Warplanes had pounded Iraqi army trenches on all sides of this hamlet on the road to Mosul. Iraqis were carrying bodies south. It was decision time for Abdul Karim Kasem, truck driver and Baath Party official.
As a member of Baath, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's political party and neighborhood security force, he was ordered to defend Dubardan against Kurdish fighters and U.S. troops that might invade from Kurdish territory.
Kasem organized the digging of trenches around the rural village and filled them with armed residents. He said he was under threat of death-by-execution issued by a Baathist superior named Yaarub Subar. But with bombs falling, Subar was gone. Even though the Iraqi soldiers held out only 200 yards from Dubardan, Kasem sent a message up the road to Kurdish guerrilla commander Sheikh Sayeed: "We are ready to join you."
Sayeed dispatched a negotiating team. It told Kasem to raise the yellow flag of the Kurdistan Democratic Party. The KDP administers part of a northern zone that has been free of central government control for more than a decade. The KDP and the other authority in the north, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, allied themselves with the United States.
"We raised the flag," said Kasem. "And the people in the trenches turned their rifles on the Iraqis."
This was an uprising in a small Kurdish town. It took place April 2. On a small scale, it was the kind of transformation U.S. war planners had hoped might occur throughout Iraq. Fear of central government reprisal is one reason Iraqis give for holding back. Another is the unwillingness of the Bush administration to ally itself with opposition forces dispersed across the country. The absence of an Iraqi revolt so far has given the war less a flavor of liberation than conquest.
Here in this hilly part of the country near Jebel Makloub, "Upside-down Mountain," even the proximity of Kurdish forces has been insufficient to spark a massive rebellion. Historically, the 3.5 million Kurds in the north have opposed control by the government in Baghdad. Kasem and three fellow Baathists are themselves all Kurds. Their superior, Subar, is Arab.
For the Kurdish Baathists in Dubardan, making a move was risky. "We knew that if the Iraqi regime suspected anything, we and our families would be killed," Kasem said. He said he joined the Baath Party because of economic need -- to drive a truck from Mosul to Dubardan required permits granted only to Baathists.
The dangers have not disappeared. Iraqi soldiers remain entrenched near Dubardan. The pesh merga, the Kurdish guerrilla force, has withdrawn a mile northward. Sheikh Sayeed -- that's his combat nickname -- told visiting reporters today his unit is under orders from U.S. overseers not to occupy Dubardan. A half-dozen other Kurdish-populated villages nearby are awaiting a pesh merga move, but the guerrillas are hamstrung. "We are partners and we don't move without orders," said Sayeed.
This creates a dilemma. If the Iraqis counterattack, the Kurdish fighters are in a quandary what to do. "We would need a fast decision from the Americans, and we are afraid it would take too long," said Ahmed Mohammed Yusuf, a KDP representative in Bardarash, seven miles north, that was, until April 2, on the line separating Kurdish and Iraqi forces.
The ex-Baathists were visibly agitated at the continued, threatening presence of the Iraqi soldiers, whose heads were visible popping above their foxholes. "They will kill everyone if they come back," said Jarzis Mikayel, a schoolteacher. "We need bombing to move them away." About 100 families live in the village, Mikayel said.
Dubardan's drama highlights how U.S. airstrikes have shaken the status quo along this northern fringe of government terrain, but not enough to safeguard thousands of Kurds in the countryside, much less Kurds stranded in the major oil cities of Mosul and Kirkuk. Turkey's refusal to permit U.S. troops to stage an invasion from its territory meant that, in effect, there is no northern front to complement the southern thrust of the Marines and Army. Among several express concerns, the Turks are worried that the Kurds would expand their autonomous territory or declare an independent state.
For two weeks, U.S. F-14 Tomcat fighters and B-52 bombers have attacked targets in and around Mosul and Kirkuk, but for the most part, the retreat of Iraqi troops has been orderly and grudging. U.S. Special Operations units attached to pesh merga forces have called in airstrikes and directed some Kurdish ground advances, but without a decisive victory.
At Khazer, a hamlet on a road leading from Irbil to Mosul, U.S. jets have bombed Iraqi positions for three days. Special Forces advisers have directed pesh merga fighters to try to dislodge the defenders, but without success. Today, a deputy pesh merga commander was shot and killed at Khazer bridge, the first Kurdish fatality there. The Iraqis, backed by artillery, retook some ground. It is not clear whether U.S. commanders are willing to provide stronger air support.
Just north of Dubardan lay charred and twisted chassis of Iraqi trucks from that day's airstrikes. One towed an artillery piece, and burned out shells littered the blackened road. Someone, likely an American, had attached a bumper sticker to the truck: "I shoot my loads at Range 1." The sticker comes from the public shooting range in Bunnlevel, N.C., just north of Fort Bragg.
However, a march on Kirkuk or Mosul seems far off. The U.S. military has shipped in about 3,000 troops, Humvees, trucks and communications equipment to Kurdish airfields, hardly sufficient to mount a sustained attack, much less assault cities.
Kurdish officials say they could organize their 60,000-man forces for an offensive, but only under sustained air cover. "We are good in the mountains, but we are exposed on the plains," said Shahab Ahmed, another KDP official. The terrain is also treeless.
Mikayel said that some youth in the region controlled by the Iraqi government have joined the Jash, a Kurdish militia under Baghdad's command. Kurds in the northern autonomous zone consider Jash members "bad Kurds" who allied themselves with Hussein. Shamseddin Dubardani, another ex-Baathist, insisted that Kurds took Jash membership mostly out of fear. "The local people know who is who and what their situation is," he said. "Please, the Americans must move quickly. The situation for Kurds is difficult. We are with you. You must be with us."