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.

1.

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.

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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.

2.

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.

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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.

The moneychangers do a brisk business. Thousands, mostly Kurds, cross back and forth from Saddam Hussein’s territory every day. Some are visiting family and friends, some are going there to collect modest pensions, and some are seeking the more sophisticated medical treatment that they can get in the nearby big city of Mosul or in Baghdad. A large proportion of those crossing the line, however, are men of all ages in rickety old cars who drive south, fill their tanks with cheap gasoline, and cross back north again to sell it for the higher price it fetches here. They can do this several times a day. Another part of the traffic consists of trucks laden with merchandise of all sorts and tank trucks carrying oil. Some of this trade is legal, some clearly breaks UN sanctions, and some lies in the twilight zone between the two. What is public knowledge however is that taxes on this trade, imposed by the KDP, have until recently financed the government in KDP territory.

Among the people I met at Kalak were Dilshad and Haider, both in their twenties. Dilshad was driving a sputtering old East German motorbike, and Haider, who has only one arm, clung to the back. He told me that he had lost his arm ten years ago when he had been shot by Iraqi troops as he tried to smuggle car parts from Kurdistan into Saddam Hussein’s territory. The two men had just been to Mosul, which is only forty-seven kilometers away in Saddam-controlled Iraq but takes two hours on the bike. They do this journey four times a week and stock up on items that they can sell back home in Kurdish-controlled territory. Today they had 180 brightly colored plastic dustpans stacked in their sidecar. They buy them because Iraqi Kurdistan has no plastics factory of its own. According to Dilshad, over in Mosul “things in the market are very slow, because people are afraid of American attacks.” What frightens people most, Kurds and Arabs alike, is the prospect of civilian casualties. Still, according to Haider, “people want America to attack because they are hungry and suffering a lot from Saddam.”

3.

Among those suffering from Saddam are Kurds who still live in Iraqi-controlled regions, especially the oil-rich city of Kirkuk. The Kurds say that Kirkuk was, is, and always will be a Kurdish city. The problem is that successive Baghdad governments have tried to Arabize the town and the region by settling Arabs from other parts of Iraq there. They want it to cease being Kurdish, precisely because they want to make sure that they will control the oil. So while Saddam Hussein’s Arabization policies have been brutal, he has only intensified a pol-icy which, to varying degrees, was already in existence when he took power.

Nobody I met could tell me how many Kurds remained in the city, but I met a good many Kurds from Kirkuk who had been thrown out of the region over the last twenty years. The PUK distributes a book in English about the Iraqi Arabization policy which has statistics for 1957 and 1977. It shows that in 1957 48 percent of Kirkuk’s people were Kurds, 28.2 percent Arabs, and 21.2 percent from the Turkoman minority. By 1977 however the Kurdish population had dropped to 37.6 percent, the Arab population had grown to 44.4 percent, and the proportion of Turkoman had dropped to 16.3 percent.3 We can safely assume that the percentage of Kurds is far lower today.

The little town of Chamchamal lies on the road to Kirkuk and is the last stop in territory under PUK control, making it the first stop of many Kurds from Kirkuk who have just been ethnically cleansed. According to Tariq Rashid Ali, who is the PUK administrator of Chamchamal, the numbers of people expelled rises and falls but recently it has risen again. At the moment, says Mr. Ali, he is receiving about thirty expelled people a day, but more are being thrown out because they don’t all cross at Chamchamal. He knows the figures for his area because those who are expelled must all register with him in order to collect the monthly food parcel that every family in Iraq is supposed to get as part of the UN’s “food for oil” policy. The UN buys food and medicines and other goods for Iraq with income from Iraq’s sales of oil.4

In Mr. Ali’s office I met Naaman Mohammed Ali, a man in his early thirties, who had, along with his family, been expelled from Kirkuk four days earlier. He explained the various tactics used by the regime to expel Kurds. At times pressure has been put on them to officially change their registered nationality from Kurd to Arab and to change their names to more Arabic-sounding ones. If you wanted to buy a house in Kirkuk and you were not registered as an Arab, then you had to change your name and your nationality in order to complete the formalities. More recently, a new tactic has been used. Pressure is being put on people to join Saddam’s Jerusalem Brigade, a kind of auxiliary army being raised in Iraq, with the purported intent of “liberating Jerusalem.” However, in Kirkuk I was told Kurds were being targeted for the draft. “If you refuse,” he said, “they ask you to leave. If you refuse to leave, they order you to leave; then they put your son or your father in jail for a week or so and then tell you to leave again.” In order to get the jailed member of the family out of prison, the family usually complies. According to Naaman Ali, nobody believed that the Jerusalem Brigade was really about “liberating Jerusalem”; it had more to do with “controlling people.”

