeep was an easy target for both the Phantoms and the garrison's mortars, but we were lucky. Instead of attacking us, the two Phantoms rocketed the village four times.
Traveling 100 miles that night, we reached the small town of Bukan and deposited the wounded Kurd there at a school converted into a hospital. Since clashes broke out between rebellious Kurdish separatists and Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's regime a month ago, Bukan has been flooded with 40,000 refugees from Baneh, Saqqez, and several other mountain hamlets where fighting still continues.
No reliable casualty figures exist, but some observers say more Iranians, both Kurds and government forces, have died in the latest fighting than at any time during the revolution against the former Shah 17 months ago.
Since the Pahlavi dynasty's overthrow, Iranian Kurds along with many other ethnic minorities -- Arabs, Turkomans, and Baluchis -- have pressed the new regime for greater rights, but with little success.
Last summer, when the government first refused Kurdish demands for autonomy, the combined forces of all six Kurdish factions began attacking Army and revolutionary guard outposts throughout the region. At Ayatollah Khomeini's command, the Army struck back with heavy artillery and finally, when the fighting subsided, with mass executions.
A flimsy cease-fire negotiated last autumn collapsed in late April when the Army tried to March reinforcements into the towns of Saqqez and Sanandaj.
President Abolhassan Bani-Sadr, in an attempt to justify the heavy bombardments in the Kurdish region, accused the Kurds of being "counterrevolutionaries" plotting with the United States, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, and the Shah's former top-ranking military officers. For good measure, the Tehran newspapers also branded the Kurdish autonomists as "godless Marxists and Zionists."
To verify these charges, this reporter spent five days in the Kurdish region of northwestern Iran, monitoring several routes into Iraq, plus interviewing countless refugees from the battle zones and rebel officers from each of the loosely knit factions fighting the government.
Evidence overwhelmingly indicates that neither the United States Central Intelligence Agency, Iraq, nor any other foreign power arms and finances the Kurds. However, scores of Iranians disillusioned with Ayatollah Khomeini have straggled into the mountains to help the Kurds.
In Baneh, for example, a commander of the Marxist-Leninist fedayeen (guerrilla) organization admitted that he was an Iranian turk from nearby eastern Azerbaijan province.
The guerrilla officer, who declined to identify himself, received military training the Lebanon at the camps of extremist Palestinians to fight against the Shah's regime. After the revolution, however, the fedayeen guerrillas went underground to escape the purges of Communists and other opponents to clerical rule.
His organization intends to use sabotage and terrorist tactics in the Kurdish region, Baluchistan, and the oil-rich region of Khuzestan, all places with troublesome minorities, to sweep out the turbaned mullahs (Muslim teachers).
But in the Kurdish region, the fedayeen are the exception, not the rule. The other guerrilla groups -- the Kurdish Democratic Party, the Komeleh, the Kurdish Mujahideen, and the supporters of Sheikh Ezzedine Hosseini and his brother Sheikh Jalal -- claim to be pressing only for local autonomy.
Sheikh Ezzedine Hosseini, the religious leader of Iran's 3.5 million Kurds, said that contrary to the government's charges, the political parties have no intention of forming a penniless, breakaway country together with the millions of Kurds in Iraq, Syria, Turkey, and the Soviet Union.
"We want to remain in Iran; there's no question about that," said the Sunni Muslim clergyman, whose high turban and stiff, long beard make him look like a figure on a Babylonian bas-relief. "Either President Bani-Sadr agrees to our autonomy demands or we fight. And if that's the case, the Kurds will fight until there is not one scrap of bread left."
The Tehran government in the Kurdish political parties disagree, first of all , on the geographical boundaries of the Kurdish region. The Kurds say it includes the western portion of Azerbaijan, the provinces of Kordestan, Khermanshahr, and the northern tip of Ilam. But Mr. Bani-Sadr has only agreed to a limited autonony for small-sized Kordestan province.
The Kurds also want local councils to run provincial affairs, the release of political prisoners rounded up after fighting last summer, and the withdrawal of the revolutionary guard. The latter are fanatical and well-paid Islamic militants recruited from the Tehran slums.
"The Iranian Army can stay, but the revolutionary guards must go," said the Sheikh. "They've committed worse atrocities than anything seen in Vietnam." A Kurd who had studied engineering in San Jose, Calif., claimed the revolutionary guards killed his younger brother during a house-to-house search in Sanandaj.
The engineering student said so many Kurds were killed in the month-long government siege of Sanandaj that bodies were often hastily buried in the courtyards of private houses.
Sheikh Ezzedine Hosseini's relations with Ayatollah Khomeini are less than cordial. The Iranian revolutionary leader, who belongs to the rival Shiite Muslim sect, has issued a death warrant on the Sunni sheikh. Yet the failure of Tehran officials to gauge the support for the Kurdish sheikh may prove to be a mistake comparable to the former Shah's dismissal of the religious opposition to his throne.
In the Kurdish capital of Mahabad and in the many mountain villages of the region, spray-on portraits of Ayatollah Khomeini, placed on walls by zealous revolutionary guards, have been scratched out. At Saqqez, a village nearly 25 percent destroyed by heavy artillery shelling, a reporter stopped outside a bombed-out mosque.
A man in a badly tied turban and the traditional baggy trousers climbed out of the rubble and thrust a heap of ashes into the newsman's hands. "What's this?" he asked the interpreter.
"Pages from the Koran," replied his interpreter. They tried to walk away. The old man grasped the reporter by the arm, hard. "Tell them," he said, shaking with rage, "this is the Islam of Imam Khomeini."
Although not all Kurds understand autonomy, the latest military offensive has left a smoldering resentment of Ayatollah Khomeini's regime in the region. Yet political experts argue that if President Bani-Sadr allowed an autonomous Kurdish state it might incite similar revolts among Iran's Baluchis, Arabs, and Turkomans.
However, according to Sheikh Ezzedine Hosseini, extremist clergymen on the ruling Revolutionary Council in Tehran are pushing President Bani-Sadr in to a no-win confrontation with the Kurds in order to topple his flimsy government.
The Kurds could drag out a guerrilla war for many months but, according to some military officials, never win. During the Shah's regime, Kurdish guerrillas received training and support from Moscow's satellite South Yemen and from the radical Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, both of which now are courting Iran's revolutionary government.
Even Iran's quarrelsome neighbor, Iraq, hesitates to arm the Iranian Kurds -- for an autonomous Kurdish state across the border might rekindle a similar rebellion among Iraq's own warlike Kurds, who total one-third of the country's population.
Nor would clandestine aid arrive from Western governments, as Tehran officials charge. One political observer explained, "The US, Britain, and the others only have one preoccupation, and that's to free the hostages."
Faced with choosing between the fundamentalist clergy and Mr. Bani-Sadr, the West prefers dealing with the Sorbonne-educated President. In diplomatic circles, Mr. Bani-Sadr is viewed as sufficiently Westernized to back a negotiated settlement to the hostage crisis.
"So in the meantime," added the political observer, "the US and Europe are willing to overlook Bani-Sadr's actions in Kurdistan."
Without outside aid against one of the still most formidable armies in the Middle East, the Kurdish rebellion will be crushed. But both the Kurds and President Bani-Sadr realize that the government itself can win only an all-out civil war.
Yet such an unpopular move might speed Mr. Bani-Sadr's own downfall.