'Bushistan': At The Edge Of A Quagmire?

In northern Iraq, Saddam Hussein is a figure of ridicule. The allies are busy building what will by this week become a major air base-on the dictator's former private airstrip. In the same valley, Saddam had razed all the Kurdish villages and built three major palace complexes for himself and his cronies; his summer palace outside the town of Sirseng has a five-mile-long wall around it. Now the palace is in the middle of the allied security zone, and Americans have surrounded the Iraqi Republican Guards who remain there. The Iraqis cook over campfires and supplement meager rations with fruit picked from the trees. They wave at passing Americans. "How do you like my palace?" jokes one. "It's mine now."

Saddam's forces haven't put up a fight. Northern Iraq is littered with the abandoned bedrolls of Iraqi soldiers, ordered to scoot by the allies as they have expanded the Kurdish security zone. Most of the time, the only "resistance" the allies encountered came from Iraqis who didn't have the transportation to move out fast enough, "We kind of broadened the canvas this week," said U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Jay Garner, the allied commander in the zone. "Bushistan," as some Kurds call it, now extends nearly 100 miles east and roughly 30 miles south of the Turkish border. "The question is," said the general, "where is there a bridge too far?"

Yet for all his powerlessness in the north, Saddam has not run out of tricks. Late last week Iraq rejected a plan to replace the 8,000 allied soldiers in the zone with a United Nations force. U.N. Secretary General Javier Perez de Cuellar said he would need a new Security Council resolution to push the plan forward. China and the Soviet Union would probably veto it, leaving only coalition forces to protect the Kurds. U.S. officials were beginning to utter the "Q-word": quagmire. But President Bush insisted that the U.S. role was "limited in duration."

Further expansion of the security zone also stalled. U.S. commanders had hoped to roll unopposed into Dahuk, the first real city they reached. It once was home to 400,000 people, most of them Kurds. Many of the refugees insist they won't consider the security zone safe until Dahuk is part of it. But the Iraqis refused an American request to leave. Some officials in the Bush administration were just as glad. They worried that providing security for Dahuk could bog down American troops and any U.N. peacekeeping force that eventually takes charge. But the Kurds seemed willing to settle only where Americans were keeping the peace. "If the allies go home, they can take me back with them," said Ahmed Fateh of Amadiya, a town about 21 miles east of Sirseng.

As a result, what was expected to become a massive influx of Kurds last week instead continued to be a modest stream. The most optimistic estimates were that 100,000 Kurds had left camps in Turkey. And instead of returning to their homes they went to refugee camps in the security zone. Some, like Karim Ibrahim Mohammad, simply camped beside the road outside Dahuk, begging food from passing soldiers. Mohammad lost six members of his 13-member family, including four children, to disease on the flight to Turkey; he was taking no chances with the rest of them by going back home.

Saddam Hussein knows what awaits him if he tangles again with allied forces. Iraqi gunners in Dahuk opened up on a U.S. reconnaissance plane last week, but their commander immediately promised it wouldn't happen again. Iraq's infrastructure has been bombed into ruin to such an extent that phone service resumed only last week-and then only in Baghdad. The U.N. Security Council still won't let Saddam sell his oil, even to buy grain. U.N. peacekeepers patrol his southern frontier; foreigners administer Kurdish towns in the northern security zone. Last week the Iraqis were acting like a dog kicked once too often. At some point Saddam might decide he has nothing to lose by trying to bite back.