- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 18, 2003

CHAMCHAMAL, Iraq Kurds throughout northern Iraq fled cities for mountain villages yesterday fearing chemical attacks from President Saddam Hussein and a crackdown by his enforcers in territory now controlled by Baghdad.
"It is not the fear of the American attack which pushed me to flee," said Hassan Oman Aziz, 18, who left his paralyzed father and crying mother in the oil-rich city of Kirkuk during the weekend to take refuge here. "It is Saddam's wrath that frightens me."
Many said they were going to stay with relatives in mountain villages and had no plans to cross into neighboring Turkey, Syria and Iran as more than a million did after a failed Kurdish uprising in 1991.
By yesterday, Iraqi forces managed to halt much of the traffic leaving Kirkuk, a key city under Baghdad's control 25 miles from the front line of territory controlled by Kurdish forces.
The road from Chamchamal to eastern Iraqi Kurdistan's administrative center of Sulaymaniya was busy with taxis, tractors and trucks loaded with families and their possessions. The enclave is protected by U.S.-British air patrols.
In Baghdad, residents prepared for the worst, flooding markets to stock up on food, lining up for gas and bread, and taping their windows for fear of flying glass from U.S. bombs.
Store owners moved their merchandise to the relative safety of warehouses, fearing bombs and looting if a war starts.
As if to reflect the ominous mood overwhelming Baghdad residents, the city was also enveloped in slate gray cloud yesterday.
"This is a miserable life. We spent our whole life shopping for wars or hiding from bombs," said Ahmed, a driver.
In Kirkuk, a city subjected to an Arabization campaign in recent years in which tens of thousands of Kurds were expelled and others forced into cramped ghettos, police raids were accompanied by a 9 p.m. curfew imposed two weeks ago.
According to some reports, Kurds in Kirkuk have begun publicly burning pictures of Saddam, just as they did during a failed uprising against the Baghdad regime after the 1991 Persian Gulf war.
Saddam reportedly has dug 6-foot-deep trenches around the city. They are to be filled with oil and set ablaze when American troops arrive, several Kurds leaving Kirkuk said.
Under such pressures, thousands of Kurdish families have fled in recent days, winding up at frontier towns such as Chamchamal or Kalak.
The least fortunate wind up in refugee tent camps like those in Takia, along the road leading from Chamchamal to Sulaymaniya.
Just days before the traditional Kurdish New Year celebrations on March 21, newly arrived residents are filled with anguish.
"My mother was afraid, so she brought us here," said a weeping Rezan Kamil Darwish, 11. "I hope my father can come soon."
Kurds say that once Kirkuk falls from Saddam's grasp, a democratic government in Baghdad will begin an orderly process to return people to their homes.
But for Kirkuk's Kurds, past injustices cast a long shadow.
"The situation became intolerable in Kirkuk," said Mr. Aziz, who filled a taxi with a few personal possessions and quietly left the city across the Chamchamal checkpoint. "Every day, one lives in fear of being arrested."
He added, "I have grown to hate the Arabs."
Security forces from the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, the faction that controls the eastern part of rebel territory, said traffic across the front line had almost halted.
One bus that did make it through was packed with residents from Kirkuk, who said the Iraqi security services were preventing people from leaving the city and attempting to press young men into the military.
"To make it this far I had to bribe everyone. I was stopped and told I should defend my country, so I had to pay money. Then I paid more at all the check posts on the road," said a young Kurdish student who gave his name only as Mohammed.
There were similar scenes elsewhere as people fled the cities of northern Iraq for villages.
The road between northwestern Dohuk and Erbil, stronghold of the rebel Kurdistan Democratic Party, was filled with families who loaded trucks and tractors with their goods, carpets, blankets and fuel.
Long lines of people wanting emergency supplies were appearing at filling stations on the outskirts of Dohuk.
Residents of Salahaddin, the Kurdistan Democratic Party headquarters 13 miles from Erbil, also began moving to places perceived as safer amid speculation that the hilltop town would become a headquarters of the U.S. Army if Washington brings in troops through Turkey to open a northern front against Baghdad.

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