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April 7, 2003

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Kurds Return to Reclaimed Slices of Iraq
Kurds Return to Reclaimed Slices of Northern Iraq; Kurds Working With U.S. to Overthrow Saddam

The Associated Press

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QARA WEZ, Iraq April 8

Bestoon Mohammad's childhood home is a heap of rubble against a backdrop of rolling green hills and blood-red poppies.

"Everything is destroyed," said the 19-year-old Kurd, visiting his village of birth for the first time since 1988, when Saddam Hussein cleared the area in a campaign to uproot rebellious Kurds and declared it a military no-man's land. "But the people are coming back, and life here is beginning again."

Northern Iraq's Kurds, historically oppressed by Baghdad's Arab rulers, have become partners with the United States in the war to overthrow Saddam. Kurds and Americans have fought side by side on several fronts around the autonomous Kurdish region.

Now the Kurds have begun to reap the bounty of that collaboration in newly captured territory.

With the assistance of U.S. airpower, Kurds have been seizing large stretches of historically Kurdish land turned into lifeless, heavily mined no-man's lands by the Baghdad regime 15 years ago. Baghdad's forces retreated from the areas as coalition warplanes and missiles began pounding them.

American firepower has also helped the Kurds reclaim a 240-mile stretch of territory along the Iranian border ruled for years by Islamic extremists, including Ansar al-Islam, a fundamentalist group alleged to be tied to al-Qaida.

In the mountain village of Biyare, which Ansar ruled until American special operations and Kurdish forces swept through the area, Kurdish "peshmeraga" warriors sang in the streets. Women walked about without headscarves for the first time in two years.

"It's a very, very beautiful feeling I have," said Seywan Osman Rashid, a taxi driver who left Biyare six months after Ansar arrested him for publicly shaking hands with his sister-in-law a violation of an extremist interpretation of Islam.

U.S. cruise missiles and aircraft heavily damaged the main mosque and bazaar of the scenic mountain village, overlooked by snowcapped mountains and graced by the sound of waterfalls.

"Even if the whole region is destroyed we don't mind," Rashid said. "If it's a liberated area, we can start to rebuild and invest again."

Kurdish officials already have begun physically reconnecting lost areas to the autonomous Kurdish enclave. In Bani Maqem, once the site of a notorious Iraqi checkpoint and military garrison overlooking the Kurdish-held city of Chamchamal, officials have reconnected a damaged and neglected well that will provide drinking water to 123,000 people.

Americans and Kurds are also using the newly held areas to stage military operations. The abandoned garrison at Qara Hanjir, in particular, provides a sweeping view of Kirkuk, the oil-rich city Kurds covet as the future capital of a semi-autonomous state within Iraq.

In a meadow near the Baghdad-controlled city of Khaneqin, a peshmerga doubling as a beekeeper watches the back of a team of special operations troops on a nearby hill. In the no-man's land near Kirkuk, the Americans have taken over a hotel-turned-Iraqi army command post, crossing out Saddam's portraits with red spray paint.

The area around Qara Hanjir is breathtaking in its beauty. Before Saddam declared it a military area, travelers used to rest here on their way from Sulaymaniyah to Kirkuk or Baghdad. Barham Salih, co-prime minister of the Kurdish autonomous area, recalled stopping at Qara Hanjir on trips with his father.

"It had the best yogurt, especially in the spring," he said. "I remember Qara Hanjir being a vibrant community with all kinds of small teahouses and kabob houses."

The Kurds' captured lands are not without perils. Iraqis continue to shell military positions they have abandoned, including Qara Hanjir. On Monday, Iraqi mortars could be heard landing in and around the town of Laylan, one of many sparsely populated agricultural villages tucked in the soft folds of the hilly no-man's land.

The newly taken lands are heavily mined. An Iranian cameraman was killed last week by a mine in a newly taken area just south of the Kurdish enclave.

The Mine Advisory Group, an independent nongovernmental organization, said it had cleared over 1,000 mines in just three days in the area around Bani Maqem. Mike Parker, director of the organization, said his group also found hundreds of mines and booby traps around a school and hospital near Biyare.

Snoor Tofiq, supervising a team of mine clearers near the former front line between Iraqi and Kurdish positions, recited a laundry list of Italian antitank mines, Russian antipersonnel mines and unexploded ordnance he found.

Then he burst out in exasperation: "This area used to be so beautiful. Saddam Hussein didn't leave a single thing behind. He even cut down all the trees."

photo credit and caption:
Kurdish peshmerga fighters take part in a traditional halparki dance in Qadir Karam, an area recently abandoned by Iraqi forces, southeast of Kirkuk, Monday, April 7, 2003. (AP PHOTO/Kevin Frayer)

Copyright 2003 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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