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Kurdish guns turn south

An assault on an Islamic militant enclave near Iran has freed Kurdish fighters to fight Hussein's regime.

The red flame crossed the northern Iraqi sky just as Abbas Sharif was about to perform his evening prayers.

A second later something thundered into a hillside a half-mile away. The shock wave blew open the green metal door of Mr. Abbas's mud-walled house. Dust sifted down from the sod roof.

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In Hargena, a neighboring mountain village, windowpanes rattled loose from their caulk. "The women and children screamed," says cooking-gas vendor Atta Qadir. The explosions - the second slightly less deafening than the first - were the loudest things he has ever heard.

When the Kurdish villagers investigated the next morning, they found one crater 25 feet in diameter and another a third that size. Missile parts - bent exhaust nozzles, twisted pieces of metal the size of plow blades, charred swatches of rubberized wire mesh - lay strewn across a chickpea field below the impact site.

The missile came to earth last Wednesday, but its arrival has yet to be reported in the Kurdish media, perhaps because the Kurdish authorities want to minimize public anxiety. Unlike Kuwait, the northern Iraqi countryside has no air-raid warning system nor any major air-defense systems.

The origin of the missile could not be determined from a review of two dozen parts found at the site. The villagers are certain that it was Iraqi, citing the direction of its flight and recent statements by Iraqi officials referring to missile attacks against cities and airstrips in the Kurdish-controlled north.

There is no doubt that the missile attack is another sign that the Kurds are increasingly at war.

US forces have helped the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), which administers the eastern portion of northern Iraq, beat back an extremist Islamist organization that has fought a civil war from an enclave next to the Iranian border.

Ending this miniwar will allow the PUK to focus attention on the main event in the rest of Iraq.

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Fresh strife, fresh dangers

Kurdish leaders in the western half of northern Iraq are promising that their fighters will go to war alongside US troops in areas controlled by President Saddam Hussein. For some Kurds, the opportunity to battle his regime is long overdue.

For others, the strife presents new dangers, as the missile strike suggests. And for still other Kurds, the crumbling of the regime is bringing to the surface painful memories of the sufferings Mr. Hussein has caused them.

"We can say that the battle against so-called Ansar al-Islam is finished militarily," says PUK leader Jalal Talabani, referring to the Islamist group that has attacked and harassed his troops since it was formed 18 months ago. Predecessor groups have fought the mainstream Kurdish parties for years.

Picking up the pieces

Yesterday Mr. Talabani and other PUK leaders led a heavily armed convoy of white SUVs through areas once controlled by Ansar. In Biyara, a former Ansar stronghold, Khoraman Qadir and her husband, Feiroz Salah, salvaged packages of cheese puffs, tubes of toothpaste, and other items from the ruins of their grocery store.

A few days ago, during intensive US air attacks against the Ansar enclave, a bomb or a missile destroyed part of a mosque and a row of shops that included the couple's store. Mr. Salah isn't too put out. "As long as they keep us away from these groups," he says, referring to the Americans and the Islamists, respectively, "I won't be angry."

Ms. Qadir says she is happy to see the end of Ansar. "I had to wear gloves and a veil" whenever she left her house, she says. "That wasn't a life."

She says that if she had appeared in public in what she wore yesterday, a baggy ankle-length dress and a headscarf, Ansar officials would have fined her $75 - an onerous sum in northern Iraq.

The battle against Ansar and a related, more moderate Islamist group was notable for the close support the US provided the Kurdish militiamen. During a ground assault that began early Friday morning, US Special Forces called in airstrikes from forward positions.

Kurdish officials claimed to have killed more than 120 Ansar fighters - out of an estimated strength of 700 - and said they had lost 22 militiamen. There were no reported US casualties. Most of the survivors are thought to have fled to Iran, raising the prospect that they may regroup in the region or move on to some other locale, in the way that Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters are thought to have done after the battle at Tora Bora.

Yesterday uniformed US soldiers, some wearing black-and-white Kurdish scarves around their necks, were seen taking snapshots of one another along the road that snakes through mountains formerly under Ansar's control.

A Kurdish-US team

Officials in the western portion of the Kurdish zone, which is run by the Kurdistan Democratic Party, are confident that their militiamen and US troops together will conquer Hussein-controlled northern Iraq.

Mohammed Ihsan, a KDP cabinet minister, foresees "full cooperation" between the two forces, which he defines as the US "using Kurdish fighters to attack the major cities" of Kirkuk and Mosul.

Mr. Ihsan says the arrangement will go beyond the Northern Alliance structure the US used in Afghanistan, where it paid or persuaded Afghan forces opposed to the Taliban to undertake most of the ground fighting. "Our forces are more trained, more professional [than the Afghans], and we know how to fight Iraqis," he argues.

He says that Kurdish militiamen, known as pesh merga or "those who face death," are already working in tandem with US Special Forces operating inside Hussein-controlled northern Iraq to identify targets for airstrikes.

In recent days more than 1,000 soldiers of the US 173rd Airborne Brigade have landed in the Kurdish zone and Ihsan says the number of US ground troops will reach 10,000; the Army's 10th Mountain Division plans to send more than a thousand soldiers soon, a senior Defense official told the The Washington Post. Ihsan adds that his party and the PUK can each field 25,000 pesh merga. "Before the end of the week you are going to see [Americans and Kurds working] shoulder to shoulder to fight the Iraqi terror," he asserts.

A regime on the run

In some parts of northern Iraq, the regime is in retreat. Since last Thursday, Iraqi soldiers have faded back from their positions along the line that demarcates the end of Hussein's control and the beginning of the independent Kurdish administration.

On Friday and Saturday, pesh merga and civilians surged up the ridgeline above Chamchamal, a Kurdish town along the demarcation line.

Until late Thursday Iraqi soldiers had occupied the heights; now their defensive positions and military camps were empty.

Kurdish looters picked the installations clean of anything salable or useful: fluorescent light tubes, sheets of corrugated metal, even a tree.

At the military camp at Kara Hanjir, which sits on the heights about 12 miles from Kirkuk, mostly words remained: slogans or exhortations painted onto the sides of barracks and military buildings. "Hope for victory or martyrdom" was one.

Reminders of chemical warfare

"Chemical Unit 8" - a reminder of Hussein's willingness to use banned weapons - was little more than a collection of cement rooms set around a courtyard. Some of the windows were filled in with cinder blocks laced with barbed wire.

Documents and materials, including gas masks, suggested that the unit trained soldiers to defend themselves against chemical attack. No indication of offensive capability remained.

Standing on a nearby hilltop, looking at Kirkuk in distance, a Kurdish politician named Bekas Qadir chooses not to speak of the retreating Iraqis when asked for his thoughts. Like a Palestinian surveying modern Israel, the vista brings home to him the Kurds who have been evicted from their villages on the heights which are oddly denuded of civilian habitation, and from the city below.

"I think of the many tens of thousands of people who were displaced from their places and who want to go home," he says.