Chamchamal, Iraq

I’m standing at the northern front in Chamchamal, a quarter-mile from Saddam Hussein’s hilltop divisions. Before me six mounds of earth, like oversized anthills, line the ridge. This morning, US-led forces bombed each of them. I watched trucks arrive on the Iraqi side of the line, and presumed they were taking away the wounded. But the Kurdish soldiers I was with told me that in fact these trucks belong to Saddam’s special forces. One of their tasks is to shoot deserters before they can cross the no man’s land between there and here to surrender.

Here in Kurdistan, Saddam’s legacy is everywhere, from the blind children playing in the streets of Halabja–victims of the 1988 chemical attack–to the crippling poverty of an oil-rich region deprived of its own resources. Drive down any road here for five minutes, and you’ll pass at least one of His Excellency’s prisons. They are vast and uniform structures with small slits for windows and rounded corners for better defense. Now deserted, they are still surrounded by landmines buried in the late 1980s to prevent the escape of inmates.

The prison up the road from me–on the frontline between Kurdish-held territory and Iraq–is called the White Fort. The White Fort once housed women and children rounded up during the 1988 terror as Iraqi forces destroyed hundreds of Kurdish villages and killed up to 200,000 people. Last night, I met a 27-year-old woman named Baham, whose mother was killed there. Since fleeing Kirkuk in 1991, Baham has lived in Chamchamal, 500 feet from the Iraqi frontline. Now that war has begun, she has been forced to flee again, because of Iraqi shelling and the threat of Iraqi gas attacks, from which the United States has provided no protection.

Chamchamal is an easy target for Iraqi forces, and there is widespread fear here that Saddam will use the cover of war to lash out at his most powerless enemies with his still unaccounted-for chemical arsenal. In the local hospital, there is neither atropine, nor gas masks, nor even one chemical suit. Almost everyone in the town has fled. Baham says she cannot count how many times in her life she has done this: risen in the night, packed all her belongings onto a tractor and headed off to a cave or outlying village.

Despite its risks, Baham looked forward to the war and says she is grateful to the Americans. “War is crucial to us,” she told me. “If the US cannot defeat Saddam, then we will have to support him, because no one will be strong enough to stop him.” Like most Kurds I’ve spoken to, she prefers not to talk about America’s abandonment of them after the last war and says she believes that this time will be different. Several people mention to me that they heard on KurdSat TV that the United States now feels responsibility for the Kurds’ fate.

But gas attacks are only one of the war’s potential terrors. Another is the specter of ethnic conflict. Baham’s family is one of 120,000 households displaced from Kirkuk since 1991, as the Iraqi government forcibly replaced Kurds with Arabs in order to keep the oil-rich city in friendly hands. As soon as Iraq loses control of the city, Baham plans to rush in and reclaim her house. “I’m going to force whoever’s in that house to leave,” she says, laughing. A turf war among Kirkuk’s Turkmenis, Arabs and Kurds is a real possibility.

Today I met a family of refugees who fled Kirkuk last week because, they say, five of their neighbors–all male Kurds under 35–had been rounded up and killed. They managed to cross the border in the chaos that followed as the Iraqis began blowing up an oilfield. An 8-year-old girl, Terjeen, told me she is most frightened by the soldiers, who have been banging in doors in Kirkuk and setting up heavy weaponry in people’s homes. Her uncle, Kamaran Mejid Karim, 26, says Iraqi forces have been digging trenches in the streets of Kirkuk and are transforming the city into a battlefield.

One last potential side-effect of the war–both in Iraq and beyond–has already begun to be palpable: the risk that it will unleash a religious conflict. Right now, in the mountains along the Iranian border, the United States has launched Tomahawk missiles as well as airstrikes against the base camps of two groups of Islamic militants. The most publicized attacks have been against Ansar al-Islam, a fighting force of roughly 1,000 people, with almost-certain ties to Al Qaeda. For two nights, the allied forces attacked the militants’ bases, killing 150 people, according to the secular governing forces of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). But most of these casualties were not Ansar fighters. They were members of a more moderate Islamic group, Komal, who were at peace with both the PUK and the United States. While there is some debate over the extremism of Komal, many Kurds are angry and confused that the United States would target an Islamic group seeking to form a coalition with the secular government.

Yesterday, at funerals around the city of Halabja, many of Komal’s leaders were buried in their bloody clothes to signify their martyrdom at Christian hands.

The attack has become one more piece of evidence militant Islamists can use to fuel their hatred of the West; one more piece of evidence that George W. Bush–our born-again President–is truly waging war against Islam. Already, that same afternoon, a suicide bomber exploded himself and killed the first journalist to die here in northern Iraq, an Australian cameraman named Paul Moran–an attack that the PUK attributed to Komal. Since then, Komal has publicly warned that it is targeting journalists as symbols of the West.

Two nights ago, I lay in a mountaintop bunker watching US-led airstrikes pummel the city of Kirkuk. Round after round of red antiaircraft fire rose from the city, and white flares illuminated the mountainside. The air-raid siren sounded, and the city went dark. I worried about the casualties, but I also worried about the rage the attack likely provoked.

I was at least ten miles from the bombing, but I could feel the impact of the strikes. This is what we have to fear from the war: not only the strike point but also the impact felt at a distance and its reverberations in the decades to come. War may be the cost of the Kurds’ liberation. But its full price, here and elsewhere in the Arab world, cannot yet be calculated.