POLITICS APRIL 21, 2003
Saturday: A friend from Kurdsat, the TV station of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, which rules this part of northern Iraq, called yesterday to say his friends in Kalar, at the southeastern tip of northern Iraq, will launch a big offensive today against the Iraqi army's 5th Corps. So we speed from Sulaymaniya through the mountains and around the lake at Darbandi Khan, down to the rolling plains and palm trees around Kalar. But the front is so quiet that we just sit and watch street fighting in Baghdad, being broadcast by Fox News on Kurdsat television, with the commander in charge, Mola Bakhtiyar.
He's an old peshmerga, and he just threw away his jacket and tie and put on his peshmerga clothes two weeks ago. He's from Khaneqin, like the older men sitting in a circle around him—all civilians, a lawyer, an engineer, a mechanic—who've been summoned to take back their hometown and help the Americans with the human and natural terrain. Bakhtiyar was a rebel all his life and, in the 1970s, had to flee Khaneqin lest he be executed as a member of the secret underground. I ask him how his family was affected by Saddam Hussein's Arabization program. "The Arabization," he says, "began in the seventh century. The first battle between the Arab Muslim invaders and the Kurds and Persians happened twenty kilometers away from here in Halwan. They called it the Qadisha [sacred] Battle, and it was led by Omar bin Khattab. ... Since that battle, there hasn't been a single Arab ruler who hasn't tried to extend the Arabization program." He looks around the room and asks the men their names. One is Qais, another Hidayat, another Azad, another Ayub. All Arabic names. "Why?" he asks. "Because, when we were occupied by the mullahs and religious teachers, whoever's name was not mentioned by the prophets were considered sinners. So our fathers gave us Arab names." As for Khaneqin, he says, "We have two hundred eighty-six villages in Khaneqin. All ... [names] changed to Arabic. " Bakhtiyar's on a roll now, and he goes on, "If you change a history, a society, a human being, their tradition, culture, songs, and the name of their children, you must know how that human being will be deprived of his humanity and what hatred he will have." His own family was expelled in 1975 after a Kurdish revolution was crushed; they settled in Faluja, in the deserts west of Baghdad. For the coming battle (if there ever is one), Bakhtiyar has collected 1,000 peshmerga from Khaneqin. Every hour, he says, he's expecting the call. As for the Arabs of Khaneqin, some, he says, will be respected. The others? Kicked out. As we're leaving, we wave hello to the American Special Forces camped out in Bakhtiyar's compound.
Sunday: A friend calls from Irbil. The Americans and the peshmerga are advancing toward Mosul, the third-largest town in Iraq, heavily endowed with Baathists. It's a long drive, and, on the way, we get the bad news. A U.S. plane has accidentally bombed a convoy of peshmerga, American Special Forces, BBC reporters, and Wajih Barzani, the brother of Massoud Barzani, leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party, which rules the other half of northern Iraq.
A few hours later, we're between Mosul and Kirkuk. The young, sunburned peshmerga commander, Maghdid Herki, says 18 men died instantly in the friendly fire incident. Suddenly, he yells orders to one of his peshmerga. "Tell Mister Tom [an American with them] that this guy is an officer's assistant. Tell the Americans to take out their map, and he will give them a lot of good information about the Iraqi troops." The man in question is a skinny, wrinkled Iraqi army soldier in a dark-green jumpsuit and tan, peeling pilgrim loafers, hardly the shoes for a fighter. Maghdid leads the Iraqi soldier to a cluster of American Special Forces in Humvees. There's a small huddle over the maps, with the American in charge.
Maghdid taunts the Iraqi: "Your informations are completely uninteresting to me. If I knew they were so simple, I wouldn't have taken you here. You say you're an officer's assistant, and you can't even read maps." The Iraqi replies, "My profession wasn't maps." Maghdid says, "You were in the Iraqi army, and you don't even know the names around here." He's in a softhearted mood, though, and he says, "I don't want to scare you. I just need the truth. You are our brothers. We respect you. You'll go back to your families. Inshallah."
The scrawny, underfed Iraqi tells me, "My name is Amer Mizher Rai from Nasiriya. I was in our stronghold. There was such intensive bombardment by cluster bombs, we couldn't move right or left." He says that, as the peshmerga advanced on them, they shouted, "Surrender yourselves. The Americans won't harm you."
Amer's tale is confusing. He says he was in the army for 24 years. Yet he doesn't know maps? Well, he says, changing his story, his profession was as a taxi driver, and he'd escaped from the army. There was an amnesty by "Said Rais, " he says, misspeaking. My translator laughs, "You mean Saddam."
But his confusion is hardly surprising. He was brought up to lie about his real feelings to survive in Saddam's world. Then he was captured by Americans and Kurds who say they're friends-but how can Amer trust them? Amer clearly isn't ready just yet to relax, to laugh, or to slight Saddam. He turns to my translator and says, "Are you sure Saddam won't remain in power?" Maghdid returns, shouting, "Time to go." Amer is whisked away in a taxi to a holding camp, where he's given biscuits, cigarettes, water, clean clothes, and 200 Iraqi dinars, enough to buy a pair of pants.
