SHORISH COLLECTIVE TOWN, Iraq—Even in the best of times, life is a struggle for the more than 45,000 Kurds in Shorish, a listless settlement of ramshackle compounds, open sewers and unpaved streets.
Corralled here in ethnic cleansing purges by the Arab-dominated Iraqi regime in the late 1980s and in 1991, few people have steady work, half lack running water and nearly all survive on handouts from the U.N.-run oil for food program.
Life may be about to get even harder.
With Iraqi troops, artillery and tanks dug into ridges and hilltops 500 yards from the edge of town for more than a decade, the people of Shorish could find themselves on the front lines of a U.S.-led war to topple Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.
Shorish is part of Kurdistan, the autonomous northern enclave that has defied Saddam and lived by its own rule for more than a decade. It's next to the main highway that leads to the city of Kirkuk, about 25 miles to the south. The region around that city, from which Shorish's inhabitants were expelled, sits atop one of Iraq's largest oil fields, with 10 billion barrels of proven reserves.
If President Bush orders an invasion, the American troops and tanks that are expected to mass in the Kurd-controlled north would have to grind past Shorish to secure Kirkuk and its oil fields before the Iraqis could destroy them. From there, they would be within striking distance of Saddam's hometown of Tikrit.
But to get to Kirkuk, they would have to break through the lines of Iraqi troops and tanks that stretch along the other side of a 400-yard-wide no-man's land that begins where Shorish ends.
Local officials and many residents said they didn't think the Iraqi forces hunkered down in bunkers, trenches and scattered stands of spruce trees would put up much of a fight.
Morale is low and dislike of Saddam is high among the Iraqi troops, they said, quoting deserters who steal away from their units every few days and are harbored in Shorish until they are whisked off by security officials from the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, which rules this part of the Kurdish enclave.
Tension is growing because of the uncertainty of what will happen, the appearance in recent days of new Iraqi army lookout posts and bulldozers, and the reported arrivals of more Iraqi troops and heavy weapons.
"Yesterday, they deployed five large cannons and 11 rocket launchers that fire 40 rounds each," said Hussein Mohammad Ahmed, the commander of the guards who man the last PUK checkpoint on the highway.
Pointing to the slopes below the Iraqi front lines, he said: "It's all mined, and heavily mined at that."
Most of Shorish's inhabitants were driven from their land and their homes were destroyed in a series of Iraqi offensives in 1988 code-named al Anfal, "the spoils," which included the use of chemical weapons against civilians. The onslaught was aimed at depriving Kurdish rebels of refuge and support.
Saddam also settled Arabs in oil-rich Kurdish areas, especially Kirkuk, in a resettlement program that continues today.
Tens of thousands of Kurds were penned up in concentration camp-style collective towns such as Shorish under the watch of Iraqi troops. More were driven into Shorish when Iraqi forces crushed an uprising after the 1991 Persian Gulf War, and have remained there.
Conditions have improved somewhat since the oil-for-food program began in 1997. The program allows Iraq to sell a certain amount of oil and use the proceeds to meet the humanitarian needs of its people.
International assistance has built schools and more than 400 simple townhouse-like homes in Shorish. The makeshift compounds are divided by dirt streets and rock-strewn fields where youths play soccer. The entire settlement has electricity.
But aside from shopkeepers, 52 women hold the only steady jobs, making bricks from mud in a factory set up with foreign aid. Some men worked as day laborers on U.N.-funded reconstruction projects, but those jobs dried up in an environment of possible war and economic instability.
An estimated 70 percent of Shorish's men were forced to make a living risking their lives smuggling sheep, auto parts, electronic goods and cooking oil into the Kurds' enclave, which has been under Iraqi army blockade since 1991.
Moving at night, smugglers hired by Kurdish businessmen would lead donkeys past the Iraqi lines, pick up their loads and return to Shorish through hills held by the Iraqi army.
Smuggling virtually stopped about a month ago, because the buildup of Iraqi troops made it too dangerous.
"If this situation continues, we will all go broke," lamented Mustafa Saeed, 36, who was wounded by Iraqi army gunfire in his right arm last summer on a smuggling trip.
Not everyone has stopped smuggling, however.
Mohammad Majid Hassan, 22, sat on a white donkey, a scarf tied rakishly on his head, a Kalashnikov assault rifle across his knees. He planned a trip to pick up 40 sheep.
"There is a way, but it is a bit risky because the Iraqis have deployed more forces," Hassan said. "There are people who do not dare to continue, and there are people who are too poor and have no choice."
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): shorish