Spring Time

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MARCH 24, 2003

Spring Time

The cherry blossoms and forsythia are blooming on the slopes around
Lake Dukan in the middle of Iraqi Kurdistan. Despite all the
experts' warnings that war couldn't wait until spring because the
Iraqi desert would defeat American soldiers, springtime has
arrived--ahead of American troops--and with it the anniversaries of
the Kurdish uprisings twelve years ago that swept through the
mountain towns down to the plains to Irbil and Sulaymaniya, the two
largest cities in Iraqi Kurdistan, and, finally, on March 21, when
the Kurds celebrate the New Year, to Kirkuk. It's a grimy oil town
under Saddam Hussein's control, but, to the Kurds, it is their
Jerusalem. Just a few hours from Baghdad, and half an hour from the
Kurdish front lines, oil was first discovered in Kirkuk in 1927.
Today, more than one million barrels per day are pumped from its
wells and ten billion barrels' worth of reserves are known to
exist. As soon as the United States launches its attack on Iraq,
everyone will vie for the Kirkuk prize--the Kurds, the Americans,
the Turks (the Turkmen claim it was originally theirs, as does
Turkey), and the Arabs. Geographically, however, it lies within the
province of Kurdistan, and, if things go their way, the Kurds plan
to make it the rich capital of their future.On a sunny afternoon last week, at a decayed mountaintop fort above
Chamchamal, a town five minutes from a checkpoint into
Saddam-controlled Iraq and 45 minutes from Kirkuk, teenagers were
kicking around a soccer ball, laughing, and climbing on the ruins.
"Will you capture Kirkuk for us?" the kids began chanting to us.
"We are sure we'll never see it before we die." Most of them have
only heard about Kirkuk from refugees who arrive with tales of
torture, from parents who fled their Kirkuk homes years before, or
from oil smugglers and taxi drivers who slip between Kirkuk and
Chamchamal with relative ease. Across the no-man's-land plains from
the fort rises a ridge dotted with new Iraqi fortifications. A man
from the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), one of Kurdistan's two
main rival political parties, told us the Iraqi soldiers spend most
of their time quarreling about who has to take the next shift.
Nevertheless, our presence started to spook the children. One of
them shouted, "If you leave here now, Saddam won't kill us."
Succinct and to the point, as children are: You--the West--are our
only chance of seeing Kirkuk and a liberated Iraq, but your
presence could also bring us menace and disaster.

Last Friday, the peshmerga (Kurdish fighters) invited dozens of
foreign journalists in Sulaymaniya to their headquarters for the
annual celebration of the town's 1991 uprising. It was raining, and
there were no Kurdish civilians out for the parade. Trucks towing
long-range artillery drifted by the small audience of Kurdish
leaders and journalists. The cobras, a unit of special peshmerga,
dressed in fatigues with black paint striping their faces and black
bandanas tied tightly over their heads like rap stars, performed
stylized attack skits. Two men circled each other. One grabbed the
other, whacked his rifle out of his hand, wrestled him to the
ground, "killed" him, and dragged away his "corpse." Then they
lined up and ran one by one down the driveway, dove through a ring
of burning gasoline and over a barrel, and somersaulted into a
mound of sand. They rappelled along a bungee cord strung up between
the headquarters and a lamppost. Snipers in stringy, swamp-monster
camouflage suits slunk through the flower beds. An old British
warhorse photographer from Vietnam days watched but didn't deign to
photograph. We soon realized this was not a normal parade so much
as a show for our benefit, or rather for the cameras'.

It was reminiscent of a war game performed by the Afghan Northern
Alliance for journalists living among them just north of Kabul in
October 2001. The message was the same: We're ready; what's keeping
you? In Afghanistan, the neighboring nemesis, Pakistan, was making
threats and predicting disaster if the Americans allowed the
Northern Alliance to enter Kabul. The Northern Alliance assured the
Americans they would keep their army on the outskirts of the
capital, but how do you keep refugees who happen to be soldiers
from running down the mountain to their liberated homes in the
capital? Here, it's Turkey that's threatening turmoil and invasion
if the Kurds take Kirkuk. And the official Kurdish line is that
they will heed America's demand not to enrage the Turks and will
leave the 101st U.S. Airborne to capture and secure their imagined
capital.

