Border villagers fear gas attack if US strikes Iraq

GORUMLU, Turkey – Like many villagers living along the Iraqi border, Heybet Bulduk is so scared that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein might use poison gas if there is a war that she is planning to seal her windows with plastic sheeting and mud. Abdullah Ergun, who lives in the nearby town of Silopi, fled the area during the 1991 Gulf War but fears that he won’t be able to scrape together enough money to leave if there is fighting again. «I am trying to comfort myself and my family that he did not attack in 1991, but I still fear a lot that he might shower us with chemicals this time,» Ergun said. As the USA prepares for a possible war with Iraq, Turkish villagers living near the border are sitting in front of televisions each night, nervously listening to the news, fearful of what an attack might mean for them. That fear is in part reflected in Turkey’s repeated calls for a peaceful solution to US-Iraqi tensions and Turkey’s reticence to publicly approve a US call to use Turkish bases. The US has intensively courted Turkish support for any war against Iraq. Turkey is NATO’s only Muslim member and shares a mountain border with Iraq. But Turkey fears that any war would hurt its fragile economic recovery and lead to instability along the border. Turkey also fears that the fighting could lead Kurds in northern Iraq to break away and form their own state, which could inspire Turkish Kurds in the border area. Southeastern Turkey is overwhelmingly Kurdish and many people have relatives in northern Iraq. Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein has used poison gas against his own Kurds and many Turks are afraid that he could use chemical weapons again. Bulduk can see the snow-peaked mountains of northern Iraq from her mountain village, which is only 15 kilometers (9 miles) from Iraq and is closer to Baghdad than to the Turkish capital of Ankara. She’s ready to seal off her basement and hide if there is a war. «We will all move into the basement right away,» said Bulduk. «What else can we do?» During the 1991 Gulf War, tens of thousands of Turkish Kurds piled their mattresses and blankets onto the back of tractors and fled the area. In Gorumlu, villagers are too poor to flee. Many don’t even have enough money to buy shoes and wear plastic covers over their thick wool hand-woven socks. Some 25 kilometers (15 miles) to the west, in the once thriving border town of Silopi, Abdullah Ergun says he would prefer to flee but is worried he will lose his job if he leaves. «I can’t risk losing this job, I have to wait and pray that if there is a war, they win it quick,» said Ergun, who sells gloves and sweaters to Turkish soldiers in the area. Like many people in the area, he hopes that if the war is successful, UN sanctions against Iraq will be lifted and Turkey will be able to resume trade with Iraq. «Saddam is a murderer. If he is gone, we can go back to normal,» said Enver Karakan, who lives in the nearby village of Duruklu. Among Kurds, there is also little sympathy for Saddam, who is accused of using poison gas against Kurds and burning thousands of Kurdish villages. In 1991, when allied troops were withdrawing from Iraq through Turkey, some Kurdish villagers protested, carrying banners that read: «Thank you, but the job is only half done.»

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