CHAMCHAMAL, Iraq—With a U.S.-led invasion perhaps only hours away, Chamchamal has become a town of men.
Almost all the women and children are gone in a mass exodus from a broad swath of rebel Kurd-held northern Iraq that is within range of Saddam Hussein's artillery and missiles.
Every family that has fled Chamchamal left behind at least one male member to watch over their homes. The same is true in other towns and villages.
Terrified of being hit by Iraqi chemical weapons, as they were in 1988, tens of thousands of people from across the Kurds' Vermont-size enclave have been taking shelter with friends and relatives in the mountainous interior.
Others have pitched ragged tents and plastic sheets on rain-swept hills close to border crossings with Iran, ready to flee if the looming war does not end quickly.
On Wednesday thousands of people streamed out of Sulaimaniyah, one of the region's main cities, in trucks, buses and cars crammed with blankets, mattresses and other belongings.
By midafternoon, there was only light traffic on the city's normally clogged streets. Most shops and businesses closed, and huge lines of vehicles stood at filling stations, waiting to top up.
"There will be a completed exodus by midnight tonight," predicted Mohammad Chowshin, 37, a traffic policeman. "It is close to Mr. Bush's deadline, and they fear there will be a chemical attack."
But in Chamchamal, 50 miles south of Sulaimaniyah, the exodus was ebbing, having peaked earlier in the week.
Only a few families could be seen in the narrow, garbage-clogged lanes loading battered vehicles or tractor-towed wagons for the journey north.
Yet the town of 55,000 was hardly empty.
Hundreds of men thronged the gritty town center. Many stood in curbside knots, digesting the latest news, pausing only to spit sunflower-seed shells or greet friends.
Others sat in the few tea shops still open, gossiping quietly between sips of sweet tea served in small glasses from grimy brass samovars.
The looming war poses more of a danger to Chamchamal than it does to just about anyplace in Iraqi Kurdistan.
The edge of the town sits only about 1,000 yards from a low-lying chain of hills, atop which runs the outer ring of three cordons of Iraqi troops, tanks and artillery that defend the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, 25 miles to the south.
The city and its oil fields are to be early objectives of any U.S. attack on Iraq.
But the atmosphere in Chamchamal was one of quiet resignation.
The Kurds, explained Ahmad Abdullah Sangal, 30, have suffered persecution, mass murder and ethnic cleansing for decades under Saddam, and millions had to flee to Iran or Turkey after failed uprisings in the late 1980s and in 1991.
"Since our childhoods, we have been forced to live in such a situation," said Sangal, whose family was driven from its native village in a 1988 ethnic cleansing drive known as the Anfal ("the Spoils") campaign.
Most of Chamchamal's clapboard shops and small businesses were closed. Only a few peddlers stood at their carts in the main market, hawking tomatoes and other vegetables at prices slightly higher than usual.
For a few people, the crisis has been a windfall.
"People need shoes to run away in. I have sold 500 pairs of shoes since yesterday," beamed Hiwa Usman Umar, a diminutive 34-year-old peddler, standing before a rack of cheap sneakers and dress shoes manufactured in Iran and Turkey.
The peddler said he had returned to Chamchamal on Tuesday after taking 15 family members, including his wife and three children, to stay with relatives in the northern town of Raniya.
"If anything happens, the women and children would be terrified," he explained.
Nadir Ali Faraj's outdoor kebab stand was thronged by men who had no one at home to cook for them.
"Business is five times better than usual," he said, standing before his table-top charcoal grill, turning sizzling skewers of tangy mutton kebabs. "There are no women at home, and now all of us are single."
Not everyone who wants to leave has been able to go.
"I only have my old husband. He is not so well," said Sadi Abdullah Zorab, 63, a resident of Shorish, a settlement of 45,000 Kurds expelled from the Kirkuk region on the outskirts of Chamchamal.
Standing outside the gate of her ramshackle compound, she said that Iraqi troops killed her two sons in the Anfal campaign, and she had no one to help her move her ailing husband to safety.
"We don't know where to go," she said, her toothless jaw quivering slightly. "I have no money. I hope that God will help us."
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTO (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ-TOWN