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WAR WITH IRAQ

'Kurds or Arabs, We're All Iraqis'

Despite years of bad blood between the two ethnicities, some are optimistic there is room for forgiveness in a post-Hussein nation.

March 22, 2003|Paul Watson | Times Staff Writer

KALAK, Iraq — It wasn't the bombs falling just over the hills that worried Hazm Mustafa as he stood in this abandoned Kurdish village. The immediate danger was the occasional shot from Iraqi troops a scant 150 yards away.

Mustafa, 50, waited, with an automatic pistol tucked into his cummerbund and two extra clips of bullets, for any Iraqi soldiers looking for a fight. If they come, Mustafa said, he doubted they would bring death this time. He hopes they will come down from the hills to surrender.

Despite the years of bad blood between Iraq's Kurds and Arabs, there is still a little room left for forgiveness, perhaps an optimistic sign of how this region will cope with the post-Saddam Hussein world.

"We felt happy because we thought it was the beginning of Saddam's end," Mustafa said of the first night of heavy bombs to fall on Mosul. "But we also thought about the innocent ones -- including soldiers. They're just being forced to do their duty. Whether Kurds or Arabs, we're all Iraqis."

Half a dozen Kurdish men and boys were gathered around Mustafa, careful to keep a wall between themselves and any snipers, and they all nodded in agreement.

Kalak was once a village of a few thousand Kurds on the outskirts of Mosul, the largest city in northern Iraq with a population of about 1 million people, most of them Arabs. On Wednesday, the Kurds fled, fearing war would prompt Iraq to again use chemical or biological weapons against them.

In the darkness before dawn Friday, warplanes struck targets in and around Mosul with a barrage of at least 30 bombs that began falling about 4:15 a.m., said Sardar Dizayi, 31, a local Kurdish guerrilla commander. The bombing resumed Friday night.

Dizayi said he heard what sounded like one jet circling and attacking in the morning, before things went quiet for some minutes. Then the jet noise returned and the bombing resumed. It was heavy bombardment, the guerrilla fighter said, but not nearly enough for his liking.

"If it goes like that every night, it will take three or four months to finish," he complained.

From the dusty streets of Kalak, dozens of Iraqi soldiers could easily be seen silhouetted against the setting sun Friday, and their hilltop positions would be exposed if U.S. Air Force B-52s carried out the type of intense bombing they did against similar targets in Afghanistan.

But Mustafa and other villagers were relieved that the opening round of bombing was limited in Mosul, whose downtown is about 20 miles away from Kalak.

They hope it's part of a strategy to give Iraqi soldiers defending the city a chance to surrender without a long, bloody battle that could make reconciliation all the more difficult.

For now, Kurdish holdouts in Kalak such as Mustafa say they're convinced that most of the Iraqi soldiers looking down on them are just waiting for a safe opportunity to surrender. Otherwise, Mustafa said, their snipers would be killing Kurds, not simply harassing them with the odd potshot.

By Friday night, no Iraqi army soldiers had broken ranks and given up in Kalak, and military roadblocks were preventing civilians from fleeing Mosul, Dizayi said.

But Iraqi troops were letting a few smugglers' pickup trucks through, their beds filled with barrels of fuel. The black-market trade in gas and diesel with Kurdish-controlled areas is a profitable business for Iraqi officials in Mosul, and in the dying days of the regime, war profiteers are doing well. A 200-liter drum of Mosul gasoline that cost just over $25 a week ago now costs more than $90, and the price is still rising, Dizayi said.

The area's Kurds are eager to see the Iraqi forces taken out of the fight soon because they fear a repeat of a bloodbath in 1992, when Kurdish guerrillas seized large swaths of northern Iraq after a U.S.-led coalition drove Iraqi forces from Kuwait.

Heeding then-President Bush's call for Iraqis to rise up and oust Hussein, Kurds seized part of Mosul only to quickly lose it as allied forces did nothing to stop a brutal counter-offensive.

On Feb. 28, 1993, when Iraqi troops were firmly in control of Mosul again and allied aircraft were protecting Kurds by enforcing a northern no-fly zone, Iraqi soldiers poured down the hillsides into Kalak on a looting spree, said Ali Rasho Mahmood, 65.

There is at least one rifle in every home in Kalak, and the villagers joined guerrilla fighters in what Mahmood and other villagers claimed was a one-sided battle that left scores of Iraqi soldiers dead.

They're likely to think twice before attacking Kalak again, unless it's in a final, vengeful onslaught with chemical or biological weapons. "Chemical weapons is all that scare us -- nothing more," Mahmood said, and he gently stroked the cheek of his 5-year-old grandson, Ahmad Rizgar Ali.

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