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.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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."

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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.

Kurds say that residents forced out of the city have an unimpeachable right to return, and that they expect their brethren in Kirkuk to rise up against the Iraqi government.

Kurdish leaders say they are worried about the possibility of people killing Iraqi officials and Arabs out of a desire for vengeance. They are also concerned about the potential for unrest between different ethnic groups - such as Kurds and Turkmens - that have clashed in the past.

The two main Kurdish political groups, the PUK and the Democratic Party of Kurdistan, may vie immediately for dominance in the city. "They want to have their own people in Kirkuk," says Shwan Ahmed, a journalist and author in Sulaymaniyah.

But for the moment, Kurds mainly want to encourage US action against Hussein, not pose complexities. Despite concerns about revenge killing, says Gen. Simko Dizaye, deputy commander of the PUK pesh merga, there is little that the PUK can do beyond stopping the return of refugees who seem bent on violence, and broadcasting appeals for calm.

"Practically," General Dizaye says, "we can't do anything because we are not going to those two cities," referring to Kirkuk and Mosul, another major urban center in northern Iraq.

Looking ahead, Kurds want the Americans on board for the long haul. "We need the American military forever, not just for one year," says the senior member of the PUK. "If we want to build a democratic system, we cannot withstand the pressure of Turkey, Iran, and Saudi Arabia if there is no American presence inside Iraq."

The US has disappointed Kurds in the past, but many are saying that this time the Americans will come through.

"The US is the first country to say 'we will save Iraq,' " says Mr. Khader, the rice seller. "Maybe the US has interests in Iraq, but that's useful for us."

He has only one complaint about Bush's speech: granting the Iraqi leader and his sons 48 hours in which to leave the country. "We wanted to give him only 24 hours - as soon as possible," Khader says.

Kurds have suffered under Hussein - mass killings, large-scale deportations, economic strangulation - so it is no surprise many are fleeing areas close to the lines demarcating Iraqi government control. One of Khader's neighbors, Osman Wali, spent Tuesday morning preparing his battered proto-SUV for the drive to his village.

The vehicle was stuffed with blankets, lanterns, and cookware. Mr. Wali topped off the water in the radiator. "We're afraid of the Iraqi regime, of chemical weapons," he says. "The Iraqis have no mercy."

Many of Chamchamal's residents have already fled. Much of the town's bazaar is shuttered, its streets nearly deserted.

"Maybe we will not be safe," he says, "but we are very pleased with Bush's speech about Iraq." Wali, dressed in the characteristic turban, cummerbund, and baggy pants of Kurdish men, accepts the possibility of additional sacrifice. "Even if half of the people of Chamchamal are killed, it will be OK if we can save the whole of Iraq."

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