At least that's what the politicians are saying. But men like Mam
Rostam, one of the leaders present at the parade, are saying
something else. Boisterous and bearish, Rostam is a military legend
known as the Rambo of Kurdistan. He has got 83 bullets and pieces
of shrapnel splintered throughout his body. He went into the
mountains at the age of 17, and, 36 years later, he's still raring
for war to reclaim the homeland where his parents lived and
died--Kirkuk.

A few days later, I took Rostam up on his invitation to visit him at
his headquarters and home in Sulaymaniya. The house isn't his, he
told me. It belongs to the sister-in-law of Ali Hassan Al Majid,
Saddam Hussein's cousin and the former head of the Iraqi military
in Kirkuk, who was the most feared man in Kurdistan, responsible
for the extermination of 100,000 Kurds in the 1980s. It was Al
Majid who, in 1991, during the Kurdish uprising, had dozens of
Kurds decapitated and laid down on the road to Kirkuk with their
heads propped on their chests as a message to the advancing
peshmerga. When the Arab owner of the house was caught importing
TNT into Sulaymaniya, he fled the province, and now Rostam, whose
wife and children live in Germany, runs his operations out of the
place. Since 1991, the owner of the house has sent agents to plant
TNT in the garbage bins outside to assassinate him. Rostam has
added his own touch to the grounds, planting an enormous palm tree
in the front yard that shades a green guard post where his
peshmerga keep watch for any further mischief-makers. He is still
wary of being poisoned or ambushed: Most of the young peshmerga at
the house are his relatives.

Rostam was in a generous, optimistic mood. He plopped down on a
white shag rug and said, "I am cooking you a specialty that only
grows here one month of the year." And out came plates of sauted,
unadorned truffles that would have cost hundreds of dollars in a
French restaurant. Then came the bottles: Dewar's Scotch and
Absolut Vodka, gifts from his admirers. As he opened the Absolut,
the doorbell rang--another bottle from an admirer, delivered by his
nephew.

"I've been fighting for Kirkuk for thirty-five years," Rostam told
me. "And so did my father. Two of my brothers were martyred for
Kirkuk. And my younger brother and this nephew who brought in the
whiskey grew up in Saddam's prison from 1977 to 1982 because I was
a peshmerga. Every time an Iraqi soldier was killed, they punished
a peshmerga's family." He went on fighting in the mountains until
1996, when he started traveling to Germany to repair his body-- a
war journal made of flesh, the pages of which he began flipping one
by one. "1969, rocket attack," he said, lifting the fringe of hair
on his forehead to show the scar. "1968," he rolled down his socks
to the scar on his ankle. "1977, " a scar buried in his crown.
"1978," he rolled up his sleeve to his wrist and elbow scars.
"1979," another elbow scar. "1982," the mangled knee, operated on
twice. "1984," the neck (I could feel the wad of shrapnel still
wedged inside). "1984," another one on the forehead.

In those years, the Kurds fought the Iraqis and the Iranians in
obscurity. Until they decided it was time the world knew the
Kurdish nation existed. One night, Rostam and a group of peshmerga
hid by the side of a mountain road, stopped a car full of Italian
electrical engineers, and kidnapped them, delivering them to the
PUK leaders. Rostam moved them from village to village, and,
wherever they arrived, villagers slaughtered a sheep in their honor.
He took 16 Russians constructing a dam as hostages. They were all
attacked by Iraqi helicopters; two Russians were injured and six
peshmerga died. That night, he released the Russians to the elders
of a village. He took three Germans who were later ransomed by the
PUK for $2 million. The Kurds treated them all more like honored
guests than prisoners. Years later, the Germans who had been
hostages under Rostam arranged visas for several of his injured men.
And, in 1996, when he went to Germany for an operation, one former
hostage invited him to his home in Berlin. "We wanted to introduce
ourselves to the world so when they went home they'd say, there's a
nation by the name of the Kurds."

An image of Saddam Hussein sitting behind his desk flickered on the
television, and Rostam broke from his story in anger. "He will be
like Slobodan Milosevic, tried for war crimes," he said. "I'd
prefer him to be arrested and tortured. And I know how I'd torture
him. Psychologically, not physically. I'd turn him into a dustman.
He'll wash my shoes and feet. It is very hard for a power like that
to descend to such depths." When Rostam was 19, he was arrested by
Saddam's men in Kirkuk and stuck in a room so tiny he could neither
stand up nor sit down. When he was 27, he watched Saddam moving
Kurdish villagers out of their homes, razing all the villages to
the ground. He saw hens and cattle with no one to feed them. And he
had a severe reaction. "I stopped believing. I stopped praying,"
and now he can hardly resist cursing his religion, Islam. An image
of Israeli soldiers destroying a Palestinian house appears on Al
Jazeera television, and he curses, "Fuck the Arabs. The Israelis
are the only ones who know how to deal with Arabs."

