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Kurds Warily Trekking to Protected Zone in N. Iraq

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SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

On a drizzly mountain morning, Majid Suleyman’s family climbed up from a sea of makeshift plastic tents and garbage and out of the smoky haze of breakfast campfires around their mile-high camp. They were anxious but excited, going home.

After a month in refugee squalor on the Iraqi-Turkish border--tantalizingly close to the nine-room house they had left behind in the Iraqi town of Zakhu--the Suleymans joined the growing procession of Kurds returning to the allied haven in northern Iraq.

Suleyman, a 31-year-old Kurdish tailor with a lively smile and dark, darting eyes, did not return lightly. Like many refugee men, he had scouted ahead of his family to check the house and Japanese-made sedan they had abandoned in panic a month ago as Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s vengeful troops smashed a Kurdish uprising.

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“They stole everything--my TV, my video, my carpets. By the Holy Koran, they even took my trousers,” Suleyman said, trudging up the first steep slope with a blackened cooking pot of food in his hands and a roped-up bundle of blankets and floor mats straining the seams of his once neatly cut jacket.

Ahead of Suleyman walked his 9-year-old son, Djiwar, smiling cheerfully at the thought of home and carrying a roll of green tarp that arrived by parachute in their camp at Isikveren, Turkey, as part of a series of U.S. airdrops. His 50-year-old mother, Zanu, took up the rear, picking her way along the narrow paths in a pair of ill-fitting plastic sandals and flowing, colorful Kurdish robes.

The United States and its Western allies hope that this first stream of returning refugees will become a flood, as half a million people abandon Isikveren and a dozen other camps on the Iraqi-Turkish border in exchange for Western promises of protection from the dictator who drove them away.

Suleyman said 18 members of his immediate family had fled Zakhu for the camp just over the Turkish border. He took his sick, pregnant wife back home on his first scouting trip, and after this journey he plans to return with a mule to fetch his weak grandmother, who is still in Isikveren.

The one family member who will not be coming back is Suleyman’s 6-month old nephew, Kawar, a Kurdish name meaning “Spring of the Nation.”

“He died in the first three days in the camp, when we slept near the snow and had no food at all,” Suleyman said.

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On the trail, the family joined a steady line climbing back over the skyline, a panorama of proud Kurdish elders on donkeys, mothers with babies and stumbling grandparents, some dressed in a motley selection of secondhand donated clothing.

One family was being led by a teen-age boy in an outsize greatcoat, his tiny 4-year-old sister carrying a steel milk pot, occasionally crying with weariness but more often bravely walking on as her 5-year old brother held her hand for comfort.

Suleyman said he had asked permission from his clan chief to cross back into Iraq. Many others in the camp belong to tribes whose chiefs still believe that U.S. guarantees are insufficient and are allowing families only to send young men to check out the situation.

“My family won’t go back until I get a signed paper from George Bush,” said family head Saleh Abdullah Ismail, sending off his younger brother from their group of tents “to go and see if the car still works.”

Among the many young men returning from their Iraqi scouting missions was Mikhail Daniel, 27, a Christian electrical engineer from Zakhu. To his family waiting in Isikveren, he brought a bag of fresh vine leaves--but no good news.

“The Iraqis took everything from our house. Nothing left,” said Daniel, who fears that he will someday be punished for deserting the Iraqi army. “Anybody who wants to send me back to Iraq will have to use force. I want to join my relatives in Australia.”

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Many Kurdish refugees share an idea that the U.S. military and its allies should give them some kind of identity card if they hope to persuade the Kurds to take refuge in any part of Hussein’s Iraq. They see this as part of a subtle transfer of allegiance to Western governments, especially to the United States, by this people who hate their history of harsh rule from Baghdad but who are reluctant to replace it with the vague concept of an allied security zone.

As his family neared the final ridge between Turkey and Iraq--marked only by border posts hundreds of yards apart and two Turkish sentries watching from a distant pair of foxholes--tailor Suleyman kept praising President Bush as if the name were some kind of talisman.

As they started their descent down the Iraqi side, rain began to beat down on the refugees. Many paused to take cover amid the more than 200 cars, trucks, taxis, buses, tractors and even municipal garbage trucks hastily abandoned on the high plateau a month ago. Most of them are now stripped of wheels and engine parts, but some have been put back into shape, drivers gunning their engines for the journey home.

British marine commandos have sent engineers up to help restart vehicles and clear the roads of any that are past repair. A 24-member French paratrooper base a mile from the border monitors the arriving refugees, offering them bread, cheese and water, free gas for their cars and truck rides down to the valley.

“It’s only enough to keep them going. We must empty the mountain camp,” said French army Adjutant Alain Arhan, whose rank is roughly equivalent to warrant officer. “Up until Tuesday, it was only 30 to 40 families a day, but the flow really started (Tuesday), and we counted over 1,000 people going down.”

Stacks of abandoned Kurdish guerrilla weapons that once marked the border are gone. Many of the youths returning to Iraq say they are fighters, either going back to base or returning from visits to their families in the Turkish camp.

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As the Suleymans reached the first Iraqi valley, bands of armed Kurdish guerrillas quickly became evident. One group slithered down the precipitous, muddy road in a commandeered Iraqi army vehicle, carrying Kalashnikov rifles and rocket-propelled grenades.

On the valley floor, the bearded guerrillas smiled and watched as British commandos packed up tents, lugged blankets and helped refugees board trucks bound for the new coalition-run camp near Zakhu or to the town itself.

The new arrivals’ first contact with U.S. forces is shortly before the Zakhu camp, where guerrilla country ends and all arms must be left at a heavily defended U.S. Marine checkpoint marked “Coalition Forces Security Zone--Stop.”

Refugees are registered at the entrance to the Zakhu camp by clan affiliation. U.S. officers say that of the 6,000 or more refugees who have returned, about one in four stays in the blue-and-white tent city.

“About a quarter of the kids under 5 are malnourished, some have skin infections, a couple may have had typhoid,” said British Surgeon Cmdr. Alistair Miller, in charge of medical checks. “But on the whole, they are in surprisingly good shape.”

From the biggest Western refugee camps in Turkey, the journey across the border takes less than a day. From the Iraqi valley close to the Turkish border where the refugees are collected, it is a one-hour drive to Zakhu.

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