Kurds in front-line cities flee - and hope
Bush's speech spurs an exodus as thousands leave areas near Iraqi control out of fear of attack by Hussein.
Early Tuesday morning in the Iraqi city of Kirkuk, Kurdish taxi driver Osman Sharif listened secretly to a US-funded radio station and learned of President Bush's ultimatum to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.Skip to next paragraph
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Mr. Sharif and his wife concluded war was upon them. They stuffed two bags with clothes, bundled up their three young sons, and boarded a bus for the Kurdish-administered part of northern Iraq.
At midday, Sharif's wife, Maria Mohammed, sat in the dust by the side of the road at the Chamchamal checkpoint, a gateway to the Kurdish zone, and suckled her one-year-old. They fled, she explains, because "the US Air Force could attack at any time."
That was the bad news they gleaned from the radio. The good news - as many Kurds say they are increasingly willing to believe - is that Mr. Hussein is about to fall.
"According to Bush's speech," says Sharif, standing protectively behind his two other sons, "we expect the end of Saddam."
With a massive US invasion of Iraq apparently only a day or two away, Kurds are uttering tentative words of celebration, as if a long-held fantasy is finally coming true.
"The US is a big force, and we are sure they can topple the Iraqi government," says Fakhir Khader, who sells rice in Chamchamal, a town in the Kurdish zone. "We are very happy."
Among Kurdish officials and militiamen, standardbearers of a proud if fruitless history of fighting Hussein, there has never been much doubt that the US has the power to overthrow the Iraqi leader. Their consternation has been over what role they will play in a US invasion.
News reports this week indicate that US intelligence operatives and soldiers are preparing to work with some Kurdish fighters, known as pesh merga, or "those who face death," perhaps to pinpoint targets for air attack. But the United States has instructed the Kurds to keep their main forces away from battle.
"We will not invade Kirkuk with military troops," says one senior member of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), which controls the eastern portion of northern Iraq, "because we are working in coordination with the Americans."
Analysts expect American forces to take Kirkuk, which is situated next to some of Iraq's biggest oil fields, in the early days of a war.
Some pesh merga, many of whom are among the tens of thousands of Kurds the Iraqi government has forced out of the city as part its decades-old policy of "Arabization," are puzzled that they are on the sidelines.
"American soldiers [should] want us to show them the way," says the deputy commander of a pesh merga battalion, "but they haven't asked."
Like the senior PUK member, the Kurdish militiaman insisted that his name not be used.
Some pesh merga may take the instruction to stay out the city literally, and instead infiltrate the villages and towns around Kirkuk, in part to protect their own people.