DAMASCUS, SYRIA, JAN. 23 -- Iraqi Kurdish leaders said today that 2,000 to 3,000 guerrillas have returned to northern Iraq and are preparing to strike against President Saddam Hussein's government.
But the rebel leaders said that orders to fight would only be issued if Saddam's grip on power appears to have weakened enough to prevent possible retaliation with chemical weapons.
More than 1 million Kurds live in northeastern Iraq, where rebel groups have repeatedly engaged in conflicts with the Baghdad government in recent decades. Kurdish leaders have expressed concern, however, because of Iraq's alleged use of poison gas in Kurdish regions, including an attack against the northeastern village of Halabja in March 1988 in which an estimated 4,000 people were killed.
Izzat Ibrahim, deputy chairman of Iraq's ruling Revolutionary Command Council, is reported recently to have warned Kurds in the city of Sulaymaniyah, "If you have forgotten Halabja, I would like to remind you that we are ready to repeat the operation."
Kurdish rebels have complained about what they describe as a lack of coordination with the U.S.-led coalition fighting Iraq, and they have contended that Western leaders failed to respond to repeated requests that Kurdish human and civil rights be included on the agenda of any future Middle East peace conference.
Rebel leaders say they are convinced that the failure by Western nations to support Kurdish demands was the price Turkey exacted from the United States in exchange for the Ankara government's willingness to cut Iraq's oil pipeline across Turkish territory and, more recently, for Turkey's agreement to allow American warplanes to use Turkish bases to bomb northern Iraqi targets.
Turkey, which includes close to 4 million Kurdish inhabitants, long has denied Kurds a separate cultural identity and until recently described them as "mountain Turks."
For more than six years, the Ankara government has been fighting Kurdish Marxists in a conflict said to have claimed more than 2,600 lives. Some Turkish leaders have expressed fears that an independent Kurdish state in northern Iraq -- or even a move toward Kurdish autonomy, such as those Baghdad has at times promised -- would create a precedent for Turkish Kurds. Beyond Iraq and Turkey, Kurds long have inhabited a wide arc spanning Iran, the Soviet Union and Syria.
Last week, the Turkish parliament gave President Turgut Ozal extensive war powers, authorizing use of the armed forces outside Turkey's border after the war with Iraq. Such powers might be invoked, officials said, if Iraqi Kurds sought to set up their own state.
Mahmoud Othman, leader of the Kurdistan Socialist Party, said in an interview, "We are not asking for self-determination, much less independence, but for human rights and civil rights within Iraq, Iran and Turkey."
"We are realistic and know we would create a lot of hostility if we ask for a state which would require changing the borders of five countries," he added. "Iraq changed its borders with Kuwait and look what happened."
Jalal Talabani, spokesman of the Iraqi Kurdistan Front, a coalition of seven parties, said in a separate interview that despite passive support from Iran and Syria, Iraqi Kurds were "all alone" -- without active outside help for the first time in three decades of conflict with Baghdad. At various times, Kurdish leaders and other officials say, aid has been provided by nations including the United States, Israel and Iran.
Othman said the guerrillas have been ordered "to infiltrate, be ready to fight, to gain support from Kurdish auxiliaries in the Iraqi army so that we can control and defend Kurdish areas and be ready for any eventuality."
Kurdish rebels began infiltrating northern Iraq from bases in Iran last August, when Iraq shifted troops from Kurdish areas to bolster its invasion force in Kuwait, Othman said. The infiltration campaign has accelerated this month, he added, and guerrillas are concentrated around major Kurdish centers, ranging from Sulaymaniyah and Irbil in the northeast to Dahuk in the northwest.
Talabani -- who also heads the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan party, which along with the Kurdish Democratic Party accounts for most of the guerrillas -- said that morale among Kurdish auxiliaries in the Iraqi army was so low that "about half" of the 30,000 men dispatched near the Turkish border had deserted with their arms.
Talabani said, however, that rebel leaders were not encouraging desertions for the time being because of food shortages in Kurdistan, a problem complicated by what he described as the arrival of 100,000 Kurds who had fled the allied bombardment of Baghdad and other urban centers. During and after the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war, in which Iraqi Kurds maintained an alliance with the Tehran government, Iraq is accused of having razed more than 4,000 Kurdish villages and having forced the population into concentration camps around Kurdish cities and in the southern desert.
Talabani said he recognized that "ours is a very difficult hand to play in this darkness which is the last part of the night," but he expressed optimism that any successor government to Saddam's would be so weak that it would have to come to terms with Kurdish demands for autonomy.
Nevertheless, both Talabani and Othman expressed concern that the allies might strike a deal with Saddam. "If Saddam survives," Othman said, "even if he is weak, he will be strong enough to crush the Kurds."