LAJAN, NORTHERN IRAQOn the wall of the prison is a childlike drawing of a smiling soldier. He wears a black beret and carries a Kalashnikov, and there are three words written in Arabic around him: God, country, president. Inside, another drawing covers one of the crumbling walls: big red daisies in a pot, below the words "Long live Saddam."
Kurdish villagers clamber around inside, picking through the rubble for abandoned clothing, weapons, or simply scrap metal. "It is like a picnic today," says Rizgar Khano, 27. "We are finally free." Khano is a shepherd who has just brought his flock of sheep back to graze on these lush green meadows. In the past, the Iraqi soldiers would have shot someone for that, he says, or at least shut him up in this prison for a while. Next to the door are two large blackboards with the headings "List of Arrested" and "List of Sentenced."
For the past week, this ridge has been pounded by American airstrikes, finally forcing the Iraqi military to pull back. Since then, villagers have been streaming back to their homes in what was once largely a military-controlled area. This road, which leads to the main route between Kirkuk and Mosul, is pockmarked with large craters from American bombing. The villagers were not allowed on it before. A truck on the road is now a heap of mangled and charred metal. One villager looking for scrap metal in the debris wears a part of the steering wheel on his head, as a crown. "I was in the field when it was blown up," he says proudly. "It was filled with ammunition. It is good that the Americans bombed it, but it took them three tries."
Under the Iraqi regime, the villagers say, they could never gather with their neighbors or criticize the regime. Security people would walk in twos and threes through the streets wearing civilian clothes, keeping an eye on everyone. "We all knew who they were. They were Arab," says one.
Most of the villages in this oil-rich area near both Kirkuk and Mosul were "Arabized" by Saddam Hussein's regime, in a process whereby Kurds were kicked out of their villages and replaced by Arab settlers from other parts of the country. Lajan was spared, villagers say, because it did not have enough arable landthough Baath Party officials did visit it twice in preparation for Arabization.
Next to the prison is a barracks, with ledgers and papers strewn among the rubble. A thick yellow file lies half buried. It contains meticulous records of soldiers who were caught trying to desert. In just this one file, there are a few hundred records dating from January 1997 to January 1999. All were sentenced to one to two years in prison. A large poster in Arabic calligraphy describes different ways to signal a chemical weapons attack. When your barracks comes under attack, the procedure is to pick up the phone and say, "Hello, gas gas gas." When it is over, the cryptic message is, "Hello, moon moon."
Another piece of paper, lying on its own, is a handwritten oath, dated March 10, 2003, by a soldier named Ali Al-Awaz Salih. It says, "I swear to inform immediately about any communications from the enemy or peshmerga or from those who escaped from our ranks." On the back are scribbled notes, one dated March 21, 2003, at 8:50 p.m.: "Attacked a plane with 183 bullets fired from an antiaircraft gun."
The frontline Kurdish village of Kanilan was freed from Iraqi rule a day earlier. The road into the village is littered with pieces of soldiers' uniforms, helmets, and gas masks. Ibrahim Khalid, a 35-year-old farmer, says he came out the night before to watch the Iraqi soldiers withdrawing down the road in big trucks. "It was the first time in years we were able to be out at night, because under the Iraqis we had a curfew from sunset to sunrise," he says. "All the children were clapping, and we had a party afterwards." He says over the past week, as the airstrikes pounded their positions, the soldiers planted mines all along the roads around the village, possibly with an eye to retreating. "It was like they were planting a field," he says. "They put mines down in rows, all along the roads." Just then, an Iraqi pickup truck with two flat tires comes bumping up the road, loaded with happy peshmerga militia fighters. "We liberated the truck!" they call out. One wears a looted gas mask with no canister attached.
Ibrahim Mohammad, 23, pulls the roof off another Iraqi barracks and loads the corrugated metal plates onto a waiting truck. He is part of what the Kurds call the "RR Force," or Army of Looters, which people joke about as often advancing before the peshmerga. On the wall of this building is another childlike drawing of a soldier wearing a beret, saluting, this time with the caption "Your Guide to Military Domination." Mohammad hardly glances at it. He says he will get 10 or 15 dinars ($1.50-$2) for each piece of metal. "If God is willing," he says, in a twist on the common Kurdish saying, "we will destroy Kirkuk too."