SULAIMANIYAH, Iraq—Iraq's long-suffering Kurds are hoping that their Saddam Hussein nightmare is coming to an end. But they want any U.S.-led attack to begin soon and end as quickly as possible.
With the Pentagon eyeing their autonomous northern enclave as a staging ground for a U.S.—led invasion force, many Kurds are terrified that Saddam could target them once more with chemical weapons.
Haunted by the gassing of thousands of their kin in the late 1980s and skeptical of U.N. arms inspections, families have prepared makeshift gas masks, hoarded cash, and readied food, clothes, blankets and plastic sheets for a sudden escape to the snow-clad mountains.
Local authorities have drawn up disaster relief plans. But they admit there would be little they could do for mass casualties from missiles loaded with chemical warheads.
"We don't have the means of protecting ourselves," said Hakim Qader Azez, the mayor of Sulaimaniyah, one of Iraqi Kurdistan's largest cities.
There are other worries, including some foreboding that President Bush, like his father, could abandon the Kurds after encouraging them to revolt against Saddam.
The threat of war is starting to hurt what has been the Vermont-size enclave's thriving economy. There also is concern about a flood of refugees from elsewhere in Iraq. And there is deep uncertainty about how Iraq's virtually independent Kurds, whose territory borders on Syria, Turkey and Iran, would fit into a post-Saddam political system dominated by the country's Arab majority.
Still, many Kurds have taken to heart President Bush's call to end the repression and atrocities they have endured on and off since Saddam's Baath Party's first stint in power in the 1960s. For that, they say, they will risk the Iraqi dictator's wrath one last time.
"Saddam will be replaced and a new democratic government will come. America says Iraq will be a democracy," declared Najmadi Hamafaraj, a wizened veteran of several Kurdish uprisings against Baghdad.
Hamafaraj is a caretaker at Sulaimaniyah's former secret police headquarters, a walled compound in which unknown numbers of Kurds were crammed into tiny cells, tortured in windowless rooms and hanged in execution chambers from rusty iron hooks.
The bullet-scared compound, dubbed "Red Security," was gutted in a Kurdish revolt after the 1991 Gulf War and is being turned into a war crimes museum. Statues of blindfolded and manacled prisoners stand in gloomy halls that once echoed with screams. The walls bear the scrawls of doomed inmates.
Iraqi Kurdistan's nearly 4 million people have enjoyed relative freedom since the region was proclaimed a U.N. safe haven after the 1991 uprising, Saddam's forces left, and U.S. and British aircraft began enforcing a no-fly zone.
Since then, Iraq's Kurds have made major strides toward overcoming widespread poverty that ensued from decades of misrule and conflicts with Baghdad. While the main Kurdish parties—the Democratic Party of Kurdistan and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan—fought a 1994-96 civil war that left the region divided, their rival governments have begun cooperating with each other.
Helped by billions of dollars from the U.N.-run Oil-for-Food program and international aid, thousands of devastated villages have been rebuilt, families resettled, roads repaired, minefields uprooted and utilities restored.
Gleaming, Western-style stores filled with imported goods and Internet cafes have sprung up. Iraqi opposition groups operate offices, newspapers and television stations, and Western-accredited medical schools are training a new generation of doctors.
A fear of that all of this could be jeopardized is helping to roil the Kurds' anxieties over a possible U.S.-led attack.
So is the presence of CIA personnel and U.S. Special Forces troops who ride in convoys of vehicles with blacked-out windows as they survey airstrips for possible use as stepping stones in an invasion of Iraq.
When the Iraqi regime flexed its muscle and closed the border to U.N.-managed fuel and food shipments for a day earlier this month, panic ensued in Sulaimaniyah, from where the PUK runs its half of the region, amid fears that an attack was imminent.
Gas stations closed, the prices of fuel and food rose, and some people fled the city. Baghdad has restored only about 40 percent of the fuel supplies.
"Business is bad," complained Rebwar Tufik, 33, who hawks used shoes from a small shop in one of Sulaimaniyah's bazaars. "People are not buying. Some days, I make no sales at all."
"We don't know whether there will be an (American attack). They should attack only the regime, not ordinary people, and do it quickly," he said.
Adnan Mufti, a Patriotic Union of Kurdistan Politburo member whose term as deputy prime minister of the PUK-run half of Iraqi Kurdistan ended last month, said be believes that fears that Saddam could attack are overblown.
Yet he continued: "Maybe if he has no choice and he can't attack other places, he will attack this area. If they (the United States) bring forces in here, this area will become one of his targets."
Like many people in their neighborhood of ramshackle homes and narrow alleys, Aram Kader Saeed's family is taking no chances. They learned a lot when the Iraqi army moved in to crush the 1991 uprising and they were forced to flee.
"My family and my neighbors have collected everything: money, shoes and clothes," said Saeed, 22, an English language major at Sulaimaniyah University. "We plan to go to our village in the mountains."
Sitting on the floor of her tiny living room, Saeed's mother, Saberi Ali, 38, pulled out bags filled with cash and personal papers. Inside were also crude gas masks: small charcoal-filled sachets that she said she would tie around her two youngest children's mouths and noses.
Saeed's father, Qader Saeed Sabri, 41, a municipal worker, demonstrated how he, his wife and four older children would first throw water-soaked blankets over themselves. Next, they would slip baggy garments over their clothes and rubber shoes on their feet, he said, and hope to survive one more war.
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): IRAQ+KURDS
GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20030127 IRAQ KURDS