The Iranian shell whistles overhead and explodes with a shattering roar into the rugged mountainside. Three Iraqi jeeps lurch nervously down the potholed track, seeking to reach the shelter of a nearby Kurdish village before the Iranians can zero in with their artillery from across the valley.
But the Iranians are firing with disconcerting accuracy. In rapid succession , three 155-millimeter shells strike the roads at the rear of the vehicle, enveloping the last one in a white cloud of smoke and falling earth. Miraculously, it escapes damage.
The boisterous Iraqi major riding in the first jeep glances back and then roars with laughter. "After all," he bellows, "it's only war!"
Although some of the Iraqi officers in this part of occupied Iran treat the over- four-months-old war somewhat like a splendid game of croquet, the conflict in the northeast appears to be rapidly developing into a serious affair.
With the Iranian and Iraqi forces deeply entrenched in their mountain positions overlooking a vast no man's land of deep and narrow valleys, the two sides lob shells at each other with equal abandon. Helplessly trapped in between their murderous fire lies the village of Nowsud, only recently a peaceful farming community nestled among vineyards and walnut groves in these often-snowcapped highlands in the Iranian province of Kurdistan.
A picturesque cluttering of terraced stone and mud houses constructed on top of each other somewhat like the Hopi Indian settlements in North America, Nowsud stands almost deserted ever since Iraqi soldiers captured it on Jan. 15 together with the neighboring village of Shushmi.
Hastily abandoned by the Iranians, the shops and homes of Nowsud stand barricaded or padlocked. Shattered glass, stones, and wood litter the streets from the shelling. Filled sugar bowls still stand on debris-covered tables in the main cafe. Several destroyed vechicles lie in the streets.
The women and children of Nowsud have been evacuated to Shushmi, protectively situated behind a nearby ridge. Only a handful of armed anti-Khomeini Kurdish tribesmen have stayed behind to fight alongside the Iraqis against the Iranians.
Somewhat uncertainly, they stand in the village square as shells resound in the countryside around them. Occasionally everyone runs for cover as a shell slams into the village itself.
Iraqi relations with the Iranian Kurds is one of uneasy tolerance. Inside Iraq, the Baghdad regime has granted its own Kurdish population limited autonomy. Although the Iraqis adamantly maintain that all differences have long since been resolved, scattered rebel attacks continue against government and military personnel in Iraq.
Roads, for example, are considered too dangerous to travel after dark, and small- arms fire can often be heard at night in the streets of Sulaymaniyah, cultural capital of Iraqi Kurdistan.
Although the Iraqis support the resistance of Iranian Kurds, they are unable to ignore the fact that the ultimate goal of the Kurds is a united Kurdistan that would include Iraqi Kurds as well.
Iraq's alliance with these Iranian Kurds is one of mutual necessity. But Iraqi officers barely disguise their feelings that it also is only a temporary alliance. "We must keep eyes at the back of our heads," observed one Iraqi officer as he patrolled Nowsud.
Compared to the reportedly still heavy fighting that has raged in southern battle zones around Abadan, Susangerd, and the Shatt al Arab waterway since the Sept. 23 Iraqi offensive, it is only in recent weeks that the north has begun to experience an upsurge in attacks by both sides.
During a three-day trip to the Kurdistan front organized by the Iraqi high command, the first for journalists since the beginning of the war, military spokesmen explained that during the first weeks of the conflict the region had witnessed considerable fighting, including several abortive Iranian counteroffensives. This was followed by a relatively calm period.
Last December however, the Iraqis began pushing forward in the strategic Penjwin-Dezh Shahpur area straddling the frontier. The Iraqis also secured a vital observation stronghold referred to as "Point 1845" dominating the Dezh Shahpur valley road that links the two countries.
In a bid to regain control of the post, the Iranians apparently launched a 1, 000-man assault on Dec. 22 supported by heavy artillery and air strikes. According to the Iraqis, they were beaten back.
Since then, maintains the high command, there has been persistent Iranian military activity. In early January, the Iranians began concentrating their attacks on the Halabja frontier zone south of Dezh Shahpur. It appears that the Iranians are not only trying to recapture lost territory but also to establish a foothold in Iraq as a bargaining chip for eventual peace negotiations. As far as can be determined, the Iranians have failed to occupy any Iraqi soil so far.
The capture of Nowsud and Shushmi on Jan. 15 was part of an Iraqi operation to preempt an Iranian offensive in the area. "If we had allowed the Iranians to retain control of the villages, they would have caused us a great deal of damage ," said the spokesman.
But on Jan. 23, the Iranians retaliated by bombarding Iraqi lines entrenched around Nowsud and then surrounded a major Iraqi position. According to Col. Abdel Hadi Saleh, the officer in charge, an estimated 500 Iranians were involved in the assault. The colonel claimed that his 100- man force had forced the Iranians to retreat after a nine-hour battle of close combat.
"We allowed them to move up to within 25 meters and then opened fire," he said. Iraqis claim to have killed 73 Iranians with negligible casualties of their own.
Military details issued by the Iraqi high command are practically impossible to confirm independently. Journalists covering the Gulf war may only travel to the front under strict government surveillance and may only visit officially designated areas, usually several days after an alleged action has occurred.
On this particular trip to Kurdistan, this correspondent saw no evidence of the high Iranian casualty figures claimed by the Iraqis. For propaganda purposes, both Baghdad and Tehran radios rely heavily on claims of enormous casualties suffered by their enemies.