Unease in one freed Iraqi city

Iraq forces retreated from Sheikhan last weekend, but local Kurds remain apprehensive about the future.

Painted in classical Arabic on the walls on each side of the gubernatorial desk is a quote by Saddam Hussein. Only the Iraqi president's name is missing, swiftly hacked away by residents who only 48 hours ago were under his control.

After a Saturday night battle with Kurdish and US forces, the Iraqi military retreated from this town of 12,000, cracking like plaster beneath the picks of people keen to erase the dictator's name from the wall - and his rule from their lives.

"The people were so angry, they could have done that with their bare hands," says Basil Joqi Darwish, who took over as governor as soon as the Iraqi military and its affiliated political bosses from Hussein's Baath Party retreated toward Mosul, 18 miles south of here.

The arrival of Kurdish fighters called pesh merga along with leaders of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) from the autonomous zone, imposed a modicum of order on Sheikhan, the largest northern town to be "liberated." That and sheer fear of what comes next has helped avert the sort of chaos and looting racking Basra in southern Iraq.

While some Kurdish cities have erupted in jubilation at the presence of allied forces, there was no celebrating on the streets here. Rather, people expressed a sense of uncertainty about the future and a sadness for the war's civilian casualties. Residents are still afraid to give their last names for fear that Mr. Hussein could be back.

"Nobody here is celebrating because the liberation is not complete. We will celebrate when all of Iraq is celebrating ... when we can be 100 percent certain that Saddam Hussein is dead," says Marwan, a young man who, like many here, says the only income to be made in recent years has been from smuggling goods between Iraqi-controlled oil-rich city of Mosul and the nearby autonomous Kurdish territory his town has just joined.

People here are loath to discuss another important source of economic survival: working as jash, the pro-Hussein Kurdish militia cultivated by Baghdad. The jash - a derogatory Kurdish term meaning donkeys - were paid by Hussein to fight against mainstream Kurdish groups such as the KDP.

On any map of the past 30 years, Sheikhan appears as Ain Sifni - the Arabic name the Baath Party gave it when it came to power. The name Sheikhan, like the majority of residents, is Kurdish. Before the war began, Baath Party loyalists - Arabs whom Hussein moved here from other parts of Iraq - entreated every man in town to join in the fight against the invaders. "They asked us every day, and we promised the Baath Party that we would help resist. But none of us did," says Thear Khidir Aidu, a father of four who says that the worst part of life under the Iraqi regime was his mandatory military service.

Issa Sindi, a sun-baked pesh merga commander who was involved in capturing the town, says the battle only lasted a couple of hours. "They didn't have faith in what they were fighting for," he says. "The resistance was not as large as we expected."

The newly arrived Kurdish administration, which considered itself a government-in-exile until two days ago, says it will not blame the jash as traitors. "The Kurdish people here did not provide any resistance to our military, and so they are welcomed," says Mr. Darwish. "They could not turn their weapons against us, so we respect them and they respect us."

Soon after the Iraqi military retreated, portraits of Hussein came down, replaced by pictures of Massoud Barzani, the leader of the half of Kurdish-controlled territory in northern Iraq run by the KDP. Save for the removal of Hussein's image and his crudely expunged name, nearly everything in the governor's office is the same. A list of the town's population groups on the wall claims that three major Arab tribes make up the majority of its inhabitants, the legacy of Hussein's Arabization policy which moved in people from other parts of the country and often deprived Kurds of their land.

There has been no revenge violence so far, and Kurdish leaders in the north promise there will not be. In a postwar Iraq, finding a way to balance all of the country's diverse ethnic and religious groups will probably prove more difficult that the war itself.

In Sheikhan, about 60 percent of the people are Kurdish Yezidis; the others are Christians and Muslims. About 100 Arab families remain, but other Arabs who had come from southern Iraq fled the day before fighting began.

Behind the governor's desk is an Arabic map of neighboring Mosul, an oil-wealthy Iraqi city that has become the most active front for attacks from allied US and Kurdish forces.

"This is very strategic land because it has been a security band for Mosul, and for that reason, they wanted to keep Sheikhan," explains Darwish, sitting in an office quickly losing the benefit of daylight. Upon withdrawing, the Iraqi regime cut the electricity and telephone lines to Sheikhan. Now, the ad-hoc KDP government is trying to provide at least some power from generators, working to avoid an image that so far, the war has brought more losses than gains.

"I think it's better to live with Saddam [Hussein] than to have so many civilians being killed," says Mr. Aidu's wife, Khalida Asker Johi, who fears for the lives of her relatives in Mosul. The fighting destroyed her uncle's house, shattered windows in their living room, and terrified her four children. "All we want is a stable situation," she says. "We don't want to see any more war."

The views of other members of her family are far rosier. Her husband says Baath Party members constantly extorted high sums from Kurds. The family's fertile land was taken away from them and given to Arabs.

Part of the confusion might be attributed to the information control people have been living with for so many years. Many have had virtually no access to information about the war or other events of the world, beyond what was provided by Iraqi state-run television.

But all of that may change. A young man who asks not to be named, lists his immediate dreams for the future: satellite television, a mobile phone, and permission to travel abroad - all banned under the Iraqi regime. "I just really want an internet connection," he says.

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