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Residents of border town locked in standoff with Iraqi soldiers

KALAK, Iraq—It's a drab little village, pleasant enough when the olive trees are in flower, but mostly it's just sunburned shepherds and their black-faced sheep. Even the locals admit that Kalak is unremarkable—except that it's probably the most dangerous place in all of Iraq.

Pitched above a broad tributary of the Tigris River, Kalak is part of Kurdistan, that broad swatch of northern Iraq that's beyond Saddam Hussein's control. A quarter-mile away, dug into a ridgeline above the town, Saddam's infantry keeps a wary 24-hour watch on the well-armed Kurdish militia stationed in the village.

The standoff has left everyone frightened and nervous. Hair-triggered Iraqi sentries shoot at anyone who ventures too close to their bunkers or trenches, and the broad sloping pastures below their positions are heavily mined. Kalak villagers still jump when they hear that odd and sickening sound—a short, muffled explosion—that tells them another wayward sheep has stepped on a land mine.

Sometimes, heavy rains unearth a patch of Iraqi mines, which tumble downhill into the village. The latest victim was a boy who kicked at a loose mine that ended up on a soccer field.

So many Kalak men have fled the frontier or been killed in battles that women now outnumber men by 8 to 1. Everybody in Kalak, of course, blames Saddam.

Aisha Malood was washing some turnips the other day, and the water in her bowl had turned a dark crimson.

"I wish this was Saddam's blood on my hands, Insha'allah," she said, appealing to Allah to make it so. "I'd love to have his blood up to my elbows. I'd slay him myself, and then I'd bury him directly under my outhouse. Only then would the Iraqi people finally be free of him."

Just down the lane, under a pomegranate tree in her backyard, Amina Ahmed was stoking an outdoor oven and turning out thin, crisp wheels of nan, the flat Kurdish bread. She had heard, yes, that Iraqi troopers are now begging local shepherds to bring them bread.

"But those soldiers will get no bread from me," said the 65-year-old widow. "They terrorize us every day, just by being up there on our hills."

"If Saddam came to Kalak, I wouldn't give him bread. I'd give him rat poison. I'd slaughter him."

She squinted, smiled, and then slowly drew a finger across her throat.

Ahmed's mud-walled house overlooks the Zab River, which is rushing fast these days, swollen by the snowmelt from the nearby mountains. The Zab dumps into the Tigris, which, 200 miles downstream, runs right through Baghdad.

The Kurds of Kalak have been battling Baghdad for nearly 35 years. After the 1991 Gulf war and a failed Kurdish uprising, the terrified villagers fled to Iran. When they returned, their Arab neighbors had looted their homes.

"They even took my baby's cradle," said Aisha Malood.

"In the last war, I fled," said the widow Ahmed. "This time, I'm staying put."

The Kurds have driven all the Arabs out of Kalak, which sits just above the 36th parallel, a few miles inside the United Nations no-fly zone. As a village, it's not much to look at—stray dogs, the bleating sheep, some vegetable patches, a few shops and schools, a scattering of low-slung houses.

Look closer, though, and nearly every one of Kalak's houses is pockmarked with a bullet hole, or five, or 20. Look into the courtyards of those houses and there's sure to be a few Kalashnikovs propped in a corner, loaded and ready. Look at the arms or the chests of the Kalak men and there's sure to be a purpled scar or two from an Iraqi bullet or bayonet. The hard history of Kalak is right there, shot right into their bodies.

Their children know the history, too. They learn it in Patriotism class.

"The main theme of the Patriotism class is an independent Kurdistan," said Ali Zorab Ali, headmaster at the Avesta Primary School for Girls. "We teach them about homeland, nationality, democracy and dictators.

"Our children also know about fear and tension. They learn this at an early age. They're used to soldiers in the streets, the low-flying American planes, and regular evacuations of the town. Sadly, these things have become normal for them."

Kalak's crumbling police station serves as the headquarters of the protective Kurdish forces, an odd mix of regular soldiers and security brigades from the Kurdistan Democratic Party, furtive intelligence men driving battered Peugeot sedans, and squads of volunteer peshmerga, the Kurdish guerrilla fighters.

Most days, the KDP security commander prowls the roof of the stationhouse, fingering his string of worry beads, smoking ferociously and peering through his field glasses at the Iraqis up on the ridge. He also looks downstream to a new bridge spanning the Zab, a bridge that's capable, he said, of handling tank columns.

One side of the half-mile bridge is controlled by his men, the other side by Saddam's. If a war breaks out, the first order of battle is to seize and hold that bridge. After that, the important oil center of Mosul is just a day's march.

"We can't wait. We want a war as soon as possible so we can be rid of Saddam and his damned soldiers," said Capt. Hajar Mullah Omar, the Kurdish commander. "Whenever the people in the village hear the news that the war has been delayed again, they feel sick.

"That's our land up there," he said, pointing to the Iraqi positions, "and very soon we're going to reclaim it. Even the oldest shepherd here is ready to fight. Give us one day of American bombing and there won't be a single Iraqi soldier in sight."

He smiled and nodded confidently, then told about an Iraqi trooper who recently crept down near the village. The soldier told a local man to spread the word among the townspeople.

"Please don't shoot us if a war breaks out at night," the Iraqi said. "I promise you we'll be gone by morning."

Local shepherds who graze their flocks near the bunkers say the Iraqi soldiers are shabbily clothed and poorly provisioned. They refer to the sentries as "shaqeena," cracked and crumbling like an old stone wall.

Only one shepherd from Kalak, a deaf and mute young fellow named Hazim Fattah, is allowed to pass beyond the "red line" that separates Iraqi and Kurdish territories.

When Fattah or his sheep stray too close to a minefield, the soldiers toss rocks at him to warn him off. Last week, however, hungry troopers stole one of Fattah's sheep while he was taking a nap in a pasture. Before they could butcher and grill the sheep, an apologetic Iraqi lieutenant returned it.

"I was happy to get my sheep back, but those men are not our brothers," said Fattah, using sign language. "We want the American bombers to come tomorrow. They will kill the soldiers and we can finally get our pastures back."


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

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): border+village

GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): border+village