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In Iraqi Kurdistan

With all the debate about whether the United States should go to war with Saddam Hussein’s regime, hardly anyone seems to have noticed that the war for Iraq has already begun. A few weeks ago I sat on a mountainside in northern Iraq and watched Kurdish fighters, who are known as peshmergas, trading shellfire with a group that they say is linked to al-Qaeda and that had dug into positions on the mountain opposite. The Kurdish fighters claimed that their opponents, who are mainly Kurds but include some Arabs as well, receive some support from Saddam Hussein and a lot from Iran. As the peshmergas served tea, the otherwise silent landscape reverberated with the shelling, and puffs of smoke and dust twisted and vanished with the evening breeze. This is an overture to the war.

To get to these peshmerga positions I had driven first to Halabja, the Kurdish town on which Saddam Hussein had dropped chemical weapons on March 16, 1988, killing five thousand people virtually instantly. After Halabja I had taken the road that runs through a village called Anab and beyond that to the Iranian border. When Halabja’s people began to flee from the attack of Saddam’s air force in 1988, Iraqi bombers targeted them on the road at Anab, killing hundreds, including eighteen members of the family of Saadiyah Hassan Yacob. I met her in Anab, and while we talked she served grapes. They looked delicious but tasted extremely bitter. I wondered whether Anab’s grapes had always tasted like this or whether they were bitter because of soil contamination from Saddam’s chemical bombs. I asked Saadiyah what the gas tasted like when it fell on Anab, and she said: “It was like razors on your tongue.”

Saadiyah is a striking-looking woman, but at forty-four she is unlikely to get married now. Here in Iraqi Kurdistan, where, generally speaking, girls are married off young, this is not unusual. So many men have died fighting or simply been trucked away and executed by Saddam Hussein’s troops over the years that there are not enough men to go around. And now a new cycle of conflict is beginning.


In 1991, after the Gulf War, President Bush encouraged Iraqis to rise up and overthrow Saddam Hussein. In the south, among the Shia Arabs who make up some 60 percent of Iraq’s population, there were revolts in several towns; and there were also uprisings among northern Iraq’s Kurds, who make up between 15 and 20 percent of Iraq’s 23 million people. The US did nothing. The administration was alarmed at the prospect that Iraq would be torn apart, that the Shias would lead a bloody Islamic revolution dominated by neighboring Shia Iran, and that the Kurds would declare independence, provoking angry and violent reactions from, among others, America’s close ally Turkey, with its own restive Kurdish population. Indeed it even signaled discreetly to Saddam Hussein, who was then rallying the Sunni Arab Iraqis, who have always dominated his country’s politics despite being only some 15 percent of the population, that he should go ahead and crush the rebellions.1 With characteristic savagery he did so.

All across Kurdish-dominated northern Iraq the Kurds had seized control, but now Saddam’s forces came roaring back. Terrified that they would again be gassed, approximately a million Kurds fled toward the Iranian and Turkish borders. There they were greeted by hordes of reporters from the world press. The sight of desperate Kurds clinging to the mountainsides on US television embarrassed the Bush administration, which decided it had to do something. Saddam was told to pull back his forces, and US and British troops entered northern Iraq. The British and Americans then began to patrol a no-fly zone above the region, the refugees returned, and in this way an autonomous, though internationally unrecognized, Kurdish entity emerged. Today 3.6 million Kurds live here, free from Saddam’s tyranny. The US and British troops have gone but the no-fly zone is still enforced and much of this part of Kurdistan, which had been reduced to rubble by Saddam especially in brutal suppression campaigns in the late 1980s, has been rebuilt.

The lands inhabited by the Kurds—Kurdistan—stretch through Iraq, Turkey, Syria, and Iran. There are also small numbers of Kurds in Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia. In 1920 Britain and the other world powers, including the US, promised the Kurds a state of their own in the Treaty of Sèvres. The next year the Kurds were betrayed by the British, who decided that their mandate on Iraq would be better served if they included the oil-rich Kirkuk region within it. The Kurds found themselves formally divided among several of the states that succeeded the Ottoman Empire, in particular Iraq and Turkey. Today there are perhaps 20 million Kurds in Turkey, 8 million in Iran, 1.5 million in Syria, and between 4 and 5 million in Iraq, including those parts of historic Kurdistan still under Saddam’s control.2 The governments of all of these countries distrust the Kurds because they fear that they would all eventually like to break away to form an independent Kurdistan if they could. Since the Kurds never wanted to be part of these countries, least of all to be dominated by them, this fear is quite justified.

Ever since the 1920s the Iraqi Kurds have lived through cycles of rebellion, repression, and then tense peace agreements with governments in Baghdad. When these regimes have been weak, they have given concessions to the Kurds only to take them back when they have been strong. During the Iran–Iraq war between 1980 and 1988 Iraqi Kurdish peshmergas sided with Iran while Iranian Kurdish peshmergas fought with Iraq. The historic principle at work here was nothing more complicated than my enemy’s enemy is my friend. The problem for the Kurds is that they really have no friends at all, only shifting alliances and interests.

