The northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk is like a grenade primed to explode in Saddam Hussein's clenched fist.
His army has blocked most escape routes in an effort to stop civilians from fleeing. His security forces are going door to door rounding up young Kurdish men in a campaign to prevent an uprising, according to residents who escaped.
Interviewed in villages and shelters many miles apart in the Kurdish-ruled autonomous region of northern Iraq, Kurds who escaped Kirkuk by bribing soldiers or hiring smugglers give consistent accounts of what has been happening in the oil-rich city of 400,000.
Iraqi officials, they say, are visiting every home in Kurdish districts of Kirkuk to check the names of anyone inside against those on government-issued ration cards for U.N. food aid. Anyone whose name is not listed on the cards is loaded into a police van and hauled off for interrogation -- or worse, the refugees said.
Nazanin Mohammed Ali now lives here in the village of Diana in a school classroom with 13 other people, most of them her children. She said she paid smugglers in Kirkuk to sneak herself and 10 of her children past Iraqi army lines Wednesday, the day Iraq closed off the city.
They charged her $4, only slightly less than an Iraqi government worker's monthly salary, for each child. She had to leave her husband and two sons, ages 17 and 23, behind. She said soldiers won't let Kurdish males of fighting age leave the city, which has been targeted by coalition airstrikes for several days.
"We had to leave the men at the checkpoint," Ali said, sitting on the edge of a school desk bench that she shared with four of her children. "Police and soldiers are searching the lanes, and coming to our houses.
"They search every house, and then go to the roofs, where they stay. It's just like a base for them. They force people to bring them food and water."
The only furniture in the Alis' new home is six desks, where the family stacks small, knotted cloth bundles holding the only belongings they were able to carry to this mountain refuge, about 90 miles west of Irbil.
They line their shoes up on the windowsill and walk barefoot on icy cold floors so that they won't track thick mud in from the streets and soil the floor where they sleep.
Several refugees, and the officials who register them here, say Iraqi authorities gave little warning before declaring the roads from Kirkuk closed at noon Wednesday. By then, the security forces' search operations were well underway, Ali said.
"First they came and said, 'We are only looking for guns,' " she said. "Then they came back the next day and took prisoners. They even arrested one woman in our neighborhood. We don't know what happened to her."
Ali's husband told her he saw a leaflet circulating in Kirkuk calling for people to join Kurdish guerrillas and rise up against Hussein's forces. There are many guerrillas, called peshmerga, in Kirkuk, Ali said proudly.
"Every family has one peshmerga or two," she said. "But they are in secret places. Even we don't know where they are."
The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and the Kurdistan Democratic Party -- which control the autonomous Kurd enclave in northern Iraq -- have armed, underground resistance movements in Kirkuk. The PUK totals about 5,000 members.
Last week, according to officials in the city of Sulaymaniah, 61 Kurdish underground members were lined up and executed at the Khalid Garrison, a sprawling base and airfield controlled by Hussein's Republican Guards. Other members were arrested and accused of being spies for the U.S. when they were found attempting to make calls on satellite phones.
Until the 1980s, the overwhelming majority of Kirkuk's people were Kurds. But under the ruling regime's "Arabization" policy, thousands of Arab families were resettled in Kirkuk in a drive to make Arabs dominant.
Kurdish guerrillas seized control of Kirkuk during the uprising that followed the 1991 Persian Gulf War. But when Hussein's forces launched a counteroffensive and Western forces didn't intervene, the Iraqi army crushed the rebellion and exacted revenge.
Kurds now stuck in Kirkuk fear the same kind of bloodbath if Iraqi troops decide to stand and fight any U.S. military assault on the city, Ali said.
She and her family are among about 3,000 displaced people from areas under Iraqi control, as well as the autonomous Kurdish region, who have taken refuge in Diana since March 17, said Ashki Abdulla, who heads the local emergency committee. About 10 of the families are Arabs, he said; the rest are Kurds.
The city has shut down its schools to house the displaced people until workers can finish erecting U.N. tents in a meadow turned to ankle-deep mud.
As with any city closed to the outside world by war, accounts of what is happening in Kirkuk are sometimes contradictory.
Soran Ismail, 22, a Kurd who said he left Kirkuk around 10 a.m. on March 17, insisted that when he fled Iraqi authorities were urging Kurds to stay, but not forcing them to.
But Jasim Muhammad Rashid, 40, said a committee of about 20 police, intelligence officers and other Iraqi officials carried out house-to-house searches in the district of Rahimawa on March 16, the day before Ismail said he left the same area.
"When I came out there was a campaign of arresting, and checking house," Rashid said. "That's why people got very frightened and started escaping."
After a search committee blocked off the end of his lane around 8 a.m., four police rifled through his drawers, closet and cupboards for about 10 minutes, then left, Rashid said. Rashid assumes he got off lightly because his four children are ages 4 to 10, and there weren't any outsiders in the house.
"They were searching for guests and guns," he said. At every abode, Rashid added, the searchers demanded to see ration cards and carefully checked the names. Those whose identities couldn't be confirmed were arrested.
"They take them to intelligence headquarters, the Anduls building, which is the major headquarters of the Baath [Party] and intelligence. And they have a very bad reputation in Kirkuk. Some of the prisoners would be sent to court, some of them to prison, some of them to be tortured."
The two-floor red brick building is in the middle of Rashid's neighborhood, and people there know the names and faces of the regime's most vicious local enforcers very well, Rashid added.
That's probably why, Rashid said, the four police who searched his house went out of their way to be polite.
"They are afraid there might be Kurds from outside areas coming to Kirkuk to prepare a rebellion for the appropriate time," Rashid said.
Thousands of Arabs fearing retaliation by Kurds have already fled the city.
Before Kirkuk's roads closed, Rashid's family fled in a 1979 Nissan bus he bought about a year ago to start his own business. By the time he managed to get out, the road was blocked, but he slipped past police and soldiers on foot.
If the U.S. bombing of Kirkuk drags on without a decisive victory, and the regime's collapse is slow and very bloody, Hussein's loyalists are likely to look for payback from the Kurds of Kirkuk, Rashid warned.
"This [war] is very slow," Rashid said. "We didn't expect it to be this way. The longer it goes on, the more it frightens people, and they are psychologically tortured. If it takes a longer time, the regime might take revenge."
Times staff writer Jeffrey Fleishman in Sulaymaniyah contributed to this report.