At the foot of the snow-capped mountains of Kurag, Bradoz and Bapustian in northern Iraq, Kurdish soldiers perform their daily training routine in the biting cold under the vigilant eye of their superiors - former officers in the Iraqi army.

The Military Training Camp in Soran, a district west of Arbil, spreads over 20 square kilometres. It was once an Iraqi army outpost, but three years ago, Masoud Barzani, leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), converted the premises into the base of his First Special Force.

The force numbers over 1,300 soldiers, aged between 18 and 28 years, who are counted on to hold down the fort in Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq.

These men are trained for combat with conventional weaponry, but their superiors concede that in the event of a chemical attack, "our fate is in the hands of God".

Still, their training and knowledge gives them an edge over the peshmarga (partisan) militiamen, according to 58-year-old Brigadier General Yacoub Yousef Hasan, who heads the camp.

"These soldiers are in a different league than the militias. They are trained like a regular army. They are well-versed in the strategies for attack and defence, and they will be used for special missions," he says.

"The peshmarga militiamen are taught how to use weapons, and they are not always on duty. But the special force soldiers are given lessons on theory and tactics, and they are always on duty - if on rotation."

Brig. Gen. Hasan completed his formal training at the Military Academy of Baghdad in 1970. He served in the Iraqi army until 1986, when he joined the Kurdish liberation movement.

At the end of the morning training session, he invites us to his office for a cup of tea. He removes his red beret, revealing bristly gray hair, and bends over the kerosene heater.

"It's cold, and I'm an old man - nearly 60! I need to keep warm," he says, half-joking. A young man brings in a tray of sugary tea. "I remember a time when an Iraqi passport allowed us to travel anywhere except for Israel," muses the officer, rubbing his hands over the heater.

"Today, a European passport allows you to travel anywhere except for Iraq!" Brig. Gen. Hasan has been offered asylum in the UK, but he has chosen to remain in northern Iraq and pass the torch on to younger men.

Colonel Hani Polos Salim, Training Officer, said the soldiers begin their routine at 7am every morning for three hours. At 10am, they have their breakfast. Between 11am and 1pm, they are given lectures on a wide range of subjects, including theory, geopolitics, and Kurdish history.

After lunch, the soldiers are allowed to engage in sports, either volleyball, or football. Col Salim defected from the Iraqi army in 1997. He has not seen his family in six years: "They don't even know whether I am alive or dead."

As tears well up in his crystal blue eyes, Col Salim reveals a softer side - at odds with his brawny physique. While he speaks fluent Kurdish, we soon learn he is not a Kurd. The colonel is an Iraqi Christian, who fled north after defecting to join the Kurdish opposition.

He fought in the Gulf War in Baghdad. Did he support the cause? "Did I have a choice?" he asks, rhetorically.

"If I had refused to fight, they would have hanged me! Iraqi soldiers are scared of saying anything, even talking amongst themselves, lest they are overheard. Anyone who so much as whispers a word against Saddam Hussain or his regime can be hanged, and his family murdered."

Captain Abdul Ghafour Babir Said, Operations Manager, also fought in the Gulf War, but he left the Iraqi army in 1992 to join the peshmarga effort in the mountains.

"We may be outnumbered by the Iraqi army, but our soldiers are fighting with their heart," he points out. "The Iraqi soldiers are not fighting because they want to fight; they are fighting because they have to. This is the difference."

Most of the soldiers have had previous combat experience as peshmargas against PKK fighters. They have never faced a full-fledged army and sophisticated weaponry.

But according to Capt. Said, the soldiers are not fearful of confronting Saddam's army should they invade Kurdish-controlled territories. "They are eager to serve their nation," he says.

Osman Bilal Hasan, the resident KDP official, is tasked with educating the soldiers, and keeping them abreast of party policies. "Some of the soldiers were illiterate when they enlisted," he recalls. "We have taught them basic literacy skills."

Suddenly, the officers are all hushed. The television is switched on to Al Jazeera. An Iraqi official is claiming the government has complied with the inspectors' requirements.

There are clips of anti-war demonstrations in Washington, D.C. "They won't attack anytime soon," grumbles one of the officers in the room. "The Americans will have to wait till after the inspections are over."

"This is a conspiracy," exclaims another officer. "These demonstrations are a ploy to encourage the U.S. to seek the UN Security Council's approval before attacking Iraq. The European countries don't want the Americans to do it alone. They want a piece of Iraq, too!" The newsflash is over.

They switch the channel over to a cultural programme. A Kurdish woman is singing and dancing. The officers smile to each other, and begin to discuss the merits and drawbacks of polygamy.