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On the Front Lines

Shoresh, where I met Hajar Mullah Omar, is just inside the autonomous Kurdish-ruled part of northern Iraq; it has been beyond Saddam Hussein’s control since 1991, thanks to a US- and British-imposed no-fly zone. It is thirty miles from the big city of Mosul, deep inside Saddam’s territory.

You might have expected Mr. Omar, the leading Kurdish official in the town, to be a worried man. After all, if you walk out of his office and look down the street you can see Saddam Hussein’s troops moving about on the tops of the hills that dominate this region. You can see their bunkers, and you don’t have to be a military expert to understand that if they are ordered to wipe out Shoresh, they could do so within minutes.

With war coming you might expect Mr. Omar to have begun some military preparations to take care of Shoresh and its people. But Mr. Omar does not look worried. And as far as I could see, his only preparations for war were that his Kalashnikov was within easy reach of his desk. Outside, children played in the sun, women were doing their laundry, and men appeared to be doing not much at all. On the hills above the village, about five hundred meters away, the Iraqi troops also appeared to be doing not much but ambling about. Just below them were a couple of shepherds herding flocks of sheep.

Mr. Omar thinks that not much is going to happen here. That is what the Iraqis across the front line are telling him. According to Mr. Omar, Iraqi officers and ordinary soldiers slip across it several times a week to give him detailed information to pass on to his bosses, and to beg him not to attack when the US-led war begins. He told me: “They are saying they will not fight. They say: ‘Just don’t attack us, give us time to join you or to escape.’” There have always been contacts between the two sides, he told me, but in the last two months the number of men crossing over to visit him has increased dramatically. He explained that Saddam’s men “have a contact who brings them over.” They change into civilian clothes and, he said, “they come especially at night.”

They say they are in bad shape,” he told me. “They have no food, no money, nothing, and their morale is zero.” His account is supported by villagers who say that hungry young Iraqi soldiers frequently come to the village at night, knock on doors, and beg for food. They also sometimes steal sheep.

According to Mr. Omar, Iraq’s military leaders are well aware that its troops here have no intention of fighting and so they have been taking steps to foil any mass defections. He said that until ten days ago there had been large numbers of soldiers on the front line but that many of them had now been moved to new positions five to seven miles further back. From there it would be far harder for them to surrender or defect. He said that heavy weapons have also been moved back to positions around Baghdad and Tikrit; it may be, he remarked, that only Saddam’s Republican Guards would resist an American invasion.

Of course, it was impossible for me to verify anything Mr. Omar said. In Baghdad itself thousands of soldiers have been marching, including “suicide bombers” in white outfits that showed only their eyes. But Mr. Omar’s claims seem consistent with similar reports from the northern region over the last few months. They also bear an uncanny resemblance to the contacts I saw established between the Taliban and Northern Alliance forces in Afghanistan in the weeks before the Taliban crumbled, in November 2001.

Still, one question is whether the intelligence that Mr. Omar is gathering is reliable, or whether it is handed over by Saddam’s soldiers keen to curry favor. Or may Mr. Omar be trying to fool visiting journalists? “This is Saddam’s palace in Baghdad,” he said, flourishing a map drawn with a ballpoint pen, which he claimed had been given to him by an Iraqi soldier the night before. It clearly showed an enclave with buildings, roads, and gun positions. I asked him whether he paid his informants. He replied, “They don’t come here especially for money, but of course we help them.”

1.

I had come to Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq for the Iraqi opposition conference, which was taking place in the nearby resort town of Salahaddin. The delegates were mostly closeted in villas or in the “politburo” building of the Kurdish Democratic Party, which holds sway around here, and so they were hard to get to. More difficult, however, was interpreting what their various statements meant. I came to Shoresh because there was not much point in hanging around the “politburo,” especially while the delegates were still talking privately and had made no decisions. I had been in Shoresh last summer, and had met a woman called Stia Ahmed, whose house is on the outskirts of the village.* Then I had asked her what she would do if there was a war, in view of the threat posed by Saddam’s troops. She told me then that if everyone else in the village fled she would go, but if they stayed, she would stay. Still, she added, “We would prefer Saddam to be destroyed, he did nothing for us.” Her husband had been killed in the Eighties during the Iran窶的raq war.

