With the Kurds | The Nation


With the Kurds

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Chamchamal, Iraq

About the Author

Eliza Griswold
Eliza Griswold is a New York-based writer reporting from northern Iraq.

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By 9 am on April 10, the day Kirkuk fell, columns of Iraqi troops who
were supposed to be defending the city fled to the Baghdad Garage, the
main transportation terminal, and stripped off their uniforms and boots.
Barefoot, they fled south to the capital. By noon, the looting in Kirkuk
had begun. In the multiethnic Arab, Turkmen and Kurdish city, it was
primarily the Kurds who smashed the windows of the state-owned
supermarket and hurled bolts of pink fabric, carpets, cooking oil, desk
chairs and rice over the fence. The more ambitious went to the airport,
hijacked Iraqi tanks and careered around the liberated town.

"I used to drive a tank in the Iraqi Army," Nawzan Barzilini, 32,
shouted down from his new acquisition. "I came this morning to fight for
Kirkuk, but the soldiers ran away." Barzilini is one of the thousands of
Kurdish fighters, peshmerga, who unexpectedly poured into Kirkuk that
morning long before the Americans arrived. Many, like Barzilini, were
not following orders. He said he simply picked up a Kalashnikov and
followed his comrades as they rushed in. He argued that liberating the
city was his duty as a Kurd and that he was entitled to the spoils of
the Baathist regime.

In the early hours, the stunned locals didn't realize the Iraqis were
gone until truck after gun-mounted truck of peshmerga in yellow and
green bandannas rattled into the city, accompanied by a handful of
journalists. I watched the faces of dazed Kirkukis change from shock to
jubilation to frenzy as they surrounded our cars, clamoring onto the
hood. One man, Jabar, thrust his head in a car window and said in
English long out of use, "I love the USA." Children held up bunches of
yellow flowers and Kurdish flags as the adults covered their mouths with
their hands and ululated.

At first, it was easy to laud Kirkuk's liberation as a model for the
peaceful transition of power in Iraq. The city's walls are scrawled with
"Thank you Mr. Bousch." The city's frightened Arabs made their way into
the streets. One Arab man driving a truck from an oil refinery was
pulled from his car and shot in the street, but it was an isolated
incident. A Kurdish passerby stopped to cover him with a blanket. For
the most part, Kirkuk seemed to have avoided the sudden violence of
Mosul. Yet as the days passed, the presence in Kirkuk of men like
Barzilini--part fighter, part looter--threatened the calm. Kirkuk's
Arabs and Turkmen have become furious at all the looting by lawless men
claiming to be peshmerga, and they're beginning to fight back. Turkey's
anxiety over the Kurds is also rising, and the transition of control
over Kirkuk's oilfields promises additional complications.

Turkey's refusal to let the United States use it as a staging area for
the war produced some unintended consequences. The slow arrival of US
forces in Kirkuk gave the Iraqi Army there time to watch events unfold
in the south and to surrender without much bloodshed. But it also left
the United States dependent on a Kurdish fighting force. The day the
city fell, the Americans were nowhere to be seen. Protecting the
oilfields fell to a force of 700 Kurdish fighters, who could do little
as Northern Oil, an Iraqi-owned company, was looted and the smoke from a
series of fires lit the horizon. Only at nightfall did the 173rd
Airborne arrive. "It was like the Los Angeles riots," said one American
soldier as he patrolled the burning fields the next morning.

For now, Kirkuk's oil is in US hands. Though Turkish observers have yet
to arrive, the peshmerga have begun pulling out of the city without
incident. After their unscheduled invasion, even the Kurdish fighters
are trying to sound diplomatic.

"We are happy to let America control the oil," says Brigadier Rostum, a
senior commander of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan's military force.
"Even if they keep most of it and we benefit only a little bit, it will
be the first time that Kurds receive anything from oil. Besides, this is
not about oil, it's about freedom." But this is still the first week,
and, even so, ripples are beginning to disturb Kirkuk's surface.

As the peshmerga claim to pull out, the Arabs are calling for blood.
They feel that they were victims of Saddam, too, so why, they ask,
should they now be victims of Kurdish looting? In Mosul, angry vigilante
groups have set stones in the road to check cars against incoming Kurds.
It is not yet clear whether street fighting here will be next. Soon,
120,000 Kurdish families, displaced since 1991, will start to return
home, and political assertions by Turkmen groups, supported by Turkey,
will begin to emerge--and what good will gratitude be then? Rebuilding
Kirkuk in this brittle political climate will show whether a coalition
between hostile ethnic groups is at all possible in Iraq.

The battle for Kirkuk raises questions about Syria as well. While the
city fell easily, there were some fierce pockets of resistance by
fedayeen loyalists and foreign mercenaries. As Kurds in the north of the
city spent the afternoon tugging down statues of Saddam, near the former
secret police headquarters a cluster of fighters refused to surrender.
Finally, after a gun battle lasting several hours, the peshmerga
advanced to find several dead bodies of the fedayeen. One was still
alive, though badly beaten, his black tunic covered in blood. As he sat
on the curb, several peshmerga discussed whether to kill him. The man
held his head in his hands as this conversation went on, saying only
that he had come from Syria fifteen days earlier to fight for Saddam.

The Bush Administration's claims about the presence of chemical weapons
in Syria smack of propaganda, but the presence of these Syrian fighters
in Kirkuk may be spun by Washington as evidence of a relationship
between Syria and Saddam.

In the short term, Kirkuk has descended into a stunned sense of order,
but these quiet days are likely to give way to explosions of older,
deep-seated resentments. Already Arabs are accusing the incoming Kurds
of brutality reminiscent of fascism. The United States in its limited
role as policeman can maintain order for now, and helped set up a
governing committee of six Kurds, six Arabs and six Turkmen that will
soon begin to meet, offering at least a fig leaf of transethnic
cooperation. But whether, in the long term, any occupying force can
mediate the longstanding ethnic divisions is an open question. The
challenge before Washington is whether it has the will and the way to
establish the presence necessary to truly rebuild the city and not just
keep an uneasy peace.

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.

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