SALAHUDDIN AND SULAYMANIYAH, NORTHERN IRAQ — High on a spring-green escarpment in northern Iraq, elite Kurdish forces decked out in camouflage and maroon berets are training for the day they hope they realize their dream: helping US forces topple Saddam Hussein.
To the southeast, in another part of the divided US- and British-patrolled "safe haven," a rival Kurdish force is gearing up for exactly the same anti-Hussein mission. In the bright morning sun, soldiers gather around 120-mm mortar tubes and artillery pieces, practice with a rocket launcher, and learn about the range of antiaircraft guns from veterans with stars on their epaulets.
The shockwaves of the decisive US military campaign in Afghanistan are reverberating here, and changing thinking among Kurdish chiefs and Pentagon planners alike.
Spurred on by the Afghanistan example in which a rebel group made up of ethnic minorities seized Kabul, backed by a heavy US airstrikes Kurdish leaders have a new conviction that the road to their future security leads through Baghdad.
This new, broader strategy coincides with thinking among some Pentagon planners to use Kurdish forces to fight alongside American troops in any push against Saddam Hussein.
Political leaders here say that to date they have received no US request for military help, and that only a total US commitment to oust Mr. Hussein will convince them to join up.
But if spit and polish is any measure, these forces are preparing to play a key role, if Washington resolutely decides to apply the "Afghan model" to change the regime in Iraq.
"America is the best friend of the Kurdish people, to help us get self-rule and a voice in Baghdad," says Sheikh Jafar Mustapha, a senior commander of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) forces. "If America attacks Saddam ... we can help the US achieve success in that battle."
With many Kurds within Iraqi artillery range and the regime's ability to re-occupy this entire region in a matter of days Kurdish leaders must publicly adhere to a careful non-confrontational line, and call only for "democratic change" in Iraq.
But they have battled heavy-handed at times even genocidal rule from Baghdad for decades. Target practice with sniper rifles is de riguer, even for women of this Kurdish force called peshmerga, which means "those who face death."
"We can't photocopy the Afghan cause, but we can benefit from it," says Massoud Barzani, leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), whose family has been at the forefront of Kurdish opposition politics for decades. The key lesson from Kabul, he says, is that minority groups "took full control of the situation there, and have become owners of the cause." Kurds, too, will now "focus on solving Iraq problems first."
Both Kurdish factions say they gave up aspirations for an independent Kurdish state long ago. Ethnic Kurds are a minority in Iraq, along with Arab Sunni Muslims from which the regime draws most of its support. Iraq's Shiite Muslims from the south make up a 60 percent majority, and have their own rebel movement.
But the Kurds now recognize that to guarantee self-rule in their own northern area will require powerful influence in Baghdad. That means taking on Iraq-wide issues, being a vanguard for all the Iraqi opposition, and possibly serving as Iraq's future powerbroker.
"We could be the magnet for all the opposition in Iraq," says Hoshyar Zebari, a top KDP strategist. "We are not claiming statehood, but we want a new Iraq where we can live in peace. The solution is in Baghdad. This new momentum is gaining ground, and terrifies Baghdad."
Kurdish forces fought each other in the mid-1990s, and have since signed a cease-fire that has allowed significant development in their territories. Divisions still exist, but they do agree about Baghdad.
"If I want security in [the Kurdish capital of] Arbil, I must have a powerful say in Baghdad," says Barham Salih, prime minister of PUK territory. "For the first time in our history, we have a real opportunity to help build a new Iraq."
That means fitting a version of the "Afghan model" to Iraq. Two chief components may transfer easily. The air campaign could be far more successful than the 42-day airstrikes of the 1991 Gulf War, since US capabilities have improved, Iraqi air defenses are weaker, and targets in Iraq are easier to find than in Afghanistan.
Likewise, analysts say, there is no reason that the use of US special forces' spotters can't also be used in Iraq, to call in pinpoint strikes.
Far less certain are similarities between the Afghan alliance and Iraqi opposition forces which have virtually no tanks or armored vehicles. And how to weigh the Taliban against Hussein's military and security apparatus, which make up the largest conventional force in the Mideast?
"I don't think any Iraqi groups compare to the Northern Alliance, in cohesion or battle experience, or knowing how to take on an urban target," says Geoffrey Kemp, a defense analyst and Mideast specialist at the Nixon Center in Washington.
"In Afghanistan, the opposition basically collapsed and ran away, but Baghdad is not Kabul," says Mr. Kemp. "What if Saddam makes a stand in a city? Or his troops don't throw down their weapons? And he puts tanks and artillery next to mosques and schools as he will do.
"Then, even the most sophisticated air campaign will result in horrendous TV coverage," Kemp adds. To be successful, any Iraq campaign will require the very real threat of a "huge" US ground force even if only to maximize the chances that Hussein will capitulate before it needs to be used. "[President] Bush can't afford to fail. This president will be finished if the bombing goes on, there are civilian casualties, and Saddam emerges somehow."
Kurdish leaders insist that their forces can play a role that will prevent just such an outcome. They say they are far better organized than the Northern Alliance, have a more substantial territory from which to operate, and have worked hard in the past decade to build on the remnants of the peshmerga units that launched a failed uprising in 1991. "The Taliban were stronger than Saddam they had a political base and were committed to fight," says the Kurdish opposition leader. "Saddam's power base is very narrow he is a minority within his own Sunni Arab group. People despise him, and the military is unhappy. If you fight for Saddam Hussein, you do not expect to go to heaven."
Kurdish officials claim that they can muster between 60,000 and 70,000 ready-to-fight peshmerga to confront Iraq's 400,000 troops. And Kurds of both factions want to show they have regularized their guerrillas in the past decade, and have hammered them into a willing fighting force.
But pursuing the "Afghan model" in Iraq is "not likely" to work, says Kenneth Pollack, a former National Security Council analyst now at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. "In Afghanistan, the military balance between the opposition and the Taliban was quite close, which is why limited US actions were able to tip the scales decisively," he writes in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs, in which he makes the case for an all-out US invasion of Iraq.
By the end of the Gulf War, he notes, Iraqi forces were a "shadow of their former selves. Yet weak as they were, they still had enough strength to crush the largest insurrections in Iraqi history and keep Saddam in power. Those who favor the Afghan approach against Iraq are therefore betting that a US military effort significantly smaller would somehow produce much greater results this time around."