"I don't go out any more for fear of being killed," was how Rabih Ahmad al-Tai, a former air force general, summed up the threat hanging over his and comrades' heads.

"No fewer than 23 officers have been killed by groups with ties to Iran, which wants revenge," the ex-officer said in Saddam Hussein's hometown Tikrit.

Al-Tai fought in the eight-year war with Iran that started in 1980.

"One of my friends, Major Shamal Ghafuri, was shot dead in broad daylight in Baquba (north of Baghdad), while he was shopping. A friend who was with him - Colonel Jassem Hassan - was seriously wounded."

Stomachs in knots

Pilots who can flee the country have, while others are holed up across Iraq with their stomachs in knots, he sighed.

Last week, around 1000 former officers from various armed forces met Iraq's Kurdish head of state, President Jalal Talabani, asking for protection against "threats of vengeance".

Talabani has offered the pilots
refuge in quiet Kurdish areas

Talabani offered refuge in relatively quiet northern Kurdish areas, an implicit acknowledgement that the government could not stop the killings.

"Pilots are not guilty of crimes committed by the former regime, they only obeyed criminal orders. Had they disobeyed they would have been immediately executed," he said.

In Kurdish areas, they were promised "safety, regardless of their political views".

Such promises may be hard to keep, however. This week, two former officers were murdered in the Shia holy city of Karbala, including retired air force Major Rajab Abdel Wahed al-Jaberi, a police source said.

Mazen Jalal al-Salami, an ex-pilot who lives in the town of Dur, near Tikrit, accused death squads with ties to the new Shia- and Kurdish-dominated security forces of involvement in the kidnapping, torture and murder of the two men.

Infiltration 

Sunni Arab leaders also denounce the infiltration of security services by Shia militiamen; in particular the now disbanded Badr Brigade that was originally created in Iran.

"Revenge killings cost the country considerably, because they deprive it of professionals who could have contributed to consolidating a new army," Salami said.

"Revenge killings cost the country considerably, because they deprive it of professionals who could have contributed to consolidating a new army."

Mazen Jalal al-Salami, 
former Iraqi air force pilot

Ahmad Sattam al-Juburi, who flew air strikes against Iran, Kuwait and Iraqi Kurdistan was killed in August 2004 by Kurdish peshmerga militiamen, his brother Ayad charged.

 

When Saddam's government was toppled in April 2003, al-Juburi stayed in the mixed northern metropolis of Mosul, where Kurdish militiamen allegedly killed him to avenge Kurdish victims killed in the war between Kurdish militias and the former Iraqi governments.

 

Iraqi Kurds had fought successive Iraqi governments for decades, before they managed to establish a semi self-rule region in northern Iraq in 1991 under US protection.

 

Blame

 

The son of Najm al-Din al-Obeidi, another former pilot who was killed, blames peshmerga fighters for his murder three months ago in front of their home near Baiji, a strategic oil refinery town south of Mosul.

"The attackers fled in a car towards Kirkuk, the stronghold of Kurdish political parties," the son said in response to Talabani's offer of asylum.

The northern oil centre, which the Kurds want to incorporate in their autonomous region despite opposition from Sunni Arab and Turkmen residents, is dominated by the two Kurdish former rebel movements, including Talabani's Patriotic Union of Kurdistan.

"They just want to appease pilots so they do not join the legitimate Iraqi resistance," said the younger Obeidi, noting that the government recently announced it had broken up a conservative Muslim network run by a former air force general.