In much of Kurdish enclave, war seems far away

As fighting rages in south, suffering for many in north remains largely economic

War In Iraq

April 09, 2003|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

IRBIL, Iraq - As war rages in southern Iraq and the rest of the Middle East is shaken by angry protests, most people in Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq live in the tranquil eye of the storm.

Akram Hussein, a 26-year-old shepherd, quietly tended his family's flock in rich pastureland yesterday afternoon, keeping his eye on an approaching thunderstorm. People in his village, he said, were pleased that the regime of Saddam Hussein seemed to be teetering, but they weren't celebrating. They rejoiced three weeks ago, he said, the moment the first cruise missiles were fired at Baghdad.

"We were sure the American army would defeat the Iraqi army," he said, nudging one grass-gorged sheep that kept wandering into the roadway. "One hundred percent sure."

Iraq's Kurds, who make up about one-fifth of the country's population of 24 million, suffered vicious persecution under the rule of the Iraqi dictator. They support the war.

Not far off, there was fighting yesterday. Kurdish soldiers, aided by a small number of U.S. paratroopers and special forces, continued their plodding push on the cities of Kirkuk and Mosul.

Bombing was reported in Kirkuk, a traditional Kurdish city close to one of Iraq's richest oil fields. Last night, an air raid at that front, probably by a B-52, rattled windows here in Irbil, a half-hour's drive away.

But here, as in much of northern Iraq yesterday, the war seemed far away.

A drive from the border to Irbil, the largest city in the Kurdish enclave, wound through emerald valleys squeezed between rugged stony mountains. Rivers cut through broad plains, covered with shoots of wheat and barley. The landscape is far from the dust and desert of the south.

Nonchalant soldiers waved drivers through military checkpoints. In the money markets of Zahoe, the dollar strengthened against the Iraqi dinar, rising from about 5.5 dinars to the dollar to 6.2. Assyrian Christians labored in vineyards in their isolated villages. The number of World Food Program and UNICEF trucks carrying relief supplies outnumbered military vehicles, 15 to 5.

In the south, errant bombs and urban combat have killed scores of civilians. Here, the suffering is largely economic. In September 2001, the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon led the United States to pressure Turkey to restrict Iraq's flourishing oil and diesel trade, much of it illegal.

Some mansions stand half-finished. Some modern restaurants and Western-style shopping centers are shuttered, or cater to only a few customers. Hussein, the shepherd, wore rubber shoes and tattered military castoffs. Many families struggle to survive. Some of the region's biggest employers, one government official said, are foreign aid organizations.

Still, there were some reminders yesterday that this is a nation at war. Just off the road is a sprawling new prisoner of war camp for Iraqi soldiers who have surrendered in the current fighting. A U.S. military cargo plane landed in an airfield built in an isolated mountain valley. Around the city of Dohuk, perhaps 100 families have pitched tents or moved into small, stone snack bars that used to serve the truck drivers during the oil boom.

In every restaurant, the television was tuned to satellite channels carrying news about the fighting. Many Kurds speak Arabic as well as Kurdish and watch the new Arab-language satellite news programs, which focus on images of protests and injured civilians.

Many say they don't like what they see. Arab-language stations focus on broadcasting pictures of protests and dead or injured Iraqi women and children, while Western networks tend to focus on combat video from reporters embedded with U.S.-led troops.

In the mess hall of the Peshabur police border post, where the Kurdish area of Iraq sits across the Tigris River from Syria, a television blared over breakfast. Several officers chortled when the Iraqi information minister insisted that U.S. forces were on the run in Baghdad.

At a restaurant north of Irbil, Said - who declined to give his last name because he has family in Baghdad - preferred the generally more pro-war Western news coverage, even though he speaks little English and doesn't understand most of what he hears.

"I like the BBC and CNN," he said. "They show good pictures. And they show the truth of the war."

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