Close to Chamchamal is the Barda Qaraman camp, which currently houses about 660 people expelled from Kirkuk. Ali Khaled Fathollah Mahmood had arrived a few days earlier with his family of twelve. They were all living together, in a tent. I asked Mr. Mahmood what life was like in Kirkuk and he said, “It’s hell there.” The family had left after pressure had been brought to bear on three of Mr. Mahmood’s sons to join the Jerusalem Brigade. According to his nineteen-year-old daughter, Shirin, “many young people” who had been forced to join the Jerusalem Brigade “are dead because of a lack of food and water and because of the heat. Two of our neighbors died.” Since hardly any journalists are ever let into Saddam-controlled Iraq, and since they are strictly controlled if they are, there is no way to confirm such stories. However, if the US begins a military offensive against Iraq we are all going to hear a lot more about Kirkuk.

4.

Whether you are in PUK or KDP territory, every government or party office has a map of Iraqi Kurdistan. The interesting thing about this map is that the region claimed for Kurdistan is about twice the size of the region that the two parties control today. Today Kirkuk, with all its oil wealth, lies outside the Kurdish-controlled region; on the map of the Kurdistan claimed by the Kurds, it lies in the middle of it.

If you ask Kurdish officials about whether they would help any American-led invasion force, they become evasive. They say they have good reason to be noncommittal. The US let them down in 1991 and this was only a repetition of an earlier betrayal in 1975 when the US, on behalf of the Shah of Iran, had been supporting Kurdish rebels only to drop them when the Shah and Saddam Hussein signed a deal to end their various disputes. Typically officials say they can’t answer because they don’t know yet exactly what is being asked of them and besides they need guarantees of their security. Equally confusing are the comments of Mr. Talabani of the PUK, who was in Washington while I was in Kurdistan. At one point he said he would be happy if the US were to use his territory as a base for attacks on Saddam Hussein, only to retract this the next day; but the following day he repeated his first statement to the British papers.

In fact, if there is a war, whatever they say, they cannot fail to become involved. During the uprising of 1991, for example, Kirkuk fell to the Kurds within hours, but they held it for only ten days. When Saddam Hussein rallied his troops, he drove them out. Today the Kurds, along with Iraq’s exiled Arab politicians, say they are in favor of a federal system for the country. Clearly this means a federal unit for Kurdistan; but does it mean federal units for the Arab Shias and Sunnis as well? No one can say. The Arab opposition leaders have told the Kurds that they don’t believe that this is the time to specify where the border between Kurdistan and the other parts of the country should be drawn. This may suit the Kurds. Almost all the officials I talked to told me they believe that in the face of a large-scale US attack, the Iraqi army, including the Republican Guard, simply will not fight. The Kurds could retake Kirkuk. The army that drove them out of the city they now dismiss as impotent.

Freydoun Abdul Kheder, the PUK’s minister of the interior, told me that he believed that if Saddam’s communications networks were destroyed in the first wave of bombings then “in two or three days he will lose control of Iraq.” Mr. Kheder, who led the uprising in the PUK capital of Sulaimaniya in 1991, told me that he based his conclusions on his numerous contacts among senior Iraqi military figures, many of whom he knew from college or from the periods when he lived in Baghdad. A major general he knew sent his sister to see him to plead for money to feed his family. Naturally Mr. Kheder obliged and sends him a little cash every month. How, he asked, can anyone expect the Iraqi military to fight when they are so miserably poor? Mr. Kheder says he receives much interesting information in return for favors he gives Iraqis. An interesting indicator of morale, he points out, is that he now receives more intelligence from Saddam’s officers than ever before because they are convinced that the regime is nearing its end. “They want,” he said, “to guarantee their future” by claiming afterward to have helped the opposition. “Saddam is finished!” he says cheerfully.

If this is indeed the case then it is clear that the Kurds will have a historic opportunity to create the border of the Iraqi Kurdistan they want—by force. If the Iraqi army really won’t fight—a possibility that no one can be sure of—then between 70,000 and 100,000 peshmergas can surge forward and, in concert with local uprisings, seize as much territory for themselves as possible. This will then enable them to negotiate federal borders from a position of strength. Kirkuk, with all its oil, will be the great prize. The Kurds don’t expect there will be many property disputes between returning Kurds and Arab settlers, because they expect the Arabs to flee. To make sure that this operation goes smoothly, however, the Kurds, or rather the PUK, have some unfinished business to take care of first.

 

Among the business in question is that of Ansar al-Islam, the armed Islamic fundamentalist group holed up in the mountains on the Iranian border close to Halabja. It is here that fighting has begun. The PUK believe that Ansar has up to seven hundred men, of whom seventy are not Kurds but Iraqi Arabs, foreign Arabs, and Sudanese. The PUK claim that Ansar is linked to al-Qaeda, Iraqi intelligence, and Iran. These three make unlikely bedfellows but there is a logic here.

