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Saturday February 8, 2003
For Private Abass Shomail the war in Iraq ended before it had even begun. Two days ago Abass slipped away from his sentry post and started running in darkness across the muddy frontline. He stumbled past the newly dug trenches designed to protect Iraq's conscript army from American bombardment.
He kept going. Eventually he found himself in a rolling landscape of green hills and pine trees, the Kurdish self-rule enclave in the north of Iraq. Abass was the first deserter from the Iraqi military to cross into Kurdistan for several months. Yesterday, in an interview with the Guardian, he gave a unique insight into the condition of the Iraqi army on the eve of an imminent and massive US attack.
Though defectors are a notoriously unreliable source of intelligence, the fact that he had crossed the border into Kurdish-held territory only days earlier, together with his lowly rank and the lack of any apparent incentives to embellish his story, all point to the credibility of his account.
Morale was very low, he said, both among his fellow conscripts and among civilians. "We want America to attack because of the bad situation in our country. But we don't want America to launch air strikes against Iraqi soldiers because we are forced to shoot and defend. We are also victims in this situation."
Abass was yesterday in custody in Chamchamal, a small Kurdish smuggling town overlooked by low green hills and Iraqi army posts. From the edge of town, the silhouettes of Iraqi soldiers could be seen peering out from their bunkers across the fields.
The Kurdish fighters or pershmerga ("those who do not fear death") who took Abbas into custody interrogated him for a day to establish he was not a spy. Yesterday he was still wearing his olive Iraqi army overcoat and woolly balaclava. His new home was a small heated room with a TV set tuned to the Arabic station al-Jazeera.
Conditions back in the Iraqi trenches were not so good, he said. "We have two blankets for every soldier, but they are very thin and don't keep us warm. The officers beat us. And the food is disgusting. I'm only paid 50 dinars [about £3] a month."
What would have happened if he had been caught trying to run away? "I would have been executed."
As the US military puts the finishing touches to its invasion plan, it is clear that Saddam Hussein's recruits and volunteers face bleak choices in the coming weeks. If they remain in their positions they run the risk of being pulverised by American missiles. But if they try to surrender they risk being shot.
At the moment it is hard to know which is the greater danger. "There are two groups in the Iraqi army," Abbas said.
"One is made up of soldiers like me. The other is the Republican Guard. The special guard will support and defend Saddam. The ordinary soldiers and many of the commanders will surrender."
But for the moment Iraq's military commanders are making frantic preparations for a battle whose outcome nobody seems to doubt. Earlier this week, troops manoeuvred four enormous Russian-made Katyusha rocket launchers into position behind the frontline at Chamchamal.
Some 1,500 Iraqi reinforcements have just arrived. Dozens of tanks have been concealed in trenches, Abbas confirmed, as well as anti-aircraft batteries.
"The Katyusha rocket launchers are not there for aesthetic reasons," the town's Kurdish head of security, Adel Muhammad, joked. "But we have our undercover agents. They tell us that when America attacks the Iraqi soldiers will surrender."
Officials from the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, the party that controls the valleys and mountains around the town of Sulaymaniyah, say they are not expecting a pre-emptive Iraqi offensive in the north, given the huge US invasion force assembling in Kuwait.
But President Saddam's record against the Kurds is brutal. Nothing can be ruled out. And the disconcerting possibility remains that, hidden among the ordnance may be artillery shells fitted with chemical weapons.
Every day hundreds of Kurds cross an Iraqi checkpoint to the oil-rich government-controlled town of Kirkuk, a 30-minute drive away. They bring Kent cigarettes smuggled in from Turkey. They return with plastic containers full of paraffin.
"We have to bribe the Iraqi guards $2 each time we cross," Hersh Abdul Karim, an 18-year-old smuggler, said.
The soldiers Abbas left behind, meanwhile, sit in their hilltop bunkers, pondering an unenviable fate. "We are all very tired," Abbas said. "I haven't heard of Tony Blair. But if George Bush wants to give us freedom then we will welcome it."