A New Day Dawns in Kurdistan

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The Kurdish New Year, Nawroz, is the mythical date of the defeat of the evil king Dahak. The holiday was on March 21 but in the northern Iraqi village of Barda Rash, they had it again today. "Nawroz means the end of a tyrannical king," said Khasro Kadir, who organized the celebration. "For us it's the end of Saddam's tyranny." For 12 years the village has been directly on the front lines between Iraqi forces and the peshmerga guarding Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq. Today they sang and danced around the traditional Nawroz fire, 20 days late, on top of a hill that used to be off-limits because of the risk of being shot at by Iraqi soldiers.

After being abused for decades, Kurds in northern Iraq broke free 12 years ago and have been out of Baghdad's reach ever since. But Hussein's presence always hovered over them, assuring them they were never secure. Until today. "This is the happiest day of my life, happier than in 1991," said one peshmerga, Bibo Zebari. From his outpost on top of Maqlub mountain, he'd heard the news of the uprising in Baghdad on the BBC Arabic shortwave service and his soldiers spontaneously began singing and dancing. "We are not just happy for ourselves as Kurds but for all Iraqis," he said. "Plus we were always afraid he would come back." Whether Hussein is in Baghdad, Tikrit or has died means nothing, he said. "Whether he is alive or not, he is dead. The Americans will catch him and kill him."

In the capital, Erbil, thousands of people celebrated all over the city. Under the city's ancient citadel men danced to Kurdish pop music accompanying an impromptu parade of taxis, buses with a dozen boys on top, and shiny Toyota Land Cruisers with government officials inside. One car carried a soldier recording the scene with a handheld video camera. Soran Suleyman, an 18-year-old high school student, carried a sign that read "Bye Bye Saddam." "It is a historic day," he said, though he admitted he had few memories of the time Hussein controlled Kurdistan. "Today is the day Kurdistan is free."

At another main intersection, teenaged boys held flags of Kurdistan, the ruling Kurdistan Democratic Party and one American flag superimposed with Sylvester Stallone as Rocky. An elderly man in a blue pinstriped suit and wire-rimmed glasses came and introduced himself. "My name is Sami Feli. On behalf of the Kurdish people and Iraqi people I want to thank the American and coalition forces and George Bush and Tony Blair. We thank them a lot," he said. He got warmed up, and a crowd of teenaged boys surrounded him. "We as Kurdish people have gotten no benefit from Arab leaders." He gestured to his audience. "Have I not said something good for the Kurdish people? Then clap!" They obliged with a hearty round of applause. "All Arab presidents, when they take power, the first thing they do is attack the Kurds." He looked around expectantly, and got more applause. "If the new president is an Arab, he has to take a lesson from Saddam Hussein. If he does the same to the Kurds then he will face the same destiny." With that he left, the boys clapping and cheering at the top of their lungs.