Ansar, also known as Jund al-Islam, appeared last September as the result of the fragmentation of a larger Kurdish fundamentalist group. Now the PUK are preparing to crush Ansar because, when the US assault begins, as they fully expect it will, they don’t want to have to fight on two fronts. Occupying a politically ambiguous position in the villages surrounding the Ansar enclave are two other fundamentalist groups, some of whose men may choose to fight with Ansar should the PUK mount an offensive. Together the fighters from all the fundamentalist groups add up to some two thousand men. The PUK now have three thousand peshmergas ranged against them, and many of these troops are refugees from Kirkuk. When the time comes, they want to fight in order to go home; they don’t want to fight fundamentalists in the mountains.

As we peered at the Ansar front lines, Lieutenant Colonel Ahmad Chekha Omer told me that a few weeks ago these positions had been visited by American military intelligence officers, preceded by British officers. The peshmerga high command, he believed, had requested air strikes in support of a PUK attack. He said, “We only need two jets.” The coming fight will be extremely risky—but not because Saddam Hussein’s intelligence services are providing money and other backing to Ansar, as the peshmergas say. The real problem is Iran. According to Lieutenant Colonel Omer, “If the Iranians don’t interfere we can finish them easily.” He says that Iranian military trucks were spotted in the area two months ago, that Iran has supplied the fundamentalists with three Katyusha truck-mounted multiple-rocket launchers, that Iranian spotters are helping them target their artillery, and that “Iranian officers give them maps and training to use their Katyushas.”

Officials from the PUK find all this acutely embarrassing. In the past the PUK has relied heavily on Iranian support, based on the principle that they were the enemy of Iran’s enemy, Saddam Hussein, not to mention the PUK’s need for assistance in its conflict with the KDP. But now things are changing. While Iran was happy to help the US get rid of its other enemy, the Afghan Taliban, its leaders now fear that a democratic and especially a federal Iraq will emerge with a large, stable, and secular Kurdish unit within it. This, the Iranians believe, probably rightly, would only encourage their own Kurds to demand the same thing. Everyone here remembers that after World War II a short-lived breakaway Kurdish republic emerged in Iran before being crushed. Today, its legendary leader is celebrated with a large portrait in the center of Sulaimaniya.

I talked with a teacher who has a house inside the fundamentalist enclave. He told me how Ansar was enforcing a Taliban-style regime in the area under its control, ordering men and women to strictly observe fundamentalist practices, forcing women to wear full Islamic dress including covering their faces, and beating anyone in the streets at prayer time.

Soon after I visited the Ansar front, US officials released stories saying that Ansar had been experimenting with poison gases in the enclave and that very senior al-Qaeda men were hiding there but that the US had decided not to do anything about it. What seemed to me odd about these stories was that if they were true, the peshmergas and Mr. Kheder, who would have had everything to gain from spreading such information, might have told me about them. But they did not.

The PUK did, however, let me talk to three of their prisoners. I am always skeptical about such interviews, especially in this case since prison officials were present, but the men appeared to be speaking freely. Still, they said very little that would have displeased their PUK captors. One prisoner, Muhammed Mansour Shahab Ali, said he had smuggled guns from Iraqi intelligence to Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan. He also claimed that two years ago he smuggled thirty refrigerator motors, given to him and an accomplice by a relative of Saddam Hussein, from Iraq to bin Laden; they were, he believes, filled with some sort of gas or liquid, although he didn’t know what it was.

In view of Saddam’s use of chemical weapons in Kurdistan and during the Iran–Iraq war, this, if true, raises the possibility that Iraq was supplying bin Laden with materials for just such weapons. Shahab Ali said he could not give any reason why Saddam Hussein would want to support al-Qaeda, which has publicly denounced secular Arab regimes such as Saddam’s. But, Ali said, “bin Laden liked fighting. He only liked fighting,” implying that if al-Qaeda forces would be helpful in fighting the Kurds and now the US, Saddam would welcome them. I asked him if he had any regrets. He thought a bit and said that his only real regret was that he had strangled his wife, the mother of his twin boys, now lost somewhere in Afghanistan.

Another prisoner told me that he had been an Ansar fighter until he was captured. Once he began talking he poured out details of meetings between Ansar leaders and bin Laden and the various training courses the Ansar leaders had taken in Afghanistan. In fact, he described in such complicated detail how al-Qaeda money was transmitted to Ansar via a contact in London that I began to suspect that he took me for a foreign intelligence agent come to debrief him, and he thought that by giving me this information he could perhaps secure his release from prison. It is unlikely that he could have been primed for the interview since I had asked to meet with an Ansar prisoner only an hour earlier.

