Iraqi Kurds head to hills with war deadline looming

Wednesday, March 19, 2003

IRBIL, Iraq -- The merchant bolted the security gate on his shoe shop, loaded the last of his stock into a truck and watched the traffic Tuesday head out of town and into the hills.

"I'm leaving, too," said Abdul Hurriani after closing his store at the base of Irbil's ancient citadel. "Soon this will be a ghost town."

Apparently jolted into action by Washington's ultimatum to Saddam Hussein, Iraqi Kurds raced to put distance between themselves and the coming war.

In road-weary taxis, pickup trucks -- basically anything that would roll -- they left key cities for mountain villages seen as potential sanctuaries if Iraq retaliates against the Kurd's Western-protected enclave.

Traffic stalled on the single-lane highway north of Irbil, the seat of the Kurds' self-rule administration and home to about 500,000 people. A herd of goats plodded along faster than the exodus at one point.

Luggage swayed on car roofs. Some vehicles broke down with Irbil still in sight.

Sarhan Abdul Kareem had been here before: a similar crawl out of Irbil just before the 1991 Gulf War.

"Only that time we were more scared," said Kareem, squeezed into a van along with 20 other relatives. "We don't think Saddam will attack us in this war, but you can't blame us for being nervous after what we've been through."

'We just feel safer'

Kurds know the deadly power of Saddam's regime.

In the late 1980s, Saddam opened a massive campaign against the Kurds that left tens of thousands of people dead or displaced, including an estimated 5,000 victims of a 1988 poison gas attack on Halabja. Saddam's forces returned to crush a Kurdish uprising after the Gulf War, leading the United States and allies to pledge protection for a Kurdish safe haven in northern Iraq.

"We just feel safer away from the cities. We can at least sleep a bit easier," said Sabah Abdullah, who wedged 12 people and their luggage into his Toyota pickup.

Atta Ahmed planned to take his family to a friend's house in a village near the Turkish border, then turn around and head back to Irbil to join other Kurdish militiamen.

"I am a fighter. I can't hide. But I need to know my family is safe," said Ahmed, 40.

On the roadside, Kamal Shoradeh watched helplessly as his truck's radiator boiled over for the second time. Twenty-one people -- relatives and neighbors -- were perched on their belongings in the rear.

"It overheats, I go about 20 kilometers (12 miles) and it does it again," he said. "The trip will take forever this way."

Others were still hunting for rides. At the main taxi station, Kurds bargained and pleaded for a space in cabs heading away from Saddam's territory, which begins about 12 miles south of the city.

"The prices are going up and I just don't have the money," said art student Farhad Mirhan. "I may just have to stay."

Gas prices are also on the rise. Freelance gas dealers charged more than 30 cents a liter -- $1.14 a gallon, nearly triple the price earlier in the week. The other option was waiting in a more than mile-long line for gas at the subsidized price of about 8 cents a liter, or 30 cents a gallon.

Many stores closed and owners stashed their merchandise in places considered safe.

"One bomb and I'm wiped out," said clothes store owner Ahmed Mohammad as he pulled jeans off a mannequin. "Why take the risk?"

Hamid Miran, a member of the Kurdish parliament, did not join the flight.

"I'm too old and too proud to run from Saddam," he said.

He planned to stay at home and try to figure out how to use the old gas mask he purchased in the bazaar.

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