Today Iraqi Kurdistan is dominated by two political parties. In 1991 the two parties were united as the Kurdistan Front. They then fell out over the division of revenues from smuggling and trade and because, while both talked about democracy, their real aim was to eliminate each other. In the mid-1990s the two parties fought a desultory but bitter civil war. Based in the east, the Patriotic Union of Kur-distan (PUK) of Jalal Talabani enlisted the support of the Iranian military to help him overcome the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) of Massoud Barzani, the son of Mustafa Barzani, the famous Kurdish guerrilla leader who fought in the mountains for years and died in 1978. In 1996 Barzani asked the US for help, but when this was not forthcoming he asked Saddam to send in his tanks to drive out the PUK. Saddam obliged, and at the same time captured and executed Iraqi Arab opposition forces and politicians who did not have enough time to flee before his blitzkrieg.

Following his successful incursion, Saddam withdrew. Today, Iraqi Kurdistan is divided into a zone run by the PUK in the east and a KDP region in the west, but the two groups now have peaceful working relations. The US, and indeed every other country, would like to know whether these parties, the only organized armed groups in Iraq opposed to Saddam, will fight alongside it if it goes to war. So far the responses have varied from confusing to downright cool, but this, of course, could be part of a bargaining tactic.


It is easy to see why the Kurds might not want to participate in any US-led attack. About half an hour’s drive south of Arbil, the main city in KDP territory, is the village of Shoresh. It lies on the south bank of the Great Zab River, a tributary of the Tigris. At the edge of the village the land slopes gently upward to a line of hills. There are no barriers or signs or warnings here, nor are there any peshmerga positions. But between the village of Shoresh and the Iraqi soldiers stationed on the top of the hills less than five hundred yards away are some of the more than eight million mines that are sprinkled across Iraqi Kurdistan. The Iraqi soldiers are so close you can actually see them strolling about. Unlike Kurdish forces, they have tanks, heavy artillery, missiles, rockets, and, most probably, chemical and biological weapons. So if the US attacks Iraq, the entire population of Shoresh could be dead a few minutes later.

I watched the Iraqi troops from the roof of a house belonging to the forty-year-old Stia Ahmed. In her bedroom she has a large photograph of her husband, Qassem Mohammed, who died in Saddam’s army fighting the Iranians during the war. In the picture he has long hair because he was, like many in Iraqi Kurdistan, a Dervish, a believer in the Sufi-influenced interpretation of Islam. In view of the proximity of the Iraqis I asked Mrs. Ahmed what she would do if the Americans attacked. She said that if the rest of the village fled then she would go too, but if they stayed she would stay. Then, expressing a view I was to hear from many in Iraqi Kurdistan, she said that despite the risks to her village, and even her life, she still wanted America to attack. “We would prefer Saddam to be destroyed,” she said. “He did nothing for us.”

At a nearby shop I met a group of some twenty-five men and boys of all ages. In these conservative and rural parts, girls and women do not venture out of their houses without permission or unless they have good reason to. The men complained that none of them had anything to do because many of their fields lay in Iraqi-controlled territory and unless you paid a large bribe you could not work them. Men of military age hardly dared to cross the lines anyway for fear of being drafted into Saddam’s forces, while on their own side mines infested the fields. Ibrahim Kheder Mikhail, a sixty-eight-year-old, said that because of this, “it is like a prison here.” I conducted a straw poll. Bearing in mind the risk to Shoresh if the US attacked, I asked who was in favor of a US-led offensive and who was against. Not a single man was against. It was certainly not a scientific poll but still, judging from many other talks I had with Kurds, I suspect that even if it had been, the result would not have been much different. These men, however, were not part of any armed force.

Ten minutes’ drive from Shoresh is the checkpoint at Kalak. It lies on one of the main roads that link Kurdish-controlled territory with Saddam’s Iraq. Just before the checkpoint is a line of moneychangers looking for business. In Iraqi Kurdistan they use old Iraqi banknotes known as “Swiss Prints,” because that is where they were printed. In Saddam’s territory they use new banknotes adorned with his image. With a couple of brick-sized blocks of cash on his little table, Ismail Jamil explained the mechanics of the Kalak money market. “If the news is about a possible attack,” he said, “the Saddam dinar and the dollar go down and the ‘Swiss Print’ goes up. When the news suggests there may be no attack or the situation is stable then Saddam’s dinar goes up.” It’s not so different from Wall Street.

  1. 1

    Two excellent primers for these events, and indeed about Iraq in general, are Sandra Mackey, The Reckoning: Iraq and the Legacy of Saddam Hussein (Norton, 2002) and Andrew Cockburn and Patrick Cockburn, Out of the Ashes: The Resurrection of Saddam Hussein (HarperPerennial, 2000). Not only does Mackey tell the story of Saddam’s Iraq but she also provides a solid introduction to Iraq’s tortured history. By contrast the Cockburns provide a truly fascinating account of how Saddam survived the Gulf War and a huge amount of detail on the Iraqi opposition, the CIA, and the Kurds.

  2. 2

    There are no reliable statistics on the numbers of Kurds. The states where they live try to downplay their numbers, while Kurds have an interest in inflating them. See Christopher de Bellaigue’s article “Justice and the Kurds,” The New York Review, June 24, 1999.

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