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Former Iraqi military base now home to squatters hoping to raise new family

KIRKUK, Iraq—Sometime soon, if everything goes well, Shiler Kamal, 30, will give birth to the first child ever born in the neighborhood known as Barud Hana.

Until last month, Barud Hana was no place for children. A former military facility whose name means "gunpowder store," the array of guardhouses and storage rooms served as a weapons depot for the Iraqi Army before it was abandoned as U.S. troops and Kurdish militiamen approached Kirkuk.

The two-bedroom pillbox that Kamal, her husband, Yunus Abdullah Mohammed, 28, and their two children have called home for the past six weeks once housed the Iraqi soldiers who guarded the munitions stored nearby.

Kamal's family gathered cinder blocks to cover what had been an open porch, giving their home a second room. Mohammed ran a wire to an electric post, powering an old TV, a ceiling fan and an air cooler. He and Kamal walk a mile three times a day to get water.

Their house doesn't have windows, and the door is a windblown blanket. The couple live off the money they made selling the gold ring, necklace and bracelets that Mohammed gave Kamal at their wedding.

The former base remains a danger zone. Though a local demining organization has swept Kamal's house and declared it clean, its work continues to punctuate life in Barud Hana with the rumble of exploding munitions.

A child was killed here by a mine, Kamal said. "We're very worried about the kids."

Born in Kirkuk, Kamal and Mohammed left their hometown in 1999, when it was under the rule of Saddam Hussein. Two of Mohammed's brothers were in Iraq's northern Kurdish enclave, serving in one of the Kurdish militias. One night, he said, friends sent word that the police were looking for him as a rebel sympathizer. The couple fled, winding up in an apartment in the Kurdish town of Chamchamal.

When Saddam's regime fell last month, they decided to come home to Kirkuk.

Mohammed, who'd become a militiaman after he moved north, hadn't been paid in months, and the family was behind on rent. As dangerous as Barud Hana was, it was free. The family borrowed money from Kamal's parents to rent a truck, loaded up their few pieces of furniture and headed south.

All around the former military post, roughly 30 poor Kurdish families have set up shop, transforming warehouses into homes and building new ones.

Such newcomers are the subject of controversy in Kirkuk. Kurds say they were victims of Saddam's reign, but Arabs accuse Kurdish political parties of trying to pack the town with Kurds so they can gain control of the oil-rich city.


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

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