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Kurdish village has returned to normal, now that Saddam is gone

KALAK, Iraq—There are no beheadings here.

Instead, there are weddings, picnics and soccer matches. Girls help their mothers bake bread, boys fish for carp in the river and old geezers sit in the shade of mimosa trees, swapping lies and grumbling about the chaos elsewhere in Iraq. Life goes on.

Life in Kalak was entirely different last year, just before the war started. The drab Kurdish village was one of the most dangerous places in Iraq, and most of its residents had fled. The only people left were seven stubborn villagers and a handful of Kurdish defenders with their trusty Kalashnikov rifles.

This is a story of then and now.

Kalak is a brown little town in northern Iraq, a collection of dusty lanes and mud-walled homes. An ancient Jewish settlement pitched above a broad tributary of the Tigris River, Kalak is now home to about 4,000 Kurds. Most of them are farmers, shopkeepers and sunburned shepherds. Stand back and squint, and it could be New Mexico.

But Kalak was in harm's way last year because it straddled the line between Saddam Hussein's Iraq and the autonomous Kurdish region in the north. An Iraqi artillery battalion was dug into a ridgeline just 100 yards above the town, so close you could hear the soldiers' radios playing at night. A decent mortar barrage could have flattened the entire village.

As war approached, the people of Kalak fled to the safety of the mountains in more remote parts of the north. They were afraid Saddam's artillery would gas them with chemical weapons in a repeat of Halabja, the notorious, single-day massacre that killed 5,000 Kurds in 1988.

Among the few Kalak villagers who didn't pack up and leave was Amina Ahmed, 66, a tough and pious little widow with a small house, eight ducks and a 3-year-old grandson.

"Let him come here—I'll slaughter Saddam myself," she said last year, drawing a bony finger across her throat.

Last week, despite a new calm in her household and a new peace in the village, Ahmed's ferocity over Saddam's fate had scarcely diminished: "Give his body to the dogs to chew on! Throw him in the river! I'll bury him under my outhouse! I'll throw him right down the hole!"

When the news of Saddam's capture reached the village, Ahmed said, they had a feast. The men fired their Kalashnikovs, and the children threw chocolates into the air.

Ahmed's grandson, Abdullah, is now 4, a shy fellow with a nasty new cut across his cheek. She said Abdullah had recently been with his mother in Kirkuk, a city about 50 miles from Kalak, and they saw some American soldiers arrest a man on the street. The soldiers handcuffed the man and put a hood over his head.

Abdullah was fascinated by the scene, and when he came back home he put a rice sack over his head because, his grandmother said, "he wanted to play prisoner of war." Unable to see, he tripped and fell, and bashed his cheek on a cinder block.

The people of Kalak are well rid of another Abdullah, the ruthless Iraqi border chief who terrorized the villagers when they'd try to cross into Iraq to see their relatives. They called him Abdullah Wahesh. Abdullah the Beast.

Kalak villagers demolished Abdullah's customs post after the war. A local man, Samir Muhammad Badir, borrowed $500 to buy the empty site, and he operates a rickety roadside stand there. He sells sleeves of Turkish cookies and jugs of warm Iraqi cola to passing motorists. Business, he said, is just good enough to pay his bills.

"Abdullah Wahesh is gone and he won't be back," Badir said manfully. Then he hedged a bit. "But sometimes at night I think his ghost is still around."

Down the hill from Badir's shop, along the river, Hazzim Fattah is grazing and watering his sheep. Last year he had 250 sheep; now he's up to 300.

Fattah, a deaf-mute, was the only Kalak shepherd who was allowed to graze his animals near the Iraqi bunkers. The artillery officers liked him, and the Iraqi sentries tossed pebbles at him when his sheep wandered too close to the land mines they'd planted.

But as war approached, the mood turned. The Iraqi soldiers, nearly starving, began shooting and stealing Fattah's sheep.

The soldiers are gone now, the land mines have been marked with red flags and the sturdy shepherd said his sheep especially liked the grass that grew among the ruins of the bunkers.

Below the bunkers last week, the Kalak Brothers soccer team was practicing on a newly de-mined patch of ground. Nearby, the math teacher at the elementary school was building a cinder-block house. Over by the mosque, workmen were digging up the lanes of the village: Kalak is getting its first underground sewer system.

"For the first time in our lives we have no problems," said Kamal Salih, 35, a former Kurdish guerrilla fighter whose extended family of 40 people has been squatting in an abandoned agricultural college for the past year. "At least I can go to sleep at night without having to make sure my guns are loaded. There's no feeling better than this."

Salih's father and grandfather were Kurdish peshmerga fighters before him, and they're all fiercely proud of their service. Salih, who has been shot five times in various battles over the years, was recently hired as a sergeant in the Iraqi Civil Defense Corps.

But he said he's sick of fighting, and he wants his three young sons to become "normal citizens of the world."

"I want them to speak English," he said. "Not Kalashnikov."


(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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

GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): USIRAQ KALAK