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SHOWDOWN WITH IRAQ

Iraqi Kurds Flee Hussein's Reach

March 18, 2003|Jeffrey Fleishman | Times Staff Writer

CHAMCHAMAL, Iraq — Crammed into the back of a pick-up truck with her daughters, Zainab Rashid was a refugee again. Her hair covered with a scarf and her hands as coarse as rope, she looked toward the mountains, unsure of where to go but guessing that the plains beyond were the safest place this seething country could offer.

"We are afraid of Saddam's chemicals," she said, peeking out from beneath a tarp sheltering the truck bed. "We don't know anybody. We're just going far away from here."

The road leading out of this town, which has a population of 60,000 and is well within the range of hostile Iraqi artillery, was packed with refugees Monday as panic spread across northern Iraq. More than 6,000 people fled Chamchamal and thousands more left Irbil and other cities and towns in the autonomous Kurdish enclave that is protected by a U.S.-British "no-fly" zone.

Kurds fear that if Iraqi President Saddam Hussein battles U.S. forces, he will aim some of his fury toward a people he has despised since seizing power in 1979. Tens of thousands of Kurds were killed in ethnic cleansing campaigns, and 5,000 died when the Iraqi army unleashed chemical weapons on the town of Halabja in 1988. Rising like blisters in the hills around Chamchamal, new Iraqi bunkers lurk with mortars and cannons, reminders that Hussein, even from a distance, is lethal.

Most of Chamchamal's shops were open Monday. The bazaar was crowded. Children trundled to school. But something was different. Trucks heavy with televisions, refrigerators, pictures, blankets, cribs, vegetables and pots rattled through dirt alleys. Glinting in the midday sun, small caravans of taxis, buses and tractors meandered out of town, their engines whining, east toward cloud shadows moving across the mountains.

Scenes of fleeing refugees have snapped this region out of a lull. Kurds have been expecting war, but they have been numbed by the diplomatic maneuverings and politics surrounding the United Nations and Baghdad. Hussein's removal has seemed an unattainable goal. But President Bush's weekend summit with the leaders of Britain and Spain has jolted Kurds into believing that B-1 bombers and cruise missiles are days away.

As people fled north, the south side of Chamchamal was quiet. The checkpoint here is usually busy with smugglers and merchants from Kirkuk, an oil-rich city about 20 miles away that is controlled by Hussein. But there were no lines of cars Monday, only a lopsided bus or two and a few boys looking for a lost cow. News of relatives on the other side of the checkpoint was scarce. The Iraqi army, according to Kurdish border guards, has been imposing curfews in Kirkuk and preventing people from leaving.

Rumor mingled with truth; the jargon of war was vivid. Those fleeing Kirkuk told of young men being rounded up, trenches being dug, troops flooding streets and explosives being rigged to the city's 350 oil wells, which produce one-third of Iraq's output.

"They arrested some of our neighbors," said Rangedar Abdul-Rahman, who fled Kirkuk in a bus that stopped for a moment at the checkpoint here. "There's lots of army in there."

Kurdish border guard Salar Faiq stood sweating in his fatigues, his Kalashnikov dangling at his side. He questioned the tenacity of the Iraqi army. Most of the soldiers, he said, will defect and will need to be fed and clothed. He has heard of the enemy on the hill from the people in the nearby village of Shorish.

"The villagers say that the Iraqi soldiers sometimes come down into the village and ask for food," Faiq said. "An Iraqi officer told the villagers, 'We'll be very happy when the U.S. attack starts and we're rid of what we're in.' One Iraqi soldier who came to the village wore one boot and one shoe."

Zainab Rashid was pale as she sat in the back of the pick-up, stopped on the side of the road. She waited as a relative worked on the broken engine of another truck while his family watched over the belongings -- shoes, brooms, bags of clothes, a dresser and a TV antenna. In a slow grind of gears, other families rolled by, moving past refugee tents pitched 12 years ago and still home for hundreds of Kurds.

About 800,000 internally displaced people from past conflicts live in the Kurdish-run areas of northern Iraq. Some humanitarian aid officials suggest that another war would send 500,000 more into the region.

A refugee exodus is not expected to be as dire here as in 1991, when more than 1 million Iraqis slept outside in the mountains. Since then, hundreds of villages have been rebuilt.

"My husband was killed in Saddam's attacks in 1988," said Rashid, crowded close to her two daughters. "I'm afraid it's happening again."

Someone asked if she favored a U.S. invasion.

She and her daughters nodded their heads. The men standing around them did, too.

"Yes, yes," Rashid said. "We want this war. I want him gone. He killed my husband. He murdered my brother, my sister, my uncles. I lost 25 members of my family. We don't care about these hard times coming. Just get rid of him."

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