THE Iraqi Kurds' biggest-ever triumph turned with stunning speed into their biggest-ever disaster. Their attempt to topple Iraqi President Saddam Hussein may have failed. But despite the ensuing disaster, their revolt was not crushed. Peshmerga guerrillas remain in control of large areas of northern Iraq and with Saddam weakened and the Western allies intervening to protect them in the north, their leaders are optimistic that they can salvage a better deal with Baghdad than the Kurds have had before.
But the question remains: What went wrong?
From the outset, the peshmerga guerrilla leaders were overwhelmed by events whose pace and magnitude they were wholly unprepared to cope with.
The scale of the Kurdish uprising took them aback. For the first time ever, virtually the whole of the Kurdish countryside fell into their hands, as well as Kurdish cities of the north - Kirkuk, Arbil, Suleimaniya, Dohuk, and Zakho - with a combined population of more than 3 million.
Moving in from bases mainly along the Iranian border, the 20,000 lightly armed guerrillas inherited a situation way beyond their control.
``We did not actually want to take the cities, because of all the problems involved,'' says Massoud Barzani, head of the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP), in one of many interviews with Kurdish leaders, guerrillas, refugees, and others during five weeks of travel through Kurdistan.
Much of the takeover had been spontaneous and undirected. In many cases, towns and cities fell with little fighting, though the battle for the oil city of Kirkuk was fierce. The Iraqi Army's First and Fifth corps, supposed to be holding the north, simply laid down their arms.
Many defecting soldiers, unable to return to their homes in the south or Baghdad, later told this reporter that the two corps had been sentenced to death by a secret internal Army order for failing to resist the uprising. ``But we refused to fight our Kurdish brothers,'' says a Muslim soldier from Baghdad, enlisting at a peshmerga center in Khalifan.
The revolt's ranks were suddenly swollen not only by thousands of Kurdish soldiers deserting from the Iraqi Army, but also by the wholesale defection of the tribally based, government-sponsored Kurdish militia, the ``national defense brigades,'' numbering up to 200,000 guns.
Their defection ended Saddam's divide-and-rule policy and for the first time unified virtually the whole of Kurdish society against Baghdad.
But it also meant that the peshmerga leadership faced a monumental task if it was to organize such an inundation of men - and the large quantities of weapons that it inherited from the Army's collapse. The leaders were also preoccupied with trying to solve the problems of emergency administration in the newly ``liberated'' cities.
Both efforts were made no easier by the fact that communications were totally disrupted, food supplies were scant, and supplies of gasoline and other fuels short. The situation could have been very different had Turkey or Iran opened their borders to the free flow of supplies, but neither did.
The guerrilla leaders were still celebrating their success when Saddam struck back with a speed and ferocity that caught them by surprise. A week after they took Kirkuk, it was back in government hands. Within another week, all the other major cities had fallen to the Army, sending the vast flood of Kurdish refugees fleeing toward the mountainous borders, where many died.
`TIME was our big enemy: We just didn't have long enough to organize and face Saddam's attack,'' says Jalal Talabani, leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). ``Also, we did not realize that the Republican Guards were still in such good shape.''
The peshmerga had little experience in street fighting, and put up little struggle to defend the cities. ``How could we fight tanks, artillery, and helicopter gunships with just Kalashnikovs and [rocket-propelled grenades]?'' Mr. Talabani asks.
The guerrillas were thrown into disarray by the vast floods of refugees streaming into the rebel-held mountains, where Saddam's policies of depopulating the countryside by destroying thousands of towns and villages meant there was little shelter or food.
``All of a sudden, we found ourselves trying to be a government, an army, a police force, a judiciary, and a relief organization facing a major catastrophe,'' says Mr. Barzani. ``We just didn't have the experience or the capability. We couldn't cope.''
Not only that, but many of the peshmergas found themselves in the stampede. Thousands of them disappeared from the battlefronts, looking for their lost families or settling them in a safe place before returning to fight. ``We were left with just 15 men to defend the front in the mountains north of Suleimaniya,'' Talabani says. ``But now more are coming back every day, and we have 3,000 on that front alone.''
Western intervention - in the form of United States warnings to Saddam to halt military operations against them, and then in the shape of the ``safe havens'' - came as the Kurds were at their most vulnerable. Although they are glad it came, they believe it could have come a lot earlier.
Most peshmerga officials admit that more could have been done to organize defenses against Saddam. Smaller factions outside the ``Kurdistan front,'' which groups the KDP, the PUK, and others, are even more critical.
``The front bears a big responsibility for turning what was a popular uprising into an armed resistance, but then failing to organize it properly,'' says Hikmat Kerim, an official of the Flag of Revolution organization.
With their forces building up, and the ``bottom line'' of the safe havens behind them, the peshmerga feel they can deal with Saddam from a position of strength. ``A strong peshmerga presence is a basic guarantee for any agreement we may reach with Baghdad,'' says Talabani.