On the worst day of his life, Qadir Ismail Ali said, he found so many corpses on the ground at Gobtappa that he walked right past those of his wife, Hajir, who was 50, and their eldest daughter, Amina, 18. He failed to recognize his girls, Aska, 12, Kocha, 10, and all three boys, Sadir, 11, Dara, 6, and Sarbast, 5. And he overlooked Hawzhen, a girl of 18 months, huddled with the others in a neighbor's yard.
According to historians and human rights advocates, the Iraqi air force had dropped 13 gas-laden containers on Ali's home village just after 6 p.m. that day -- May 30, 1988. The attack was part of Operation Anfal, mounted to punish Kurdish militiamen and their families for rising up in alliance with the Iranian enemy of the time. Kurds say as many as 180,000 people in 60 villages were killed in the operation.
That number is disputed, but one thing is certain: In the bloodstained ledger of modern Iraq, no population has paid quite so dearly as the Kurds for opposing President Saddam Hussein's Baath Party government. And now that U.S. forces are preparing what is widely regarded in this Kurdish-controlled zone of northern Iraq as the final assault on Baghdad, some Kurds eager to settle accounts are asking why their peshmerga militias are not part of the planning.
"Let us pay some more," Jalal Talabani, head of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, implored last week.
The plea is heard most among the old warriors who have fought Hussein for much of the last three decades, carrying on a long combative tradition among the Kurds. The insurgency has gone quiet since 1991 as, beneath the cover of a "no fly" zone enforced by U.S. and British warplanes, 4 million Kurds in the mountainous reaches of northern Iraq enjoy considerable autonomy and freedom from attack.
Electing their own parliament, staffing their own schools, waving at their own traffic police, Kurds now savor the self-rule for which they were fighting. Yet some here say they want to be part of a decisive blow against Hussein.
"We want to take revenge on him," said Mustafa Ali, a surviving son of Qadir Ismail Ali. "We are ready to lose half our population, just for Saddam to be removed."
"Now it's almost nine decades we've been fighting, and we've never been so powerful, felt so close to getting what we want," said Shalaw Ali Askari, son of a legendary peshmerga leader and minister of agriculture in the Kurdish zone administered by Talabani's Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. "If you do not share, we will not be happy," Askari said, addressing the Americans. "If we cannot shoot Baath people, we will not be happy."
Faraidoon Abdul Qadir, the group's interior minister, agreed, but added that the Kurds eager for a final battle assume it would be dominated by U.S. firepower.
Kurdish officials insist that, despite their appetite for another fight, they will obey U.S. instructions to remain in defensive positions. "All Kurds would like to fight Saddam Hussein," said Burham Sofi, a militia commander. "But the political conditions do not allow us to do that."
That makes sense militarily, according to independent analysts and U.S. officials. The value of the Kurds' lightly armed and trained militias -- especially in the closely integrated warfare that U.S. forces would bring to an invasion -- is debatable. In any case, the debate was ended early by Turkey.
A key U.S. ally that shares a 218-mile border with northern Iraq, Turkey is indispensable to Pentagon plans to open a northern front against Hussein's forces. But having fought a 15-year insurgency by Kurdish separatists, Turkish generals made clear from the start that cooperation required a U.S. vow that Iraqi Kurds would play no part in the fighting, U.S. and Turkish officials said.
To reinforce the point, Turkey will deploy a sizable military force in northern Iraq, ostensibly to manage refugee flows but also to "protect Turkey's national interest."
The appetite for more fighting against Baghdad is not unanimous, even among the Kurds who have suffered from Hussein's rule. In Halabja, the town about 105 miles southeast of here that Sofi's forces defend, interviews with survivors of Hussein's most infamous chemical attack revealed an avid interest in his demise, but no great hunger for fresh sacrifice.
"We would like to see Saddam Hussein finished," said Zuhra Ali Mohammed, who lost her sister and son in March 1988. "But we would prefer the Americans do it."
Azad Hussein, pausing at the ruins of a bombed house down the street, said the same. "If you're talking about fighting and suffering and misery, it's all happened here," he said. "We don't want to make the war. If others want to do it, that's better for us."
"The only sense I have is for that regime to go," said Amin Rashid Amin, hefting an empty chemical warhead from his scrap metal shop in Halabja's downtown market. "I don't want to suffer again what I suffered before."
In Gobtappa, about 65 miles northwest of Sulaymaniyah, Ali led a visitor up a green hillock behind the local mosque. At the top was a graveyard marked by six rows of granite slabs, irregular but placed in perfect rows. Crowning the hill was a sculpture of a man's head emerging from a pile of bodies. The man is screaming.
"We cannot forget. We cannot recover," Ali said, standing beside the slab where most of his family rests. "We wish the ground would swallow us up, but we can't do anything about it."