"My life has been wars, sorrows, killing. The only day I liked was
the day I marched freely into Kirkuk," he said. It was March 1991,
when he'd come down from the mountains for the uprisings throughout
Kurdistan. "It was a red-letter day for us. I went to my home. I
had lived in Shorja Square, and I said to the people, `Where is
Shorja?' They said, `This is it.' But all I saw were wide roads and
no houses, and the people said, `They razed the Kurdish houses
under the pretext of making new roads.'" His red-letter days lasted
only 72 hours before he received news that Iraqi troops were
massing to take back the city, and he fled to a village where he
captured 180 Iraqi officers and soldiers. "They had been prisoners
of war, and they told us that the Americans released them and gave
them back their weapons and uniforms to fight the rebelling Kurds.
"

He watched as Iraqi helicopters bombed the Kurds while U.S. and
British planes flew by. "It was the father of Bush who did that
treason," he recalled. The first President Bush had encouraged the
Kurdish and Shia uprisings when he gave his tacit blessing to the
Iraqi people to take matters into their own hands. As many as
20,000 Kurds and Turkmen perished in Saddam's counterattack.
Hundreds were killed while fleeing on the road to Turkey, scorched
to death by phosphorous bombs dropped from Saddam's helicopters. As
the Kurds fled toward the borders, Iraqi helicopters dumped flour
on them so they'd think it was chemical weapons. It succeeded.
Panic ensued. Two million Kurds fled, mostly to the borders with
Turkey and Iran.

Does Rostam trust the United States now? "Not very much, but more
than in the past," he said. "Last year, an American journalist who
also works for the CIA or the Pentagon came here, and I took him to
the front lines, and he promised me, `The Americans will be good
with the Kurds this time.'" When he heard these words, a young
English teacher from Halabja, who had been glowing with admiration
for Rostam, expressed his misgivings: "Hmm. History repeats itself
it seems."

Rostam smiled and poured more vodka. "America betrayed us three
times because of its interests. The English betrayed us and divided
Kurdistan into four parts because of its interests," in the 1920s
creation of the modern Middle East. "When you ask the British who
is your permanent friend, they say, interests are our permanent
friends." For now, he's gambling that U.S. and Kurdish interests
have converged.

On the chance that they do not converge, however, the leadership of
the Kurdish resistance inside Kirkuk isn't taking any chances. It's
said that many of the Kurds in Kirkuk--who make up 50 percent of
the city's population--are preparing for an uprising. They are
armed. The two rival Kurdish parties are already vying for
political dominance among the population. I've met almost as many
Kurdish Democratic Party men as PUK men who are plotting to move
south to Kirkuk as soon as America's bombs begin dropping. Inside
Kirkuk, Saddam's Kurdish militia are plotting their side-switching.
One commander told me that he has a former peshmerga now in the
Iraqi army who wanted to desert. "I told him to stay. When we come
to Kirkuk, we'll need him."

Last week, the startling news out of Kirkuk was that Iraqi troops
were drowning the trenches around the city with crude oil and
planting strings of linked mines. This week, however, the news is
more encouraging: Messages fly in through couriers and spies to the
Kurdish political leaders, commanders, local peshmerga, and taxi
drivers from Iraqi officers saying, "We will not fight; we will
surrender with the first American attack." One Kurdish leader has a
white piece of paper with the names of Iraqi commanders listed in
blue script who have foretold their surrender. "We know of two
units that will surrender. That is 60,000 troops," said one Kurdish
leader. Said another, "We have links with senior members who don't
trust Saddam anymore. Their salaries are very poor. They all have
to work as taxi drivers. We have daily talks with them. They have
no supplies. They've lost all courage."

The Iraqis seem concerned. At the first Kurdish checkpoint along the
road from Kirkuk into Chamchamal, nervous taxi drivers told us a
new curfew had been imposed on Tuesday morning across the Kurdish
areas of Kirkuk. Iraqi soldiers are searching houses for weapons
and men for identity cards. The city is like a garrison of
soldiers, he said. He was obviously desperate to get away from the
cement block post and the ubiquitous ears of Iraqi agents. A few
days ago, he said, a driver was seen speaking to journalists at the
checkpoint here, and, when he drove back into Kirkuk, he was beaten
severely. "People are especially afraid America will not finish its
business completely, like 1991, when Saddam made many arrests," he
said and sped off.

