Iraq still casts shadow over Kurds

Dozens have been executed in Kirkuk in recent days, say Kurdish officials.

The regime of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein may be facing its demise, but it still has Dilshad Salih's mother in its grasp.

A little over a week ago, in the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk, Hadao Hassan agreed to carry a small box of Iraqi military buttons and insignia to Chamchamal, a town in the Kurdish-controlled portion of the country.

Mr. Salih believes his mother did not know what was inside. In all likelihood, the contents were on their way to Kurdish militiamen, who wear the Iraqi insignia on their uniforms in the absence of their own markings.

But she seems to have known that she was taking a risk. The man who drove her toward Chamchamal later told Salih that she wrapped the box in some pieces of bread. The subterfuge didn't work.

At a checkpoint outside Kirkuk, Iraqi security agents found the box and arrested her. They later refused a neighbor's attempt to pay a bribe for her freedom.

In recent days, Kurdish officials have asserted that the regime has executed dozens of Kurds in the city - the estimates range from 32 to 63 - in an apparent attempt to stifle a Kurdish uprising. Salih worries that his mother may have been among them.

Kurdish officials in Chamchamal say they believe she was one of two women among those executed. They share their suspicions with journalists, but they haven't told Salih.

So he sits in his family's house in Chamchamal, waiting for some word of his mother's whereabouts. It is empty, because the rest of the family is staying in their village, which is further away from the Iraqi front lines. He is the eldest son, an adult, so it is his responsibility to protect the house.

On Monday morning, US forces struck the Iraqi military emplacements that sit on a ridgeline overlooking Chamchamal. The string of explosions broke windows in the town below. After the attack, ambulances and men carrying stretchers could be seen along the ridgeline.

Kurdish officials are delighted that US airpower is a more frequent visitor to the north. But Salih and many other Kurds with relatives in Hussein-controlled Iraq cannot help fearing for their loved ones as war comes closer.

He is a gaunt young man with brown eyes, high cheekbones, and full lips. He wears his black hair in a quarter-inch crewcut, so his ears stick out a bit. Although he has had only a few years of education, he installs satellite-television systems for a living. "I am clever with such things," he says, looking down, a little bashful.

In the mid-1990s, he worked as a smuggler. He carried goods from Kirkuk into the Kurdish zone. In 1995, Iraqi soldiers caught him smuggling some copper. He tried to bribe his way to freedom, but Iraqi security agents arrested him and the Iraqi sergeant he was trying to pay off. He was detained in Kirkuk for one month and eight days and badly beaten. "After I suffered that torture," he says, "I never went there again."

At about this time, Ms. Hassan began traveling back and forth between Chamchamal and Kirkuk, which is less than thirty miles away. By picking things up for people or by buying things cheaply in Kirkuk and selling them in Chamchamal, she earned a few dollars a day to support her family.

Salih says it was miserable work for an older woman - commuting back and forth between Kurdish- and Hussein-controlled Iraq, never knowing when her goods might be seized or whether she would be arrested or harassed by Iraqi soldiers. "She hasn't seen a lot of happiness in her life," her son says.

Hassan's decision to go to Kirkuk last week was out of concern for her family. With war in the air, she wanted to buy some vegetable shortening, which is cheaper in Kirkuk than in Chamchamal. Salih has pieced together what happened to her from the driver, the neighbor who tried to secure her release, and a family friend who saw her in at a courthouse in Kirkuk.

Arriving in Kirkuk in the morning, she bought a 33 lb can of shortening and divided the contents into two plastic sacks. Then she ran into an acquaintance who gave her the small box.

After Hassan's arrest, the driver was forced to leave her at the checkpoint, so he drove on to Chamchamal. One of Salih's neighbors immediately left for Kirkuk. Iraqi officials sometimes keep detainees at checkpoints for hours in the expectation that a friend or relative will arrive with money.

When Salih's neighbor arrived at the checkpoint, an Iraqi officer grabbed him by the shirt and accused him of attempting a bribe.

The neighbor denied the accusation - however true - and went away without Salih's mother. She was taken to a military intelligence headquarters in Kirkuk, which is known as Branch Two.

The next day, a family friend saw her by chance at the Kirkuk courthouse. She told him the Iraqis had demanded she tell them who had given her the box and she had complied.

If they couldn't find him, Iraqi officials warned her, "your future will be black." Another family friend later tried to visit Hassan at Branch Two. Military intelligence officials told him to go away, citing the "war situation."

Salih cannot forget the reason why his mother went to Kirkuk that day. "She fell into this situation because of some vegetable shortening," he says. "The driver brought us the two plastic sacks."

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