In the mountains north of Irbil, hundreds of people held a carnival to cheer the fall of a regime that oppressed Iraq's Kurdish minority, in stark contrast to large parts of the country further south where fighters battled occupation troops.

"Those people who are fighting now don't like freedom for Iraq. We are celebrating this day," said the mayor of Choman, Abd Allah Wahid. "The coalition is now wondering again who is with them and who is against. This carnival is our opinion."

The people of Choman sculpted a huge statue of Saddam out of ice taken from the nearby mountains where Kurdish Peshmerga militias once fought Saddam's armies, then melted it.

"We like the coalition here because they supported us in crushing Saddam," said Borjan Muhammad, 17, a college student.

Ready for democracy?

Officials with the US-led occupation force say the main reason unrest has not spread to the Kurdish region is that a majority of Kurds are not against the occupation.

The Kurds have run northern Iraq with US protection since breaking away from Baghdad's rule after the 1991 Gulf War.

"Among the adult population, I don't think there's a Kurd who is not able to recite times when my country has let them down," said Harry Schute, chief of staff for the northern wing of the occupation administration.

"We feel Arabs are looking for Arabisation and imposing the Islamic religion which would be dangerous. We believe Islamic groups will be reluctant to have democratisation"

Rebin Rousol,
journalist, Hawlati,
Kurdish weekly newspaper

Kurds also point to a cultural difference between them and the rest of the Iraq, which was strengthened by the creation of the Kurdish zone in 1991.

Many Kurds feel they are more ready than the rest of the country for the democracy that Washington has promised.

"We've had satellite television and the Internet for years now, and most families have one member living abroad in a western country," said Salman Halabji, a political commentator and psychology doctorate student.

"In the rest of the country, there has been no freedom for 35 years - everyone wants a leader. Nobody knows their role so they want religious leaders to follow."

For Rebin Rasoul, a journalist at the Kurdish independent weekly newspaper Hawlati, another reason for Kurdish support for the US presence is a fear that rejoining the south could pull Kurdistan backwards.

"We feel Arabs are looking for Arabisation and imposing the Islamic religion which would be dangerous. We believe Islamic groups will be reluctant to have democratisation," he said.

"But we also know the US is a very big power, so it's useful to stay with the Americans rather than fight against them and lose."