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Kurdish rebels celebrate as U.S. strikes in north force out Iraqi troops

SHERAWA, Iraq—With American bombers roaring overhead, their payloads thundering into Iraqi positions outside the northern city of Kirkuk, Kurdish guerrillas danced and celebrated Sunday afternoon as they swarmed over abandoned Iraqi bunkers and checkpoints.

Shaken by several days of heavy bombing, including strikes by B-52s, Iraqi troopers on the Kurdish border here retreated about five miles south toward oil-rich Kirkuk, one of the most important assets in the war.

The bombers also struck repeatedly at positions around Mosul, Iraq's third-largest city, where two divisions of the Republican Guard are headquartered.

Ominously, the Kurdish guerrillas who took over the Sherawa checkpoint discovered a number of gas masks in the Iraqis' stone-and-earthen bunkers, which looked like something out of the American Civil War. Guerrilla commanders said, however, that there was no evidence of chemical weapons in the bunkers or checkpoints.

Before the Iraqis retreated, they planted some 1,800 Iraqi-and-Italian-made land mines. Guerrilla teams spent Sunday digging up and exploding most of the mines. One guerrilla commander had his right arm blown off in the de-mining operation.

"Thirty years of living under that bastard Saddam and this is all he leaves us—mines," said one fighter.

The Kurdish guerrillas—known as peshmerga, or those who face death—belong to the dominant Kurdish Democratic Party but are now operating under the direction of U.S. Special Forces. They patrol the border between Iraq and their autonomous enclave of Kurdistan. In many places along the border, the lightly armed peshmerga are just a few hundred yards from Saddam Hussein's troopers.

"We don't give a damn about Iraqi bullets!" crowed one fighter. "We'll fight them house to house in Kirkuk if that's what they want! We're peshmerga! We eat tanks!"

The men were clearly joyous at having reclaimed a huge swath of their ancestral lands while moving a bit farther toward Kirkuk, which they consider to be a Kurdish city. With bombs exploding every few minutes in the distant hills, they put aside their assault rifles and grenade launchers, linked arms, and danced. As they danced, they sang—quite off-key—a melancholy Kurdish love song.

"We regained all this land without spending one bullet," said Sabah Omer Khadir, a poet-turned-peshmerga. "Once the land is safe from mines, our people will return here. They'll rebuild their homes, plant their tomatoes, raise their children and bury their old folks."

The area around Sherawa was once renowned for its wheat fields and its tomatoes. Then the Iraqis barreled in a dozen years ago, declared it a military zone, and forced out thousands of Kurdish villagers. The fields went fallow. Orchards went untended, the fruit unpicked. Even the little hilltop cemetery was off-limits.

Nasruddin Khorshid's father and brother are in that cemetery, and on Sunday, after it had been "liberated," he visited their graves. Khorshid, a weather-beaten shepherd, left behind his wife, six children, 50 sheep, one donkey and a battered Russian motorbike, and he walked slowly up the weedy little hill.

"It's wonderful to be able to come here again," he said afterward. "I want to thank the Americans for helping us. If George Bush comes to Kurdistan after the war, we'll give him 10 of our oil wells and another wife, a Kurdish one."

Khadir, the guerrilla-poet, was standing nearby, and he turned his nose to the wind that was coming off the pastureland.

"Can you smell that?" he asked. "It smells so good here. It smells free."


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


PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ+NORTH