This time I found Mrs. Ahmed making the local flat bread in a clay oven in the compound of her house. Her sixteen-year-old daughter-in-law was kneading the dough next to her. I asked them if they had made any preparations in case of war, which now looked imminent. Mrs. Ahmed said that the family had not done anything, because they had no money. She had recently been over to Saddam’s side of the line to pick up her war widow’s modest pension but was annoyed because the Iraqi troops had confiscated the food she’d bought there, where goods are cheaper. I asked her if she was afraid of a chemical attack and whether she had thought of moving with her family somewhere safer. If it came to a chemical attack, she said, it really didn’t make much difference where you were, since much of Iraqi Kurdistan could be hit by chemical weapons and so it was just a matter of fate where you happened to be. But, I persisted, what if there was an attack on Shoresh? “We will pray,” she shrugged. “What can we do?”

I asked many ordinary people in Iraqi Kurdistan the same questions and heard again and again the same thing. They were worried about a war, but not, it seemed, all that worried. Suleiman Hassan, a member of the five-man local council for Shoresh, told me that throughout their history Kurds had depended on “the mountains and God.” But now he said, “we can depend on the US and the UN and the NGOs.”

What people in Iraqi Kurdistan are really worried about, he said, was something quite different. It is no longer Saddam, it is Turkey. The Iraqi Kurds I talked to, and indeed the politicians at the Salahaddin conference, too, now regard Saddam as a man living on borrowed time. They are looking to the future and, for the Kurds at least, the new enemy is the old enemy from the north. “The Turks, the Arabs, and the Persians,” Mr. Hassan said, had long tried to make the US believe that Kurds “were bad men.” Now, however, he believed that the US had understood “that we are good and honorable and we can govern ourselves.” It is exactly this that the Turks are afraid of, and why they want to send thousands of troops here to make sure they don’t.

2.

Normally the border between Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan is clogged with hundreds of trucks transporting oil from Mosul to Turkey and vast numbers of other trucks stacked with goods for Kurdistan and Saddam’s Iraq. Some of this trade is legal; much of it violates UN sanctions. During the conference of opposition leaders, whose formal sessions began on February 26, the Turks closed the border to almost all traffic. The vehicles remaining on the Kurdish side a few days later were the last Turkish oil trucks on their way home with their final cargoes. By closing the border, Turkey is reminding the Iraqi Kurds that they can never entirely be the masters of their fate. Most of them cannot leave Iraqi Kurdistan. There is no road to Syria, and crossing the Iranian border can be hard.

If there was a Fortune 500 index for Iraqi Kurdistan, Rizgar Omer Kadir’s company, which owns two hotels and trades a variety of consumer goods, would rank in the top ten. It has a turnover of $20 million a year and offices in Iraqi Kurdistan, London, and Baghdad. When I met Mr. Kadir he was carrying plastic bags full of brick-sized blocks of cash, because it was the end of the month and he had to pay his workers. He told me that, as elsewhere in the region, business had fallen by 50 percent since September 11, but now almost everything, apart from his hotels here in the Iraqi Kurdish city of Arbil (which were full of journalists), had simply ground to a halt. For example, he buys Pepsi Cola and other soft drinks in Saudi Arabia. Some are for Iraqi Kurdistan and some are for Iraq proper. However, since the border from Saudi Arabia to Iraq has long been closed, he has to route his soft drinks through Jordan, Syria, and Turkey. With the Turkish border now shut, he told me he stood to lose $30,000 because he would have to send his latest consignment all the way back to Saudi Arabia.

People like Mr. Kadir have flourished in the eleven years since Iraqi Kurdistan has been free from Saddam’s grip. And, like virtually everyone else here, he wants, one day, for Kurdistan to become independent. Of course, he said, “it has to be the right time and now is not the right time.” In his view Iraqi Kurdistan is the first part of historic Kurdistan, which will eventually become independent, and it will later be followed by the Kurds now in Turkey, Syria, and Iran. “It would be easy to start with the Iraqi part,” he said. “Then the others could join, like [in] Germany.”

Even if Iraqi Kurdistan’s two main political leaders, Massoud Barzani and Jalal Talabani, agree, which they probably do, they are both far too wily and experienced politicians to say so. They know that Turkey, with between 12 million and 20 million Kurds of its own, would regard such language as a casus belli. In fact, the Kurdish leaders don’t really need to say anything. The Turks are already so frightened of a nascent Iraqi Kurdish state that they are determined to deploy thousands of troops here anyway, come what may, to strangle it at birth, if they can, following the war against Saddam.

  1. *

    See “In Iraqi Kurdistan,” The New York Review, September 26, 2002.

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