The Kurdish political leadership has grown savvy. Despite the
betrayals, they want to forge good ties with the West, touting
democracy and promising to keep their men out of Kirkuk. "America
has protected us from Saddam for twelve years. Our democracy and
existence are on account of Britain and America and the no-fly
zone, and we'll never forget it," Kosrat Rasul, an old peshmerga
commander and now leader of the PUK's political bureau, told me when
we met at his home in Sulaymaniya. Rasul was the first peshmerga to
enter Kirkuk during the 1991 liberation of the city, but he was
severely injured; his eight- and nine-year-old sons were killed by
Saddam's bombs.

But, while the politicians plot their political futures, Mam Rostam,
who is too blunt to play politician, is waking up at three and four
every morning to track his men and gear up for what may be the
Kurds' only frontline battle in the upcoming Iraqi war, to stamp
out Ansar Al Islam, a group of more than 500 Kurdish Islamists
allegedly backed by dozens of Arab-Afghans who slipped in with the
help of Iran, and, some say, Al Qaeda. They've been waging a
low-level, mortar-lobbing war against the PUK, killing some 300
peshmerga since September 2001. One early morning, I drove out with
Rostam through a landscape of rich, green pastureland spiced with
yellow flowers toward the Zagros Mountains along the border with
Iran. At every checkpoint and small town, men greeted him with
enthusiastic smiles or invitations. "I'm like the dollar bill," he
says. "Everyone knows me." Weaving madly through a chaotic market,
he gesticulated at a turbaned young man with a Kalashnikov and a
long Taliban-like beard: "It's like Afghanistan here!" Then he
shouted out the window at a man wheeling his cart carelessly across
the dirt road, "Donkey! Organize your market."

We climbed up to a grass and stone hilltop bunker overlooking the
ruins of what was a Kurdish village before Saddam's 1988 chemical
attack, where Rostam's former peshmerga, now under another command,
were manning a Russian machine gun. The day before Ansar had gone
on a mortaring spree and wounded two peshmerga and two civilians.
From another position, the PUK were firing mortars at Ansar
positions over a few small peaks. Given the standards of modern
warfare, it was a fairly primitive arrangement--no tanks, no
helicopters, no planes--and I could see why the PUK has been unable
to rout the extremists. The commander, one of Rostam's old
peshmerga, said the Arab-Afghans were busy training more men. "If
we have airplanes or helicopters, it'll be easier for us to get
them," he said. And he may soon get his wish. Rumor has it that the
Americans have dropped off massive supplies of ammunition at an
airstrip near here and that the prologue to the war against Saddam
will begin here, at Halabja, against Ansar Al Islam.

Cradled in the foothills of the Zagros Mountains, Halabja was a
pastoral resort and picnic town. That was before Saddam poisoned
the people with chemical weapons that many, sadly, associate with
the West and the United States. "After all, the U.S. gave the
chemicals to Saddam," one old man said. "It was beautiful," said
Rostam. "It was known as the city of poets." After Saddam destroyed
it, the Islamists stifled its spirit again--no cinema, no music, no
theater. Today, with Ansar Al Islam kicked out, the theater is
alive and poets are reading again, but the din of mortars is
driving everyone a little mad. We stopped in for lunch at the
parents of a young English teacher named Yerevan. Fifteen years ago
this Saturday, Yerevan's mother, Bahar, was hiding with her husband
and children in a cave in the nearby mountains. The morning after
the chemical attack, she recalled that people arrived from the
village blind, raving, laughing, mad, and poisoned. A month later,
Bahar went back to find her father. He'd gone back to Halabja to
get milk for his baby daughter. She found him in the garden of his
house, dead, flat on in his stomach, still covering his mouth with
his hands. Forty-five other relatives of Bahar were also killed by
the chemicals--"that smelled like onions and apples," said Yerevan,
who was eight at the time.

Bahar said she has watched in confusion and anger at the Europeans
demonstrating against a war to topple Saddam. "They know nothing of
the oppression of Saddam," she said. "If they had suffered from it,
they could never march in the streets against it." The trees in
Bahar's father's garden all died from the chemicals. She buried her
father and set about starting life over again, planting new trees.
On a quiet street, behind stone walls and a metal gate, in her
father's garden, the cherry blossoms on Bahar's young tree are in
bloom.

By Elizabeth Rubin

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