Laleh, a dark-haired 20-year-old, joined the Kurdish guerrillas after Iraqi troops massacred her entire family. Hama Ali, a well-known Kurdish stage actor, joined the rebels a few months ago "because I believe in freedom."

These are the pesh merga - the name means "those who face death" - the fighters struggling for an autonomous homeland in northern Iraq.Laleh, barely taller than the AK-47 assault rifle she carries, is dwarfed by the mustachioed guerrillas in their distinctive baggy trousers and colored turbans.

"She's fought in three battles and proved she's as tough as any of the men," said Kawa Shawkar, a guerrilla comander.

Laleh joined the pesh merga in March after Saddam Hussein's troops recaptured the oil city of Kirkuk. The city had been seized by the Kurds a few weeks earlier when they swooped down from their mountain outposts in an uprising against the Baghdad regime.

"The soldiers rounded up all my family, shot the men and raped the women, because one of my brothers was a guerrilla," Laleh said. She escaped because she was not at home.

"I joined the pesh merga to avenge my family. What else could I do?" she said.

Most of the fighters have similar stories to tell.

They cite Saddam's use of chemical weapons against towns and villages in 1988 that killed thousands. Many have relatives among the thousands of Kurds who have been rounded up by Saddam's army and secret police and disappeared inside the government's prisons.

Kurdish officials, as well as human rights organizations like Amnesty International, have said many of these people were executed or tortured to death and buried in mass graves in the desert.

Hama Ali, who gave up a flourishing acting career to take to the hills, said he finally believed that he had to take a stand for his people.

"We must fight to survive," he said. "There is no other way for us."

During five weeks in northern Iraq, this correspondent witnessed the Kurds' euphoria in victory and despair in defeat, trekking with them over the mountains as they retreated, fighting all the way.

One group of pesh merga, their chests criss-crossed with bandoliers of ammunition, found a small goat trapped in rocks as they were scaling a steep slope to flank an Iraqi position blocking the twisting mountain road south of Rawanduz.

One of the men clambered over the rocks to pull the goat clear, cuddling the bleating animal in his arms.

"This little fellow thinks I'm rescuing it. But it's going to be our dinner tonight," he said gruffly.

"You could say the fate of this little goat is like ours. We always believe some big power has come to our rescue, only to end up sacrifical victims," he said.

He echoed the bitterness of many Kurds, who believe that the Americans let them down by not aiding them when they rose against Saddam.

"They told us, `Overthrow Saddam.' But what did they do when we tried? Nothing," he said. "We have a saying that goes, `The Kurds have no friends."'

For the Kurds, the U.S. action was just one more betrayal. The British, the Iranians, the Soviets, the Turks have all supported the Kurds at some point, then abandoned them.