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Turkish truckers bring stories of fearful Iraqis, ragged troops over border

HABUR GATE, Turkey—The tough Turkish truckers who make weekly runs to Saddam Hussein's oil refineries in northern Iraq are bringing back accounts of a massive new Iraqi military buildup in the region, along with tales of a panicked local population and barracks full of hungry and bedraggled Iraqi soldiers.

"They are digging new bunkers and bomb shelters, and there are lots of tanks now," said Resim Gul, 26, a trucker who's been hauling Iraqi crude for the past four years. "Trucks full of new soldiers are arriving every day. And lots of big anti-aircraft guns. They're new. It's all new."

The Iraqi military may try to defend Mosul and Kirkuk, major refinery towns and two of Iraq's most prized strategic assets, against coalition ground troops that could attack south from Turkey through the Habur Gate. Worse, some American war planners think, Saddam may be preparing to destroy the oil fields before the United States and its allies can seize them.

The Turkish truckers report that the Iraqi soldiers who are moving into the north don't look very fresh, however. One driver said they looked as if they'd already been through a war.

"The soldiers are going hungry," said Ismail Gergez, 26, a tanker driver from the ancient Turkish hill town of Mardin, which overlooks the Syrian border. "They are wearing old, dirty uniforms. They don't even look like soldiers. They're living in their barracks in disaster conditions."

The truckers say everyday Iraqis are anxious and fearful—anxious about a war, fearful of their leader.

"I know the Iraqi people very well—I spend a lot of time there—and they're scared of Saddam," said Gergez, who recently spent 20 days in Mosul when Iraqi customs officials impounded his truck. "They speak against him, but only to the drivers and always very secretly.

"They ask us drivers, `Are the U.S. soldiers on the Turkish side yet? Are they coming?' "

The Turkish truckers are among the few outsiders who are allowed to enter Iraq regularly. They seem to have better access than chief United Nations weapons inspector Hans Blix. Every day, their trailers and tankers are backed up for miles outside the Habur Gate, a grimy border crossing at the foot of the majestic, snow-capped Cudiz Mountains.

The lineup of trucks now snakes past something new on the road to the border, a refugee camp that's being built in a sodden 200-acre field just off the roadway. The tent camp, due to be finished this week, will house some of the 300,000 Iraqi refugees who are expected to cross the mountains into Turkey if a war starts. In the 1991 Persian Gulf War, a half-million refugees crossed over.

Truckers have dubbed the two-lane highway to Habur the Silk Road, although their cargoes are much less elegant than silk—potatoes and sugar, clothes and cement, all of it subject to approval by the U.N. oil-for-food program. After the trucks unload in Iraq, they must return empty to Turkey.

The oil tankers work the opposite way: They enter Iraq empty and return to Turkey with full loads of crude. The oil, pumped from various wellheads and refineries in Iraq, is usually trucked back through Habur to the Turkish port of Mersin on the Mediterranean Sea.

The inspections of the trucks going into Iraq are rigorous and `round the clock. Inspectors at the Habur Gate said they especially looked for prohibited chemicals and industrial machinery—and anything radioactive.

One recent afternoon, an alarm sounded in the Habur Gate customs office as a truckload of Turkish tobacco rolled past special sensors. The truck was immediately stopped and an inspector, wearing no protection other than a dark-blue windbreaker, swept the outside of the trailer with a handheld, shoebox-sized Geiger counter.

"It's a dangerous job," the inspector said later, with a grimace. "Luckily, we've never found anything serious."

The U.N. sanctions against Iraq have seriously damaged the Turkish economy. With much less cargo to haul into Iraq and nothing but crude oil to carry out, thousands of cabs and trailers are rusting away in "truck graveyards" all over southeastern Turkey. Most of the drivers haven't found substitute work.

"The drivers are very angry, yes," said Sharif Mustak, the caretaker of the Basra Truck Park, who watches over hundreds of idle trucks, many of which bear hand-painted slogans asking for Allah's guidance and for divine protection against the evil eye. "The trucks just sit here, and even though there's no work, the drivers still have to pay the taxes."

Flatbed truckers used to bring refined diesel fuel back from Iraq. They would pump the cheap diesel into 1,000-gallon fiberglass tanks and sell it for huge profits back in Turkey. But after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the Turkish government stopped this so-called "fiber trade," and the local economy went into the ditch.

Up and down the economic ladder, there has been collateral damage: Pushcart vendor Selahaddin Eren, who hawks bread, boiled eggs, aspirin and razors to Iraqi-bound truckers, has seen his daily sales drop from $11 to less than $2.

"Life is difficult already, and war will make things worse," said Eren, 56, a father of eight who sports a blue Sacramento Kings cap. "Everyone will suffer. Children will die. We pray for no war."


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): Iraq+buildup