CHAMCHAMAL, Iraq—Hundreds of young Kurdish men fearing arrest by Saddam Hussein's Iraqi regime have begun fleeing the oil city of Kirkuk to rebel Kurd-held northern Iraq, Kurdish officials and escapees said Friday.
The flights are being prompted by word-of-mouth reports that the Arab-dominated regime is rounding up minority Kurds to forestall an insurrection coinciding with a U.S.-led attack, they said.
The escapes could be the prelude to a major exodus of Kurds from the Kirkuk area amid the growing likelihood that President Bush will soon order U.S.-led forces massing on Iraq's borders to invade and oust Saddam.
The Kirkuk region, home to one of Iraq's largest oil fields, with 10 billion barrels of proven reserves, will be a main objective of any U.S. assault on northern Iraq. Kirkuk sits just behind the Iraqi army's front with Kurdish rebels.
Underground networks in Kirkuk of the main Kurdish rebel groups, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and the Kurdistan Democratic Party, are believed to be planning to revolt if a U.S. invasion begins.
Kurdish security officials at the Chamchamal checkpoint, about 500 yards from the Iraqi front lines, said more than 700 young Kurdish men who fled Kirkuk had registered with them since Wednesday.
Officials in Irbil, the largest city in the enclave controlled by Kurdish rebels, estimated that 350 residents of Kirkuk had arrived there. They began arriving Thursday by taxi, car, bus and on foot.
"There is a campaign to arrest young people, especially at night," said Ali, 21, who made the 25-mile trip to Chamchamal late Friday afternoon.
As did the others who agreed to talk, Ali insisted on using an alias to protect family members who remained behind.
He and his brother and cousin were among about 20 young men who arrived during a one-hour period. All said they would be staying with relatives.
Baghdad allows Kurds from the areas its controls to cross into the rebel Kurd-held enclave to visit relatives.
Tens of thousands of Kurds, Turkmen and other minorities have been living in the northern enclave since they were expelled from the Kirkuk region. The expulsions took place in waves of ethnic cleansing conducted by Saddam's Baath Party since it seized power in 1968. Thousands have been killed or have disappeared.
Their property has been given to Arabs from elsewhere in Iraq. The "Arabization" program is aimed at consolidating Baghdad's grip on oil-rich areas dominated by minorities.
The young men who fled Kirkuk on Friday said they had no problems clearing Iraqi checkpoints because security officials readily accepted bribes.
Reports of roundups of young Kurdish men began circulating about a week ago, they said. None said he personally knew anyone who had been arrested.
"Young males are afraid, and they want to leave," said Sarkawt, a 21-year-old construction worker who fled with his cousin. "The other day in the Iskan neighborhood, they (Iraqi officials) cut the telephones so people could not speak to each other."
The men said they were afraid because in a 1991 Kurdish insurrection, hundreds of young Kurdish men were murdered or disappeared after being arrested. The insurrection was encouraged and then abandoned by the first President Bush after Saddam's defeat in the 1991 Gulf War.
Hawlati, an independent weekly published in the Kurd-controlled city of Sulaimaniyah, reported Wednesday that 150 Kurds had been taken into custody at the beginning of the week. There was no independent confirmation of the report.
The young men said that Iraqi security forces and Baath Party paramilitary units have dug trenches on street corners and imposed a nighttime curfew,
Limo, 20, one of five women who said they, too, were fleeing, contended that Iraqi security forces have been searching Kurdish homes for weapons.
Kirkuk residents have been told to leave their doors open at all times so that Iraqi soldiers can duck into houses to take cover if an aerial assault begins.
Residents in the important oil city of Mosul have been ordered by the authorities not to leave their homes to seek refuge outside the city. A new edict says vacated houses will be seized.
In a related development, a New York-based human rights organization charged in a report released Friday that Saddam's "Arabization" campaign has continued unabated since the 1991 uprising.
Human Rights Watch said that it "believes that the Iraqi government's systematic and continuing forced transfer" of an estimated 120,000 minorities is a crime against humanity.
If U.S. troops invade, they must prevent displaced people from wreaking vengeance on those who expelled them and those who occupied their properties, the report said.
(Mark Johnson in Irbil, Iraq, contributed to this article.)
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.