They speak of it in the mountains. Stories spread from village to village. Rumors are whispered through sips of tea. Old men pull close the guns of their younger days; boys want to be soldiers. A stray mortar shell explodes on a snowy field. Then another. A curl of smoke rises in the wind.
"War is close," said Talaat Habeeb, the bookkeeper at the hospital here. "The news brings more panic every day. Sometimes we think war is coming right away, and in the next moment we're not so sure. But we know it is out there."
Northern Iraq is a centuries-old diary of bloodshed. The Kurds here possess a weary resilience in the face of conflict, accepting it the same way they endure the region's blistering summers and frozen winters. It is part of them. And they know the new war will be fought in this region on two fronts: one targeting Saddam Hussein's Republican Guard to the west in Kirkuk and the other to the east against 500 to 700 guerrillas of Ansar al-Islam, which the Bush administration has designated a terrorist organization.
This land is rich in oil and proverbs. There is a saying that the Kurds have no friends but the mountains. The mountains are redemption. They are barriers to Iran and Turkey, which have long sought to control this land. But the mountains are double-edged, trapping the Kurds against the vicious terrain of geopolitics. Hussein's "ethnic cleansing" and military campaigns have killed more than 180,000 Kurds, including 5,000 who perished in chemical attacks in 1988.
Like family, the land shapes character. The Kurds do not shirk a fight. Many have seen the inside of Hussein's prisons. Many have disappeared into mass graves. In 1975, and again in 1991, they saw the U.S. change its foreign policy tactics, in effect helping Iraqi regimes crush Kurdish rebellions. Without their own country, without the mettle of independence, the Kurds' fate is tied to the whims of larger forces.
Across the cities and hamlets of northern Iraq, 3.5 million Kurds now are painstakingly preparing for a U.S. invasion to topple Hussein. Families are stocking oil and sugar. Candles are bought. Money is hidden, and firearms are loaded. Merchants traveling from Kirkuk tell of Hussein's troops filling deep trenches with crude oil to be set ablaze to darken the sky for American fighter planes.
Islamic militants are getting ready too. Some tuck disposable razors into their pockets to shave beards and disguise their identities. Others are hauling arsenals and archives to caves hidden in mountain canyons. There is a report that the guerrillas in Ansar al-Islam have bought thousands of pounds of dates -- the fruit the prophet Muhammad ate to strengthen himself for battle.
"A bloody battle is coming," one Muslim leader, Ali Bapir, told his followers recently in the village of Khurmal. "Whoever wants to stay, stay. And those who want to leave should flee."
Bapir is a local leader of Komaly Islami, a militant Islamic group with about 1,000 fighters whose base in Khurmal borders Ansar territory. He is a man on a tightrope. Many of his followers support Ansar, but Bapir is seeking to tug his tribe closer to the secular Kurdish government of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, the PUK. Everyone here believes U.S. warplanes will target Ansar strongholds in the early days of an invasion of Iraq. Because Bapir's fighters, with their long beards and Kalashnikovs, could be mistaken for Ansar guerrillas, he is moving them to the sanctuary of mountain gorges.
"Ali Bapir wants to be far away from the big bombs," said one Kurdish official.
Thousands of such decisions are being made across this land, where mountains are brushed with snow and the fields below are tinted with the green of coming spring. Most of life's rhythms are uninterrupted: Shepherds meander on hillsides, men prostrate themselves toward Mecca at noon. But then there are images like that of two little girls in pigtails watching dancing cartoon bears on TV in a military barracks, while their grandfather speaks of Katyusha rockets and suicide bombers.
Villagers say sometimes they hear the whine of a plane. They have never seen it. But it is there, and they insist it must be a U.S. spy drone. Many are gleeful. They want this war, accepting it as a short spasm of pain to get rid of a larger evil. Some are like Abdullah Ahmed Marif, a brown-faced man in a turban who stepped on a land mine and lost a leg in the 1980s.
"When my leg was blown off, they gave me six bottles of blood," he said. "I'm ready for six more. When war comes, I will go to wherever the front is. This war is a time for dancing. We're getting rid of the man who's been trying to kill us."
The Red Cross has ordered refugee tents and surgical kits for the possibility of 100,000 displaced people in a war's opening days. The United Nations is reducing its staff here. Classes are taught on the dangers of cluster bombs. There are reports that the U.S. is shipping in 10,000 biochemical suits and that the World Health Organization may supply 250,000 Cipro tablets in case Hussein launches a chemical attack.
Salwa Majeed and her five children are already displaced. They fled their village, Biyara, several days ago. Biyara is an Ansar stronghold along the Iranian border. The Al Qaeda-inspired guerrillas, she said, are digging new bunkers, moving in supplies and vowing to fight "the American spider."
Loudspeakers in the village mosque crackle with the call to jihad, and the shelling has intensified between Ansar and PUK forces, whom the Islamists refer to as "the hired men" of the West.
"There is news the PUK and America will hit Biyara hard," said Majeed, who escaped five miles away to Halabja. "American planes will bomb us. Ansar wanted to know why we wanted to leave. They didn't want to let us go, but we begged them. We took our carpet and some pots and pans and left on a bus. Everything else we left behind."
Since Feb. 17, more than 700 families have fled Ansar-controlled territory. Like Majeed, many of them have lived and had children through a litany of conflict: the Iran-Iraq war, Hussein's 1988 chemical attacks on the Kurds, an uprising and a civil war.
"I haven't seen a nice day in my life," said Majeed, wearing a scarf and a long green dress threaded with gold. "It's been fighting and fighting. We've had no stability, and now we're renting two rooms from a friend for $36 a month."
West of Halabja, across mountains spotted with evergreens, bunkers of Iraqi troops peer down into Chamchamal. This is the border town between territory controlled by Hussein and the autonomous Kurdish region protected by a "no-fly" zone patrolled by U.S. and British warplanes. A place of spies and boys selling gasoline, Chamchamal is where news arrives from Kirkuk, the nearby oil city claimed by the Kurds but controlled by Baghdad.
If there is a war, Kirkuk is likely to be chaotic. Tens of thousands of Kurds forced from Kirkuk years ago by Hussein's ethnic cleansing campaign may rush to retake it. U.S. troops are expected to sweep in to protect the city's rich oil reserves. According to Kurdish intelligence, Iraqi soldiers are moving artillery into alleys and onto rooftops.
The other day, people say, Iraqi soldiers near Kirkuk caught a woman smuggling gasoline. They drenched her with gas and set her on fire.
Such stories of war cross the Chamchamal checkpoint in trucks and taxis and battered Chevys and Oldsmobiles -- artifacts from two decades ago, when Baghdad was America's friend. The men behind the wheels are smugglers, kerosene merchants and double agents. One recent day, they waited in the sleet for Kurdish border guards to scan their identity papers and check their trunks. Nobody gives a last name.
"An oil well exploded in Kirkuk the other day," reported Imad, the back seat of his rusted Chevy Malibu loaded with kerosene. "The Iraqi army has made reinforcements. They're digging trenches, some [50 feet] long and [33 feet] deep. They've announced on the radio that when war starts, there will be a curfew. Anyone caught roaming outside or trying to escape will be shot."
A sleepy-eyed man, Soran, is a smuggler with an empty car. He shoos away border kids selling gum and oranges. He looks through his windshield at old men in turbans hauling produce in plastic bags along the roadside. Soran's wife and three children are back in Kirkuk.
"The war is definitely coming," he said. "Only the U.S. knows when. If my family and I are allowed to leave Kirkuk, we will. People are sick of worrying about war. We're tired. If it comes, let it be decisive, so we don't have to live like this anymore."