For Kurds, a day of bonfires, legends, and independence

During Newroz, a spring festival, Kurds commemorate the defeat of a tyrannical king 2,500 years ago. This year it meant victory over Hussein.

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Questions of how different the Kurds are from the rest of Iraq's people are laid to rest on March 21 by the women and girls in shiny sequined dresses, the bonfires that dotted the hillside the night before, and the hundreds of thousands who pour out of Sulaymaniyah into the surrounding hills for a day of picnicking and flirting.

Newroz entails singing, dancing, and feasting throughout the week, while the city's governments and businesses are shut down. Young men parade around in the Kurds' trademark baggy pants.

The rest of Iraq barely notices.

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At first blush, the holiday looks similar to dozens of coming-of-spring festivals around the world. But for the Kurds, the day means far more - especially this year, the first after the fall of Saddam Hussein, with the Kurds having won a major political victory in the transitional constitution, which appears to guarantee the de facto autonomous status they've enjoyed since the US created the no-fly zone after the 1991 Gulf War.

In the 20th century, Newroz became an integral part of the Kurdish national myth. On the Kurdish calendar, the first day of spring is the first day of the year.

In the 1930s, the Kurdish poet Taufik Abdullah decided it was time for a Kurdish cultural revival, and struck on this ancient holiday as the key.

"It was a dying holiday but he revived it and remade it as a symbol of Kurdish national struggle,'' says Stran Abdullah, a Kurdish journalist. "It was to remind everyone and ourselves that we're different, a special people. The lighting of the fires became a symbol of freedom."

Iraq's Kurdish areas are the only parts of the country where uncomplicated gratitude for the ouster of Hussein can be found. Rather than the humiliation that most Iraqis see in his defeat, the Kurds revel in it, and feel that their peshmerga guerrillas played an important role.

But while the US wants the Kurds to accept broad autonomy within a federal Iraq, and the senior Kurdish political leadership say that's the best way to protect their prosperity and security, most anyone in Sulaymaniyah says that federalism is a stepping stone to eventual independence. After so many years of fighting the central government, they fear Baghdad could turn on them.

There's also fear of being sucked into Iraq's spiral of violence. Former guerrillas patrolled roads on March 21, worried that suicide attackers would seek to strike here on a symbolically important day.

Part of the reason that Kurdish national aspirations remain so strong is that Newroz came with a set of myths befitting a people who felt oppressed and robbed by history. Kurdish children are brought up on the legend of Kawa, a courageous blacksmith who lived 2,500 years ago under the tyranny of King Zuhak, a monster with two serpents growing from his shoulder who fed on the brains of small children. He was so evil that spring no longer came to Kurdistan.

One popular version of the myth has it that Kawa, asked to send his seventh and last child to Zuhak, hid his son in the mountains with other fleeing children. Over time, Kawa turned the children into an army and, on March 20, marched on the castle and smote the king dead with his hammer. Fires were lit on the hillsides to celebrate the victory, so the story goes, and spring at last returned the next day.

Over the past 30 years the Kurds came to see Hussein, particularly since the atrocities of the campaigns of the 1980s, which included the murder of 5,000 Kurds at Halabja, as a latter-day Zuhak.

"We're so happy Saddam is gone, we live in hope that our rights will be protected now,'' says Chi Bahaddin, a young wife decked out in a red-sequined dress. Still, she's not satisfied. "It would have been best for everybody if he had been killed with a hammer."

Star Arif says this is the happiest Newroz he's ever celebrated. "I can't remember when I felt this safe, this free from worries. This time last year, as the war was starting, we were hiding in the hills afraid we might be gassed by Saddam,'' he says. "But our struggle isn't over. Federalism is a stage we have to pass through for independence."

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