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Kurds Fear New Iraqi Repression : Ethnic strife: Saddam Hussein has moved half his regular army north, sources say.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Iraqi President Saddam Hussein has moved up to half of his regular army into Kurdish regions of northern Iraq and is preparing to launch a new wave of repression timed to coincide with the pullout of U.S.-led coalition forces and the end of Operation Provide Comfort next week, according to U.S. and Kurdish sources.

Concern over the troop movements comes as new, independent evidence is emerging on atrocities by Iraqi armed forces in the north, including mass executions of tens of thousands of men, women and children over the past three years.

Kurdish claims that since August, 1988, 182,000 people have disappeared--many of them believed to have been murdered--received significant new support this week from veteran Senate Foreign Relations Committee staffer Peter Galbraith, who returned from a nine-day tour of northern Iraq.

The new evidence suggests that Iraqi troops engaged in a two-pronged campaign against the Kurds after their 1988 rebellion, Galbraith said. One part of the campaign included rounding up Kurds from northern villages, driving them into the desert, then fatally machine-gunning them. The other part involved Iraqi troops executing survivors of chemical weapons attacks against Kurdish strongholds in eastern Iraq.

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During his trip, Galbraith said he interviewed survivors, including a 12-year-old boy who escaped a mass execution after being wounded and feigning death. Galbraith said he also inspected mass grave sites and is now preparing a report on his findings for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

“I can’t confirm the 180,000, but based on the mass graves that I saw and the accounts of survivors and the widespread accounts of the Kurds and eyewitnesses, I think that the killings were on this order of magnitude,” Galbraith said in an interview. “Your instinctive reaction is to think it’s an exaggeration. Then you see the evidence. The atrocities are of the same type and the same scale as the Nazis.”

Administration officials said they could not independently confirm the figure, although they said they were aware of large numbers of missing Kurds still unaccounted for two or three years after they disappeared. They also said they were aware that Hussein has refused repeated Kurdish and U.N. requests for information on the missing Kurds.

Galbraith said the account he heard from the 12-year-old Kurdish boy was the most chilling of his visit to the region.

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In summer, 1988, Iraqi troops arrived in his village near Dahuk, the boy told him. After males, ages 12 to 60, were separated from the women and other children, the boy, then 10, was herded onto a bus with his mother and other women and children.

They were driven for more than 24 hours, part of the way blindfolded, then ordered out of the bus and told to stand in a ditch dug in the desert. The troops opened fire, he told Galbraith.

The boy, who was hidden by a family in the south for more than a year after his escape, has been reunited with his uncle. But the rest of the boy’s family has never reappeared, and he believes they are dead.

Galbraith also visited Halabja, where villagers dug up remains, including skulls of children, from shallow graves to prove their claim that Iraqi troops had rounded up survivors of the 1988 chemical weapons attacks against Kurdish strongholds in eastern Iraq in 1988 and fatally machine-gunned them.

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Iraqi troops were widely reported at the time to have used chemical weapons, killing between 3,000 and 5,000 Kurdish men, women and children in Halabja. But this is the first tangible evidence of mass executions afterwards.

“Halabja is slowly revealing its horrors,” Galbraith said. He also said he believed that the atrocities were part of a deliberate campaign to squelch Kurdish resistance.

Now, senior U.S. analysts say up to half of Iraq’s military has been redeployed from concentrations around Baghdad to northern Iraq, an operation that began in late summer. In the aftermath of the Gulf War, Iraq’s military strength was estimated to total between 500,000 and 700,000.

The movements have inflamed Kurdish fears of renewed attacks. Already, they say, the new military campaign has included the destruction of 1,800 homes in and around oil-rich Kirkuk and the murder of 20 Kurds, whose bodies were sent to a mosque in Kirkuk last week. Baghdad has also refused to release thousands of political prisoners, including hundreds picked up following the March uprising, despite a general amnesty.

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Some Kurds believe the concentration of forces is also designed to intimidate them into signing a one-sided autonomy accord and enabling Baghdad to reestablish control in the north for the first time since the Gulf War’s end.

But other Kurdish leaders and Western intelligence sources in northern Iraq said there was no sign of any aggressive intent from the Iraqi army, although strong defense lines had been built up around Kirkuk. Hussein “sacked a lot of his army, and is moving the new ones around to train them. It is not a sign they are ready to fight,” said one Western officer, who declined to be identified.

Masoud Barzani, leader of the biggest Iraqi Kurdish guerrilla group, the Kurdistan Democratic Party, told reporters in Shaklawa that fighting along the front in the past six weeks had been provoked by the Kurds, not the Iraqis.

The area of northern Iraq under guerrilla control has actually steadily expanded in the past two months. The three northeastern provincial capitals of Dahuk, Arbil and Sulaymaniyah are now under effective guerrilla control and in the past week guerrillas have taken over two other key towns, Salahaddin and Akra.

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Both guerrilla and Western sources said the Kurdish advance was negotiated and that while Iraqi Republican Guards units were loyal, regular Iraqi army units were completely demoralized and badly equipped. “If we fire one shot, they surrender by the hundreds,” said Siamand Banaa, a senior Kurdistan party official. “Sometimes they even ask us to tell when we are going to attack so they can surrender first.”

But some Kurdish officials say that signing the proposed autonomy accord will again provide Hussein with carte blanche without providing the Kurdish minority the means of dissent or protection, especially after the coalition withdrawal. Another segment of the Kurdish population feels that signing the accord is the only viable option “to avoid an unwinnable confrontation” with Hussein.

The withdrawal of the remaining 2,000 coalition troops from the Silopi base in neighboring Turkey is scheduled to begin Monday.

Times special correspondent Hugh Pope contributed to this story from Rawanduz, Iraq.

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