Kurdish fighters dig in to battle Iraqi troops

More than a quarter century ago, when Ali Keykhusraw was a year old, he survived the explosion of a bomb dropped by an Iraqi jet. He grew up to become a Kurdish fighter, a pesh merga, "one who faces death." His stubbly chin and neck still bear the scars of shrapnel.

Yesterday Mr. Keykhusraw and other men with guns paced the muddy streets of Chamchamal and waited for war. He showed no fear. The start of the US attack against the regime of President Saddam Hussein "is the time of our salvation," he explains. "We have been waiting a long time."

This town is next to the imaginary line that separates Mr. Hussein's Iraq from the parts of the country run by two Kurdish political parties.

The rounded hilltops just to the southwest of Chamchamal - across the line - are studded with Iraqi emplacements. In recent days, the town's civilians have fled. Its streets are empty. Its shops, but for a few, are shuttered.

Shortly after daybreak, Kurdish fighters begin drifting in from outlying villages, turbans wrapped around their heads, Kalashnikovs in their hands. They have come to defend their town, to be ready, to wait for orders.

Buoyed by the initial US attack, the fighters are keyed up. But there is no action. A little before lunchtime, two explosions reverberate along the hills. One is probably a mine. The other is certainly a mortar lobbed from the Iraqi side.

Bestoon Aziz, who teaches in an elementary school and serves as a pesh merga reservist, fiddles with his black plastic worry beads as he recounts his morning. He learned of the US strike a few minutes after 6 a.m. local time. He took his pistol, his Kalashnikov, a package of crackers, and a flashlight and caught a ride to the Chamchamal office of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), the party that administers the eastern part of northern Iraq.

He left without waking his wife and three children. He seems edgy and elated at the same time. "I think the regime will fall and there will be a democratic government," he says.

Mr. Aziz and other pesh merga do not say whether they will move toward Kirkuk, a major city of northern Iraq that lies 27 miles down the road from Chamchamal. US troops are expected to take the city - in part to defend Kirkuk's vast oil fields from Iraqi sabotage - and have told the Kurdish parties to keep their militias out.

No one expects the pesh merga to play a major role in the coming conflict. Their numbers are tiny relative to the Iraqi and US troops deployed in the region, but the Kurds have motives for entering the field of battle.

The Iraqi government has forced tens of thousands of ethnic Kurds and Turkmens out of Kirkuk since the 1970s in order to "Arabize" the city; these internal refugees are determined to return and the pesh merga may wish to protect them. Because the Kurds see Kirkuk as their capital, both Kurdish parties will have an interest in sending their supporters to the city quickly.

But the militiamen in Chamchamal know the party line. "We are guerrillas of the PUK," says Haider Omar, a big man in a green jacket. Standing on the sidewalk in front the Saheen Kebab House, he scrapes the mud off of his white sneakers by rubbing them against the curb. "We are waiting for orders from our headquarters," he says. Mr. Omar is also waiting for lunch.

The kebab house is doing a steady business, since it seems to be the only restaurant open in Chamchamal. Just off the sidewalk, a portly cook in a red overshirt cuts hunks of meat from a calf's leg hanging from a steel hook. Another cook skewers cubes of beef and grills them over a fire.

There are three tables and a few decrepit chairs. Two pictures of waterfalls decorate the small room, which is open to the sidewalk. The men at the tables don't say very much. They tear off pieces of bread in which to wrap and eat the pieces of meat.

"We are waiting for orders," says Najmuddin Mohammed, a colleague of Keykhusrow. The two sit with a third fighter, also from their village outside Chamchamal.

Keykhusrow and his friends sit patiently until their food arrives, their Kalashnikovs resting across their laps.

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