ZAKHU, Iraq, Oct 18 (Reuters) Tension is etched on the faces of the citizens of Zakhu when they discuss the only topic on their minds -- a possible Turkish invasion.
Zakhu is a town of 200,000 people 10 km from the Turkish border and residents fear they would bear the brunt of an incursion to root Kurdish separatist guerrillas out of their Iraqi mountain hideouts.
Mingled with the fear is a mood both of defiance, and desperation among those who fled to the relatively calm northern region to escape the violence elsewhere in Iraq.
''We are ready to confront Turkey despite the imbalance between the Peshmerga and the Turkish forces,'' said Abdul Karim Abdul Razaq, a captain in the Kurdish armed forces (Peshmerga).
''We will turn Kurdistan into a graveyard for the Turkish soldiers.'' Turkey's parliament gave the green light yesterday for a military incursion into Iraq to chase down fighters of the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), who are blamed for a growing number of attacks on Turkish security forces.
The sharp rise in PKK strikes has put the Turkish government under pressure to launch a major operation which Washington fears could stoke ethnic conflict in northern Iraq, threaten oil supplies and deepen US problems in the rest of Iraq.
''I'm afraid of war. But at the same time, if Turkey invaded Kurdistan, I won't leave my house,'' said Zarchiya Ali Tahir, 58.
''All we have in life is a humble home and some furniture. I will fight beside my husband and six children to protect my honour,'' said Ali Tahir, a Kurdish woman.
WHERE DO WE RUN NOW? The PKK fighters hide in inaccessible mountain hideouts near the Turkish and Iranian borders, and are seldom seen in the towns and villages of the Kurdish region.
For many in Zakhu, a Turkish invasion would be more than an attack on the PKK. It would be an assault on a region that is proud of its semi-autonomous status within Iraq and angry at regular shelling by its neighbour's army.
''We are not ready to leave Zakhu for any reason. We will stay until the end of our lives,'' said Radhwan Kojra, 23, a university student sitting in his father's mobile phone store.
''Kurdish families are being displaced from their areas by Turkish artillery shelling and bombings. Isn't that terrorism? There are no PKK members in the cities and villages which have been attacked continuously by Turkey.'' The Turkish army has kept small groups of soldiers in northern Iraq since the 1990s and both Turkey and Iran shell suspected PKK positions in the country.
''Why is everybody standing with their arms folded in the face of this continuous shelling and Turkish threats?'' said Ali Tahir, buying vegetables at a Zakhu market.
Some in Zakhu have fled the bombings and sectarian killings that plague swathes of Iraq.
''We ran away from Mosul and we left everything for fear of fighting and violence. I'm very afraid. My family is also afraid of a war. Where should we go then?'' said Wasan Waleed, 17, an Arab Christian walking back from school in Zakhu.
Some recent arrivals pledged to stand by the Kurds if Turkey invaded.
''I left my family and my studies and I came to Zakhu to work to support them,'' said Mohammed Ahmed, 16, an Arab from Mosul.
''If Turkey invaded Kurdistan, then not only would the Kurds fight but the Arabs who came here to escape violence and to live in peace will fight side-by-side with our Kurdish brothers.
''Because they are in the right and Turkey is in the wrong.'' REUTERS SKB RAI1851