HALABJA, Iraq — They speak of it in the mountains. Stories spread from village to village. Rumors are whispered through sips of tea. Old men pull close the guns of their younger days; boys want to be soldiers. A stray mortar shell explodes on a snowy field. Then another. A curl of smoke rises in the wind.
"War is close," said Talaat Habeeb, the bookkeeper at the hospital here. "The news brings more panic every day. Sometimes we think war is coming right away, and in the next moment we're not so sure. But we know it is out there."
Northern Iraq is a centuries-old diary of bloodshed. The Kurds here possess a weary resilience in the face of conflict, accepting it the same way they endure the region's blistering summers and frozen winters. It is part of them. And they know the new war will be fought in this region on two fronts: one targeting Saddam Hussein's Republican Guard to the west in Kirkuk and the other to the east against 500 to 700 guerrillas of Ansar al-Islam, which the Bush administration has designated a terrorist organization.
This land is rich in oil and proverbs. There is a saying that the Kurds have no friends but the mountains. The mountains are redemption. They are barriers to Iran and Turkey, which have long sought to control this land. But the mountains are double-edged, trapping the Kurds against the vicious terrain of geopolitics. Hussein's "ethnic cleansing" and military campaigns have killed more than 180,000 Kurds, including 5,000 who perished in chemical attacks in 1988.
Like family, the land shapes character. The Kurds do not shirk a fight. Many have seen the inside of Hussein's prisons. Many have disappeared into mass graves. In 1975, and again in 1991, they saw the U.S. change its foreign policy tactics, in effect helping Iraqi regimes crush Kurdish rebellions. Without their own country, without the mettle of independence, the Kurds' fate is tied to the whims of larger forces.
Across the cities and hamlets of northern Iraq, 3.5 million Kurds now are painstakingly preparing for a U.S. invasion to topple Hussein. Families are stocking oil and sugar. Candles are bought. Money is hidden, and firearms are loaded. Merchants traveling from Kirkuk tell of Hussein's troops filling deep trenches with crude oil to be set ablaze to darken the sky for American fighter planes.
Islamic militants are getting ready too. Some tuck disposable razors into their pockets to shave beards and disguise their identities. Others are hauling arsenals and archives to caves hidden in mountain canyons. There is a report that the guerrillas in Ansar al-Islam have bought thousands of pounds of dates -- the fruit the prophet Muhammad ate to strengthen himself for battle.
"A bloody battle is coming," one Muslim leader, Ali Bapir, told his followers recently in the village of Khurmal. "Whoever wants to stay, stay. And those who want to leave should flee."
Bapir is a local leader of Komaly Islami, a militant Islamic group with about 1,000 fighters whose base in Khurmal borders Ansar territory. He is a man on a tightrope. Many of his followers support Ansar, but Bapir is seeking to tug his tribe closer to the secular Kurdish government of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, the PUK. Everyone here believes U.S. warplanes will target Ansar strongholds in the early days of an invasion of Iraq. Because Bapir's fighters, with their long beards and Kalashnikovs, could be mistaken for Ansar guerrillas, he is moving them to the sanctuary of mountain gorges.
"Ali Bapir wants to be far away from the big bombs," said one Kurdish official.
Thousands of such decisions are being made across this land, where mountains are brushed with snow and the fields below are tinted with the green of coming spring. Most of life's rhythms are uninterrupted: Shepherds meander on hillsides, men prostrate themselves toward Mecca at noon. But then there are images like that of two little girls in pigtails watching dancing cartoon bears on TV in a military barracks, while their grandfather speaks of Katyusha rockets and suicide bombers.
Villagers say sometimes they hear the whine of a plane. They have never seen it. But it is there, and they insist it must be a U.S. spy drone. Many are gleeful. They want this war, accepting it as a short spasm of pain to get rid of a larger evil. Some are like Abdullah Ahmed Marif, a brown-faced man in a turban who stepped on a land mine and lost a leg in the 1980s.
"When my leg was blown off, they gave me six bottles of blood," he said. "I'm ready for six more. When war comes, I will go to wherever the front is. This war is a time for dancing. We're getting rid of the man who's been trying to kill us."