North's Kurds dance, cheer to mark what they see as revenge on regime

Hussein had tortured, killed tens of thousands

War In Iraq

April 10, 2003|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

IRBIL, Iraq - The honking, whistling and dancing, the careening motorcades and the celebratory gunfire here in the main city of Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq all signaled the same thing yesterday - that Saddam Hussein's regime no longer ruled Baghdad.

To say the Kurds were jubilant barely begins to describe the commotion.

Cheering young men roared around town in the back of pickup trucks, or hanging out the windows of city buses. Children waved the Kurdish flag or pumped their fists in the air while standing up through the sunroofs of their parents' Mazdas and Mercedes. Four lanes of traffic, horns blaring, were gridlocked in the center of the city while stores blasted Kurdish music on boom boxes.

"Death to Saddam! Death to Saddam!" crowds on the street chanted. Some broke into a Kurdish dance in which a line of people locks arms, skips feet and rolls shoulders to the beat of pounding drums.

Merchants closed their shops. Schools let out early. Taxi drivers didn't charge their passengers. "I have never seen anything like this," said a dazed Oliver Muhammed, 29, a reporter for Irbil's ASHTY radio.

For Kurds, the fall of the Baathist leaders in Baghdad was sweet revenge. Until 1991, when an American-led coalition helped establish a Kurdish zone in the northern quarter of the country, Hussein's regime had arrested, tortured or massacred tens of thousands of Kurds.

The Iraqi dictator continued to repress Kurds living in the south. Muhammed's brother and cousin, he said, were detained in Baghdad six years ago and imprisoned; neither of them has been heard from since.

The celebrations began after the television began airing images of looting in eastern Baghdad and reporting that police and soldiers had vanished from the city's streets.

First, a few cars screamed down the wide roads heading for the center of town, horns blaring. Then came the gunfire - a few shots from pistols or small-caliber rifles, followed by shots from the Kalashnikovs that many men here carry.

Some with automatic weapons fired single shots, while others tapped out rhythms with their trigger fingers. The most popular beat was the cha-cha - ta, ta, ta-ta-ta. Finally, some of the gunmen emptied their clips in the air. As the gunfire reached its peak, someone fired bursts from a heavy machine gun into the hazy, aluminum-colored sky. Police sirens began wailing, and security forces tried to discourage the barrage.

Ahmad Hama Salih, 60, dressed in a finely tailored shil-u-shatiq, the traditional baggy Kurdish suit and waistband, left his shop in the bazaar to join the younger men as they swarmed around every passing car, flashing the V sign for victory with their fingers or just hammering on the hoods. "I am too much happy," Salih said.

He had battled Hussein's military as a member of a Kurdish militia, or peshmerga; a shrapnel scar was above his right eye. He lost three children in March 1988, he said, when the Iraqi regime used chemical weapons against the village of Halabja, east of here near the Iranian border.

An estimated 5,000 civilians, many of them women and children, died in that one attack. Between 50,000 and 100,000 Kurds were killed in a genocidal war against them in the 1980s.

But the time of sorrow was over in Irbil. The crowd in the bazaar shouted out its hopes, not its fears. A 32-year-old man said he, officially a citizen of Iraq, had never been to Baghdad. "Why can't I go?` he asked indignantly. "Why can't the Kurdish people go to Baghdad? Because of Saddam Hussein. No, I will go!"

Many people thanked God and the Americans. "Please record our thanks to Mr. Bush and Mr. Blair because they removed this bloody dictator," said Safin Perdawod, 32, a mechanical engineer. "We think the Bush and Blair are our saviors and will insist on democracy and human rights. Every family here has suffered from Saddam. Not just the Kurdish, but all Iraqis. And all of Iraq's neighbors. Every day that Saddam ruled, there was killing."

But many Kurds expressed anxiety about what victory over the Iraqi leader would mean for northern Iraq. Turkey has threatened to send troops and tanks south across its border if the Kurds move to seize the cities of Kirkuk and Mosul - actions that seemed more likely by the hour yesterday.

"Mr. Bush and Mr. Blair saved us from Saddam Hussein, who was the Hitler of this century," Perdawod said. "Now they should protect us from Turkey. If they come, there will be fighting. We will resist until the last drop of our blood."

Dlier Kaka Rash, a merchant, pushed others aside to express his anguished views. Rash had lost relatives to the regime, he said. So the pleasure of seeing an end to Baathist control of Baghdad was mixed with anger. Where were American troops, where were the journalists, when Hussein attacked Kurdish villages? "Why now?" he demanded. "Why not earlier?"

But mostly, there was undiluted joy. Kareem Aziz, a medical assistant, watched the celebrations with a serene smile.

"Today, Saddam became imaginary," he said. "Now, we can only imagine him."

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