San Diego Union-Tribune

March 27, 2004


Spring blooms anew for northern Iraqis
Kurds in Northern Iraq let their freedom ring


KIRKUK, Iraq The men lit bonfires and shot their guns in the air in celebration, while children waved flags and sang from the windows of passing cars and buses.

It was the annual Kurdish springtime celebration called Nawruz.

For the Kurds of Kirkuk in northern Iraq, it was the first open celebration of Nawruz in many years. The observance was banned under Saddam Hussein.

"We are very, very happy," Zainab Sadiq, 32, said as she stood on a hilltop next to a pile of burning truck tires, children dancing around her. "Last year, this was forbidden. We couldn't imagine such freedom."

A year after the start of the war that toppled Hussein, questions linger about whether the U.S.-led effort was the proper course of action, given the growing death toll from continual insurgent attacks and the uncertain pace of reconstruction.

But you won't hear those questions in northern Iraq.

After years of persecution by Hussein, the Kurdish flag flies high once again in Kirkuk, where the economy has started to recover and schools and highways have been renovated.

"Liberation was the main point for the Iraqi people," said Abdul Rahman Mustafa, the governor of Kirkuk. "Before, you could lose your life talking badly about the regime. Now, all political organizations and individuals have full freedom to express themselves and distribute their books and ideas without censorship."

The economy also has begun to grow, Mustafa said.

Salaries have risen dramatically, and business activity is increasing.

Although no major reconstruction projects are under way in Kirkuk, many schools have been renovated and some highways have been repaved. The governor says aid money for major projects is on the way and will trigger even more growth.

"We hope these big projects will provide jobs for the people and boost our economy," he said.

But for Mustafa and others in the region, the most important work has already been done: getting rid of Hussein.

Kirkuk, which lies atop one of the world's richest oil fields, reflects Iraq's ethnic diversity. It is home to Kurds, Sunni Arabs, Assyrian and Chaldean Catholics and Turkmen. It does not have a large Shiite population, which is the nation's largest ethnic group and is concentrated in the south.

Living under the gun is a way of life for Kirkuk residents as Iraq struggles to set up a government and gain control even as terrorist acts continue to plague the country.

While ethnic tensions and property disputes remain a problem, many in Kirkuk believe those challenges are being resolved.

"We opened schools for all of the ethnic groups here in Kirkuk, such as the Turkmen, the Kurds, the Assyrians, the Arabs," Mustafa said. "And we gave them all of their rights, including teaching in their mother tongue."

Overall, the progress of reconstruction in Iraq hasn't been as visible as many in the United States might expect. Some major projects are moving forward across the country, but much of the work so far consists of small projects at the local level.

Paul Bremer, the top American administrator, recently cited U.S. accomplishments in Iraq, including the renovation of 2,500 schools, the vaccination of 3 million children and work on a total of 18,000 reconstruction projects.

The U.S. Agency for International Development is administering the projects through private U.S. businesses and nonprofit organizations. Much of the work focuses on power, water, sanitation, local governance, telephone service, health care and education.

Nationally, there are relatively few large-scale projects, such as the reopening of the seaport at Umm Qasr in southern Iraq and the rebuilding of Sharkh Dijlah, one of two major water-treatment plants serving Baghdad.

Although signs of reconstruction are difficult to see on a tour of Iraq, progress at the local level is visible almost everywhere. It appears to be rooted less in formal reconstruction efforts and more as a byproduct of freedom and free enterprise taking hold.

The heart of the ancient city of Kirkuk is a sprawling hilltop compound known as Kirkuk Castle. Its history stretches back 5,000 years through several civilizations.

The buildings and ruins are centuries old. The grounds are sprinkled with pieces of Roman columns and ornate Islamic headstones. Small daisies and yellow wildflowers carpet the castle landscape, which overlooks the modern city.

Hussein's Baathist regime had taken a wrecking ball to the castle in an effort to stamp out Kurdish heritage. Today it's being renovated.

Sunlight filters through windows to illuminate clouds of white plaster dust raised by the construction. The interior is a warren of rooms and passageways leading to other parts of the castle.

The 20 Turkmen workers on this project say they are much better off today than they were a year ago under Hussein. They used to earn the equivalent of $1 a day, but that has been increased to $7.

The renovation is privately funded by a group of Iraqi businessmen. When it's complete, this section of the castle will be a market containing 92 retail shops.

Meanwhile, the region outside Kirkuk is a stark reminder of the dark days under Hussein. There is a mass grave, one of 18 found so far in the area. The otherwise pastoral setting is marked by bumps where bodies were buried in shallow trenches. About 2,500 corpses have been found at this site.

One of the excavated bodies was that of a boy still clutching coins in his hand. Investigators think he was buried alive. The forensic study of the mass graves in the area will continue for years.

At the time of the Nawruz celebration a year ago, Hussein's army controlled Kirkuk and was preparing to defend it against a U.S.-led coalition attack. Soldiers dug long trenches and filled them with oil. Men remained hidden. Tensions were high.

When the first U.S. cruise missiles struck a major military base on the north side of town, Iraqi forces ignited the oil trenches. The flash of white light from the missiles disappeared instantly, but the orange glow and black smoke from the trench fires continued through the night.

Then, a day after the statue of Hussein was pulled down last April in central Baghdad, the Iraqi army left Kirkuk. Kurds who had been driven from the city under Hussein came streaming back, some seeing their old homes and relatives for the first time in 12 years.

On the eve of this year's spring equinox, Kirkukis celebrated their new year and their liberation using tires to make smoky bonfires.

Next to one of the fires burning on a hilltop stood an old woman wearing a black skullcap and white scarf. Her grandchildren danced around her and sang.

"The Americans saved the Kurds," Injeel Hassan said. "Nobody else could do that."

Nearby, behind a soccer stadium, a sea of green tents has sprung up in recent months.

More than 3,000 people live in the tents. They fled Kirkuk under Hussein and now are returning. Each day more arrive, even though these Kirkukis have no homes to come back to.

Their tents have dirt floors. When it rains, it turns to mud. It is one of the reasons they celebrate the passing of winter and the arrival of spring.

"Life here in these tents is much better than having a house under Saddam," said Sabir Mohamed Ali, 60.

Ahmad Abdul Wahab, 45, an elected councilman of the camp, said Hussein's removal was "a very nice present to us from America."

The celebration of Nawruz is said to date to 612 B.C. when a heroic blacksmith named Kawa Asngar led a rebellion against an Assyrian dictator named Zohak and liberated this part of the Middle East.

The celebration's themes are springtime revival and liberation.

Kurds are fond of comparing Hussein to the evil tyrant Zohak, who according to legend had two serpents growing out of his shoulders that fed daily on the brains of children.

And now the United States, too, has a place in that folklore as the liberating blacksmith.

"Saddam is Zohak," Abdul Wahab said, "and America is Kawa."