Monday: In the morning, we visit American Special Forces north of Mosul. One of them, a marathon runner, jokes that he has called in $1 billion per day of explosives on the Iraqis. Well, he says, that's an exaggeration-but, he adds offhandedly, "We've dropped one hundred dumb bombs a day on them for fourteen days, and each one costs twenty thousand dollars." A mortar round flies in somewhere, and one of the Americans says, "All right, we got targets." Everyone's a little jumpy. The peshmerga are neck-deep in coffin-shaped foxholes.
We go to a field outside of Dibaga, where we sit with an exhausted peshmerga. He'd set off with seven other men at 4 a.m. the previous morning to take Dibaga. They thought it was abandoned. As they reached the ridge, the Iraqis fired back. "It was so close. We were firing into each other's faces. The Iraqis called in more tanks. We pulled back and were about to be totally defeated and demoralized until more peshmerga arrived." The Iraqis split across the field, and he chased after them, firing madly. "If you go now into the farmland, you'll see their dead bodies," he says, neither proudly nor remorsefully.
Tuesday: Baghdad is almost in American hands. Basra is under British control. Umm Qasr is already under reconstruction. Here along the northern front, we're experiencing a "mini me" war, a tiny replica of the big show. Still, we drive out to see the Americans again in their field above a bridge they have yet to secure-not because they can't but because Central Command hasn't ordered them to. It's the Turkish problem. The Turks are insisting no Kurdish troops go to Mosul or Kirkuk, and this bridge is needed to get to these cities. So U.S. planes keep pounding the recalcitrant Iraqi 5th Corps, stationed around Mosul, which keeps hitting the peshmerga and the Americans each morning with artillery. But, today, it's a wet, gloomy morning, and the only shells are fat rain pellets. "Welcome to the northern front. Ten soldiers and two journalists," laughs one of the Americans. One American is getting artistic with his camouflaging, sculpting a robust naked woman on the front end of his jeep.
For five days now, the Iraqis have held this bridge. One Kurdish commander tells the Americans, "Please don't leave us alone like yesterday because we cannot resist the Iraqis if they counterattack. We'll advance to Khazer, but the Americans should be with us." The American commander agrees. But then he says the Americans can't move today because they have no aircraft support.
In the afternoon, I stop in the electrical market to fix the car battery and see groups of men in every shop glued to the television. The Americans have dropped a bomb on Al Jazeera's Baghdad office, killing a reporter. One man sitting in a chair beneath cans of interior spray paint and hydraulic bottlenecks says, sarcastically, "I think it is in the Geneva Convention that the journalists should not be hit." "That's America. They don't care about anybody," says another. We see images of bloodied journalists shuttled into cars. The men cluck their tongues.
"How can such a technically advanced country, which knows what we eat and do daily, say they didn't know there were journalists and civilians in that hotel?" one asks. Another says he's going to find the local Al Jazeera correspondents to give them his condolences. I'm stunned. Northern Iraq is probably the most pro-U.S. pocket on the planet these days.
Wednesday: Early morning, I get out of my car in Merga, an Arab Christian village in the hills above Mosul, which was liberated last night after the Iraqi army's 5th Corps withdrew to Mosul. It's a tiny stone hamlet on the slope of a mountain. Children and women are cheering and laughing. As I walk into the central square, an Arab man smiles and whistles and offers me a small, red apple. "For you," he says. "We are so happy for getting rid of the Iraqi army."
I follow him past a small crowd in the village square, up a slope to a Syrian Orthodox church. "This apple was like a miracle to us," he says, "because we could not buy apples. My daily salary was two thousand Iraqi dinars, while a kilo of apples was two thousand dinars. I haven't eaten an apple in five years." Of course I offer him back his apple, and he accepts, and I ask where the fruit came from. "The peshmerga," he says-the Kurdish fighters have filtered through the village throughout the night and early morning.
The church's priest, however, is afraid to talk. He says he and everyone in Merga has relatives in neighboring villages still under Saddam's thumb, and he fears retribution. "You should understand, there's no trust left, even between brothers," he tells me. "One brother living in the same house may be working for the regime." Then, in the only moment of satisfaction he allows himself, he says with restraint, "We have a saying, 'Whatever you gain by the sword, you'll lose by the sword.'"
We pick up a young man who wants to take us up to the mountain monastery. He tells us about his handicapped father, whose leg was amputated. He tells us that he deserted the army to try and earn money to support the seven members of his family. The village is so small that the authorities found out and threatened to cut his handicapped father's food rations. So back he went to the army. I ask him about the Baath Party members in the village, and he says, "My uncle was the leader. He was chosen by the people. We had to have a Baath Party official, and, if we didn't choose our own, they'd have resettled someone from another part of Iraq here, which we couldn't accept." My satellite phone rings. A friend from London telling me Baghdad has fallen and civilians are throwing flowers at American troops. I tell our Arab friend. He exhales as if the breath has been sucked out of him by an icy pool. "Help us, God. Wonderful. Wonderful."