Iraq

Kurds welcome a return of open borders in the north

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IRBIL, Iraq (AP) -- The Kurds in northern Iraq are no fans of President Saddam Hussein, but they applaud his decision to end trade and travel restrictions that limited their movements for the past five years.

Taxi drivers are happy for the business, shoppers expect to see more goods in the stores and families are reuniting for the first time since 1991.

"We hope opening the border will put a lot of poor people to work," said Najdat Adil, owner of a taxi depot.

When the Kurdish "safe haven" was established after the Persian Gulf War, it gave the Kurds a degree of autonomy and kept Saddam's troops out of the north.

But in an attempt to limit Baghdad's influence, western allies declared an unofficial border, which was monitored at various times by Kurdish or Iraqi guards. Because the border was not internationally recognized, there were no official rules about who could cross.

As a result, many of the impoverished Kurds felt they were placed under a double embargo: the UN sanctions that covered all of Iraq, and the de facto border that kept them from trading with the rest of the country.

"I heard on the radio that Saddam was opening the border, so immediately I came to see my relatives," said Mohammed Hussein, who travelled from the oil city of Kirkuk. "I couldn't believe it when we passed easily through the checkpoint."

Saddam announced Tuesday he was lifting all restrictions on travel to or within the Kurdish zone.

Taxi driver Ala Karem, a Baghdad resident, immediately brought four Arab passengers to Irbil. They each paid him the equivalent of $16.50 Cdn, a sizable sum of money in Iraq these days.

"Driving up to here, it felt like we were one nation for the first time in a long time," Karem said.

Abdullah Ali, a cloth merchant, said he made the trip from Kirkuk to see if there would be a big demand for yellow fabric -- the color of the Kurdistan Democratic party, the victorious Kurdish faction in the north.

He was encouraged by what he saw.

At the former headquarters of the defeated Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, kids were putting a fresh coat of yellow paint over the old PUK green.

But some restrictions were still in place Thursday.

An Associated Press reporter travelling from Irbil toward the south was turned back by KDP soldiers at one checkpoint. The soldiers said that like before, no one could pass without special permission.

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