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msnbc.com

Thousands of Kurds poured onto the streets of opposition-controlled northern Iraq on Wednesday, jubilant that the end of President Saddam Hussein’s regime appeared near. Bumper-to-bumper traffic honked incessantly as Kurds, a long-oppressed minority in Iraq, cheered the U.S. military’s advance on Baghdad.

The streets of Sulaimaniyah, normally quiet at lunchtime, filled with delighted crowds after pictures showing celebrations in Baghdad aired on satellite television here.

Those images were apparently enough to convince Kurds that the tide had turned against Saddam’s government.

Around Sulaimaniyah’s major bazaar, thousands whistled and danced in circles, nearly delirious with joy. Many held quickly assembled placards proclaiming U.S. President George W. Bush a “peace hero.”

“This is the happiest day of my life,” said Hadi Hakim, an unemployed 25-year-old, pausing briefly from his dance routine. “The Kurds have been saved from Saddam.”

Kurdish-dominated northern Iraq has remained outside of Saddam’s control for more than a dozen years, protected by the U.S. and British “no-fly” zone.

Saddam’s ethnic cleansing campaigns displaced tens of thousands of Kurds from their homes elsewhere in northern Iraq. A similar number of Kurds simply disappeared.

Since the 1991 Gulf War, Kurdish fighters have manned a tense, 200-mile front line against Saddam’s forces in the north. Over the past two weeks, U.S. special operations forces have led the Kurdish fighters in an advance toward Mosul and Kirkuk, two northern Iraqi cities still ruled by Saddam.

Although Saddam’s forces in the north, estimated at 100,000, have yet to be defeated, there was little doubt in northern Iraq on Wednesday that victory was near.

UNEXPECTED MOMENT

On the streets of northern Iraq, many spoke of Wednesday’s unexpected moment — when U.S. troops advancing into Baghdad neighborhoods were given a hero’s welcome.

Mohammed Qader, a 56-year-old sunflower seed seller, rushed to position his cart near the crowds in Sulaimaniyah.

“I can now say that I survived Saddam Hussein,” he said. “From now on, there will be no problems in life.”

Few Kurds are untouched by Saddam’s brutal policies in the north, where he crushed dissent among Kurds by “Arabizing” the region by settling Arab families in Kurdish areas.

Nashmil Mohammed, a 40-year-old accountant in the Kurdish ministry of reconstruction, said she felt a sense of justice upon seeing Baghdad fall to U.S. troops. The Kurds have allied themselves with Washington in the war against Saddam.

“I feel free today,” she said. “Today is my brother’s day.”

Mohammed said her brother, Aram, was assassinated by Saddam’s intelligence services in 1985, because he was a member of a Kurdish political party. She pointed toward the school where the killing took place.

“After that, they forced our family to move to a town in the south,” she said, describing Saddam’s policy of dispersing his opposition around Iraq. Mohammed, her parents and sister spent three years in jail without being charged. In 1988, they moved back to Sulaimaniyah. The same year, Saddam’s forces used chemical weapons on the civilian population of nearby Halabja, killing some 5,000.

Mohammed’s husband, Haimen, held their daughter Nima on his shoulders. Nima, 3, wore a pumpkin-colored, sequined jumpsuit her parents rushed to put on before the family joined the street celebrations.

“If I die today, it is not important,” Haimen Mohammed said. “Today I have lived to see my only dream.”

(MSNBC.com’s Preston Mendenhall is on assignment in northern Iraq.)

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