CHAMCHAMAL BORDER CROSSING, NORTHERN IRAQNasif Namiq knew she was taking risks. Every time she approached the military checkpoint, a plastic bag of kerosene strapped to her back beneath her black chador, she knew she was at the mercy of the Iraqi officers manning it. But in the past, she could always pay them a bribe and be on her way across the pseudo border into the Kurdish-controlled north, and she needed the $5 she made each trip from selling the kerosene on the other side. This time, though, was different.
This time, she gave the bribe to the Iraqi officer, but instead of waving her on, he wordlessly took out a knife and slashed open the bag. As kerosene poured over her shoulders, soaking her clothes, a "tall, fat, dark man"the director of the checkpointstrode toward her. He did not say anything, and his face was emotionless as he flicked open a cigarette lighter and set her ablaze. "I was screaming with pain and tearing off my clothes because they were on fire, and he was just looking at me, watching me, and he did not do anything," she recounts from her hospital bed.
As the Baghdad regime senses the end, it has been putting increasing pressure on those trying to cross into the Kurdish-controlled northespecially the ones bringing oil. Traders who pass daily from the oil-rich city of Kirkuk into the north through the Chamchamal border crossing say that in the past week they have been routinely harassed and blocked by Iraqi border guards. Officials manning the checkpoint on the northern side say that normally 10,000 cars pass through in a day, but in the past week, that has been reduced to 200. "After the opposition conference, Iraqi soldiers have been threatening people. They want to keep them from leaving," says the officer in charge of the Kurdish side of the checkpoint, who declined to give his name.
Iraqi authorities have also imposed a limit of 2½ gallons of gasoline on what taxis leaving Kirkuk can bring into the Kurdish enclave. "As we get nearer to D-Day, the Iraqis have been tightening the blockade of the border and have reduced fuel supplies to the region by 60 percent," says Barham Salih, prime minister of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, the Kurdish faction that controls the border. "In a land of oil, it is truly surreal to have oil rationed by the regime. That is an irony that must not be lost."
Now, 37-year-old Nasif lies on her side in a hospital bed in the northern Iraqi city of Sulaymaniyah. Her hands are swollen with huge dripping blisters, and her side, back, and stomach are raw. The doctor says she suffered second- and third-degree burns to 25 percent of her body. She knew her job was risky, but she had to do it to support eight children. She took over the job from her husband three years ago because they thought it would be easier for a woman to get through the checkpoints. "Why did he have to burn me?" she asks. "They could have just spilled my oil, but why did they have to burn me?" Her eyes water, but she seems almost too weak to cry, and as her visitors leave she moans in a low, rhythmic monotone, "I want to die... I want to die... ."