The third prisoner, in his thirties, told me that he was a Kurd from Baghdad who had come to the region to smuggle tea to Iran and had then joined the Islamists. Before the interview, Colonel Hassan Nuri, the director of the jail, told me that he always “acted meek,” that he, Nuri, was “100 percent sure” that the man was an Iraqi intelligence agent, and that he was probably an Arab. Hassan duly appeared to be meek and gently spoken. When I asked him if, as an Ansar fighter, he had had any dealings with Iraqi intelligence, he said, “Never!” But he told me that he had witnessed Ansar’s most infamous deed, the massacre on September 23, 2001, in the village of Kheli Hama of forty-two peshmerga prisoners. He told me that the prisoners were standing with their hands bound. Ansar’s men then slit their throats and stabbed them with bayonets. He said the killings by some twenty of the fundamentalists took fifteen minutes. I asked him to describe the scene as the massacre began. He said that the Ansar men were shouting that the prisoners were “pagans” because the PUK (and KDP) are secular organizations and that the frightened prisoners were shouting, “For the sake of God don’t kill us! We have families…kids!”

5.

If the Kurds play their cards shrewdly, they might do well from a US-led offensive against Iraq. If the future Iraq is, contrary to many expectations, both federal and democratic, then they will have a powerful voice in Baghdad and control of their own affairs. But it will not be the end of the story. For much of the last century the Kurds of northern Iraq have been rebelling against one government or another, and few make any secret of their desire to eventually achieve independence and then to join with Kurds from Iran, Syria, and Turkey in a large Kurdish state.

At one point I asked a Kurdish government official if he believed that a Kurdish federal unit in Iraq would provide an example for Kurds in Turkey and elsewhere to follow; and if they were allowed some autonomy, would they eventually, decades later perhaps, all secede and then join together. “Yes,” he said, “that’s the aim.” Realizing what he had said, he then added hastily, “but don’t write that down.” A few days later I was talking to Musa Ali Bakr, who is in charge of refugees in the KDP-controlled region of Dohuk. I told him how unconvincing it sounded, especially in the KDP region, when people like Fadhil Merani, a senior official, insisted that they wanted nothing more than a federal democracy for Iraq. When Mr. Merani told me that he was “proud to be an Iraqi,” I found this hard to believe in view of Saddam’s attempt to destroy the Kurdish nation. I asked Mr. Bakr why Kurdish leaders didn’t come out openly and say what they really wanted, which was independence. He explained patiently that if the Kurds did this, their neighbors would instantly try to punish them by shutting their already tightly controlled borders. He summed up the Kurdish dilemma perfectly: “If you are sick you visit the doctor. He prescribes the medicine. You take a spoonful three times a day and eventually you are better, you are free. However, if you drank the whole bottle all at once, it would kill you.”

At the nearby military camp of Zawita, I watched some four hundred Kurdish soldiers drilling in stiff military style. The aim of the Zawita camp, according to Aziz Waice, its commanding officer, is to convert the KDP’s peshmerga guerrillas into a regular army. The men, who were all wearing white gloves, marched across the drill square screaming, “Kurdistan or Death!” Their officers, dressed in British army–style uniforms, tapped their swagger sticks against their thighs and ate candy.

In view of what may be coming it is understandable that Saddam Hussein could feel nervous, but the Turks too have been making threatening noises, implying that they might intervene if the Kurds emerge from the war with too much land and power—particularly if they control the city of Kirkuk. I told Commander Waice that if I was a Turkish general and saw pictures of this parade it might give me a heart attack. “Ha!” he laughed. “That’s their problem!” In view of the baleful record of Kurdish history though, he might have said the same for the Kurds in the PUK and KDP. The US may need both groups if it is to succeed in Iraq, and it is far from clear just how willing they are to help the US.

This Issue

September 26, 2002

  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. 

  3. 3

    Four Years of Uncovering the Atrocities of Arabization in Iraqi-Kurdistan, (Information of the Governorate of Kirkuk, 2000) (sic…also i.e., the PUK’s exile Governorate). 

  4. 4

    Unfortunately I was unable to speak to anyone among the large number of UN officials in Iraqi Kurdistan. The reason for this is that the UN has agreed to a policy by which its officials will not speak to foreign journalists unless they have entered Iraq on an official Iraqi visa. But Saddam Hussein’s regime gives hardly any journalists visas; and even if they did it would be virtually impossible for them to get to Iraqi Kurdistan. This disgusting policy means that Saddam Hussein has a veto on which journalists the UN can speak to in Iraq. I entered Iraqi Kurdistan from Iran.