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Iraq

Kurds, slim on supplies, study to survive war

The residents of northern Iraqi cities organize seminars and publish pamphlets, but fear that won't be enough.

By BORZOU DARAGAHI
© St. Petersburg Times
published March 15, 2003


SULAYMANIYAH, Iraq -- Just in case the unthinkable happens, Azad Hassan wrapped an upstairs room of his home in plastic.

Hassan and his family don't have gas masks or atropine, an antidote to nerve gas. So if Saddam Hussein uses chemical weapons on this city less than 50 miles from Iraqi-held territory, they'll run up there and hide.

"The plastic is the only thing that will protect us," says the 40-year-old sociology teacher.

With a U.S.-led war to oust Iraq's leader looming, Kurdish officials, residents and emergency workers say there is plenty of awareness about the dangers of war, but almost no equipment to protect themselves, treat war victims or take in refugees.

"There are great numbers of people who live in peril in this area," says Jassem Mohammad Ahmad, an official with the rescue workers. "We have a lot of information, but no equipment for training. The little equipment we have we desperately need for emergencies."

The Kurds, who are protected by U.S. and British airmen patrolling a no-fly zone over their autonomous enclave in northern Iraq, have been the victims of numerous wars. These include the 1988 chemical bombardments that left thousands dead.

A refugee crisis following the 1991 Persian Gulf War sent a million Kurds into the mountains of Turkey and Iran. They know they may be caught in the cross-fire of any war between the United States and Hussein's forces.

War preparations are under way. In the city of Chamchamal, less than 11/2 miles from Iraqi positions, 30 or so eager young volunteers gather daily for public safety training. But they lack gas masks, chemical suits and mannequins on which to practice CPR.

The Kurds aren't completely unprepared for disaster. They have organized seminars for health workers on subjects such as treating victims of chemical attacks. They have produced television and radio programs, published pamphlets and given radio talks.

"We have to be careful not to frighten people and not to provoke panic," says Fouad Baban, a physician who treated victims of the Halabja chemical attacks in 1988.

Pointing to a large map in his office, Chamchamal Mayor Tariq Raishid Alia describes evacuation plans. Just 31 miles from the major city of Kirkuk, expected to be a wartime battleground, Chamchamal would likely be a major gathering point for fleeing refugees and surrendering soldiers. Authorities have pinpointed caves where refugees could stay as they make their way to camps deeper inside the Kurdish area.

"The main roads are too dangerous," says the mayor. "People should use rural mountain routes."

Hassan and his wife, Nazik, say they'll head for the mountains near the Iranian border. "We're used to going to the border," Hassan says. They've fled conflict three times since the 1970s. "This could be our fourth time. This is our life."

But Kurds say the lack of gas masks for medical personnel is the most pressing issue.

"It is a shame," Baban says. "We asked NGOs and European parliaments, but there has been no response until now. This is really negligence from the outside world."

At the seminars for health care workers, Mohammad Ahmad demonstrates how to use a fire extinguisher before conceding that the cheap extinguishers, imported from Iran, probably won't work anyway.

The students, many working for local nonprofit organizations, complain they have no way to test the skills they learn in the classroom. Delyar Ali says he became angry after viewing news footage of Kuwaiti residents lying on the ground posing as war victims while practicing complex evacuation and first-aid procedures.

"We would love to be just as well prepared as they are."

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