IRAQI forces have begun shelling Kurdish villages and towns, forcing 40,000 people to flee their homes since last Wednesday, in apparent violation of the United Nations cease-fire agreement.
"We are counting the seconds and the hours before a major Iraqi military offensive," says Kahaddir Swari, the regional commander for the Kurdistan Democratic Party, one of two main rebel groups.
The 4 million Kurds in northern Iraq live in a security zone set up by the United States-led coalition after an abortive Kurdish uprising following the Gulf war. The security zone, which roughly corresponds to the 36th parallel, was created to encourage about 1.5 million Kurds who had fled to Turkey and Iran to return home.
Under the cease-fire, the Iraqis agreed not to target Kurdish civilians, even those in towns outside the safe haven set up by the coalition, such Aski Kalak. UN Security Council Resolution 688 calls on Iraq to "end the repression of its civilian population."
But Kurdish officials fear Iraqi forces are again on the march, after a winter during which they remained in their positions along a 120-mile front. In November, Iraqi forces also shelled and advanced on rebel positions.
"The Iraqis appear to have started this creeping advance they began in November and then put on hold during the heavy winter snows," says US Col. Richard Naab, who heads the coalition's military mission in the north. "Most of us do not expect an all-out attack."
The Iraqis have also imposed an economic blockade on the north since the end of October, refusing to let food or fuel across their lines.
The attacks and the embargo have made it difficult for Kurdish leaders to prepare for elections to select a parliament and a paramount leader. The elections, originally scheduled for tomorrow, have now been postponed until the end of the month.
THE scale of the shelling, often done by heavy long-range artillery, has stunned UN officials.
"The Iraqis have always lobbed a few mortar rounds now and then toward the Kurds," said a UN High Commissioner for Refugees official. "But since last Wednesday they have been dropping up to 300 heavy artillery shells a day in the area. It is quite a dramatic increase."
Families, piled on top of trucks and tractors, moved along the road from Aski Kalak to the nearby city of Erbil to escape the shelling. Many held feed bags full of the few possessions they had salvaged from their homes. Several cars and small pick-up trucks had tables and chairs tied to the roof. One taxi, with two flat tires, limped down the road in a pathetic effort to flee.
Groups of men dressed in turbans and balloon trousers stood on a hilltop beside the road looking toward the fields and houses they had just left. The shells, reverberating with each impact, shook the frames of the houses - with each concussion a delicate pillar of black and white smoke drifting skyward.
Naswir Saeed and her young daughter, who had fled by foot, sat morosely by the roadside. Her husband had remained in the village to find their other four children and lead them to safety.
"We were not going to flee," she said, "but then a shell destroyed half of our neighbor's house."
The houses in Aski Kalak, a village of 4,000 along the front line, 20 miles south of Erbil, stands empty. Groups of peshmerga guerrillas, or "those who defy death," armed with Kalashnikov rifles and a few rocket-propelled grenades, are the only inhabitants.
Iraqi forces have twice launched attacks, which the rebels have repulsed, to take the bridge leading into Aski Kalak over the Great Zab River. The latest attack took place at the end of February.
But the rebel commanders say the Iraqis have reinforced their troops on the hillsides overlooking the river, bringing in 97 tanks and dozens of field guns in the past week. They say the number of Iraqi soldiers has jumped from 700 to 2,000.
"We can only stand up to the Iraqis for one or two days," says Mr. Swari, the regional commander.
An estimated 60,000 Kurdish fighters face 130,000 Iraqi troops along a front that extends both above and below the security zone. The peshmerga guerrillas, armed with light weapons such as assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades, face a line of Iraqi tanks, armored personnel carriers, and heavy artillery.
Two rebels, armed with assault rifles, stood on the rooftop of the command headquarters in Aski Kalak peering toward the dim outlines of the Iraqi positions.
Shifting their feet on the cold concrete they stood in silence as night fell.
"It's cold," one said, as he walked to his sandbagged position on the edge of the roof.