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In the first concrete sign that the US is planning military action against Iraq despite objections from its allies, CIA officers have surveyed three key airfields in northern Iraq.
The airfields, situated in northern Iraq near the cities of Arbil, Dohuk and Sulaimaniyah in Kurdistan–the only part of Iraq not held by Saddam Hussein–could be used to receive arms and troops in the event of a conflict between the US and Iraq, an Iraqi source has told The Independent.
The US is pursuing its military strategy and, at the same time, trying to persuade Iraq to accept UN weapons inspectors back into the country, which could theoretically avert the need for a military campaign.
But America has made it clear that it is prepared to act alone, if necessary, against Saddam Hussein, even though the US Vice-President, Dick Cheney, has heard strong objections to its plans for a military campaign aimed at overthrowing President Saddam during the tour of Arab states that he is currently finishing.
The CIA visit, at the end of last month, will deeply worry Baghdad and has infuriated Iran and Syria. Both countries are concerned that an American attack on Iraq will endanger their own security.
President Saddam has shown in the last few weeks that he takes American threats to attack him very seriously by telling householders in Baghdad to stockpile food. Militia and paramilitary groups as well as the army have been put on high alert.
In addition, the regular Iraqi army has been issued with plentiful supplies of ammunition. Regular units, in contrast with the elite Republican Guard, are usually only given small supplies to ensure that they do not take part in a coup d’etat against the government.
The largest of the airfields examined by the CIA is near Arbil, the biggest Kurdish city, about 20 miles from the Iraqi front line. "It has good modern runway about 1.6 miles [2.5 km] long, built for the Iraqi airforce in the 1980s," said a member of the Iraqi opposition, who did not want his name published.
The other airfields are at Bamarnii outside Dohuk in western Kurdistan, which was used by Gulf War allies in Operation Provide Comfort, launched to help the Kurds after they had been routed by President Saddam’s army in 1991. A third airfield is in Sulaimaniyah province in eastern Kurdistan, not far from the Iranian border.
The Kurds, who have repeatedly risen against Iraqi governments in the past, have enjoyed de facto independence since the 1991 Gulf War. Protected by US and British aircraft, which maintain a no-fly zone over Kurdistan, they have tried in recent years to steer a neutral course between President Saddam and his enemies.
One scenario being pushed in Washington is for the US to try to repeat its success in Afghanistan by using its air power to support opposition forces. But the Kurdish forces number about 15,000 fighters and are no match for the 400,000 soldiers in the Iraqi army.
Late last year a high-level delegation from the US State Department visited Kurdistan. They were told by the two most important Kurdish leaders–Massoud Barzani, who heads the Kurdistan Democratic Party, and Jalal al-Talabani, the leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan–that the Kurds would not act against Saddam Hussein unless they were certain that the US was determined to overthrow him and had a plan to do so.
The CIA visit has seriously embarrassed the two leaders. "The news of the CIA visit has created a furore among the Kurds," said an Iraqi source. Mr al-Talabani has made a rushed visit to Damascus to reassure the Syrians that his party is not joining an attempt to topple President Saddam. Mr Barzani sent two senior members of the KDP politburo, Azad Barawi and Favel Mirani, to make the same point to Syria.
Patrick Cockburn is the co-author of Out of the Ashes: the Resurrection of Saddam Hussein.