IRBIL, Iraq—Thousands of Iraqi Kurds, frightened about possible chemical and nerve gas attacks, jammed the roads leading out of this major Kurdish city Monday.
"We certainly expect Saddam to use chemical gas on us," said Jihad Shuker, 42, a worker in an Irbil cigarette factory. "He has done this before, and Irbil could easily become another Halabja."
Halabja was a Kurdish town gassed by Saddam Hussein in 1988. Five thousand people were killed there in a matter of hours. The attack was carried out by Gen. Ali Hassan al Majid, one of Saddam's cousins who is now known as "Chemical Ali."
"I was in the military in 1991 and I know what Saddam is capable of," Shuker said. "If he orders his officers to send gas down on us, they will follow those orders. They have to. They're at his mercy."
Irbil is the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, the northeastern swath of Iraq that is no longer controlled by Saddam. The city remains within easy reach, however, of the dictator's mortars and missiles.
"People know what happened in Halabja, so naturally, many of them are leaving," said Jangeer Jwanrow, a senior Kurdish military planner. "We expect anything from Saddam Hussein. He could easily turn Irbil into a second Halabja."
Many of the fleeing Kurds are headed to the relative safety of the nearby mountains. As the Kurdish saying goes: "The mountains are our best gas masks."
Shuker said he will take his wife and three children into the mountains if a war breaks out. He spent Monday afternoon elbowing through the panicked crowds in Irbil's downtown marketplace. He bought eggs, bottled water and rice, along with several yards of plastic sheeting to rig up as a tent.
Other frantic residents were furiously buying plastic to seal up their windows and doors at home.
"I'm not sure, but maybe this plastic will help save us," shrugged Anwar Abdul Rahman, 42, a building contractor. Rahman said he also would buy a canary or nightingale to keep in his home as an alert for poison gas.
An elementary schoolteacher nervously approached an American journalist here Monday evening and whispered, "Please tell me when the war will start."
The teacher then held up a couple dozen sheets of notebook paper filled with the loops and curlicues of children's handwriting. "Do I have time to grade these science tests tonight? My students will want them back."
Foreign staffers at the various United Nations offices pulled out of Irbil last week.
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTO (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ-KURDS