KUSHTAPA, Iraq - At least 1,000 ethnic Kurds have stampeded from government-controlled territory to Iraq's autonomous Kurdish enclaves over the past few days, bringing with them ominous stories of a crackdown by Saddam Hussein's security forces against ethnic Kurds in the northern city of Kirkuk.
Entire Kurdish neighborhoods were being cordoned off by Iraqi troops, the escapees said. That tactic has spooked thousands of Kurdish residents because a similar deployment preceded the mass arrest and murder of thousands of Kurdish men by government soldiers in 1991, when the majority-Kurdish city rose up against Hussein in the wake of the Persian Gulf war.
The mostly male exodus from Kirkuk is the latest sign of mounting war tensions in northern Iraq.
Because of its location on a main road to Baghdad and its surrounding oil fields, Kirkuk - which Iraq's often-rebellious Kurdish minority considers its historic capital - would be a primary target in any U.S. attack to topple Hussein.
Elite government units such as Saddam's Martyrs arrived to carry out searches in Kirkuk last week, Kurds said.
A particularly brutal Iraqi general named Ali Hassan Magid, who strikes fear into the hearts of many Kurds because of his deadly chemical attacks in the region during the Iran-Iraq war, was overseeing the operation, the refugees said.
But this claim could not be verified.
"Saddam is doing this to empty Kirkuk of all Kurds," said Mohammed Ahmed, 26, a taxi driver who fled into the desert when Iraqi troops showed up on his street Thursday. "Saddam knows these are his last days in power, so he is desperate," he said.
Paul Salopek writes for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.