AKRE, Iraq, May 24 (AFP) - 5h14 - Hajj Khalil is the last Muslim with Jewish roots in the Iraqi Kurdish village of Akre. One of his dearest wishes is to travel to Israel to apologise to his cousins for failing in his duties as a host when they visited him five years ago.
"In 2000, several of them came to see me and I didn't even greet them, let alone invite them to stay. Despite the autonomy enjoyed by Kurdistan, Saddam Hussein had spies everywhere," says Khalil Fakih Ahmed, a 74-year-old wearing the traditional Kurdish headdress.
In Akre, a large cluster of hillside houses some 420 kilometres (260 miles) north of Baghdad, near the border with Turkey, place names are one of the few reminders of the former Jewish presence.
The last Jews in the region left Iraq between 1949 and 1951, just after the creation of the state of Israel.
One block of houses is still called Shusti -- or 'Jewish town' in Kurdish -- but the old synagogue was destroyed long ago.
In the mountains overlooking the town lies a plateau called Zarvia Dji (Land of the Jews) where the Jewish community used to gather for celebrations.
"My grandmother converted to Islam when her husband died and my father had just turned 10," Hajj Khalil recalls, sitting in his garden with his children and grandchildren around him.
"When the Jews left, we stayed because we had become Muslims."
But in the streets of Akre, Khalil and his family are still called "the Jews".
"If you ask for Izzat or Selim in the street, nobody will know who you're talking about," says the old man's 19-year-old grandson. "But if you say 'Izzat the Jew', they'll know immediately."
According to the United Nations, some 150,000 Jews still lived in Iraq just after World War II, several thousand of them in Kurdistan.
Former Israeli defence minister Yitzhak Mordechai was born in Akre.
In 1999, Khalil's cousin Itzhak Ezra, who lives in the northern Israeli city of Tiberias, arrived in Akre.
"We told the neighbours he was a Turkish trucker who needed a place to sleep. But Itzhak met an old friend who recognised him after half a century."
"Luckily, his friend said nothing and the story was kept secret," he says.
A few weeks after returning to Israel, the long-lost cousin sent a letter to thank Khalil for his hospitality.
"Saddam's spies found out and arrested our brother-in-law who lived in Mosul," southwest of Akre, says Saber, one of Khalil's sons.
Saber went to see the intelligence services in an attempt to secure his relative's release but was arrested and detained for a month in Baghdad.
"They interrogated me, I pretended to be illiterate and demented. Then they offered me a passport to go and spy for them in Israel before eventually releasing me," Saber says.
Between 1991 and the March 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, some Israelis were able to reach this area in autonomous Kurdistan through the Turkish border. But Saddam retained intelligence agents in the region until the fall of his regime.
"When my cousins came to visit me" in 2000, "they didn't understand why we would not meet them but I could not explain it to them. They were very offended and left," Hajj Khalil remembers.
Since then, he has had no contact with his relatives. "My father is hoping to go and see them to resolve this misunderstanding," his son Izzat says.