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 …