On the Kurdistan frontline: longing for war and Kirkuk

Wendell Steavenson
19 March 2003

War is coming, just down the road. Everyone in Kurdistan is afraid and hopeful of it. Mam Rostum is an old-guard peshmerga who has been fighting since 1967. He is famously brave, unpolitical, a little crazy, full of bravado. He pours me an enormous glass of whisky. “I am going into Kirkuk with the first missile”, he boasts.

The pivotal battle will be for Baghdad, but in Kurdistan everything is focused on Kirkuk. Like its neighbour Mosul, it is an oil city, a coveted black gold prize; but Kirkuk also happens to be the emotional capital of the Kurds. It may have always had a mixed population of Kurd and Arab, Turcoman and Assyrian, but for Kurds it is Kurdish – and for hundreds of thousands of them, it represents lost home.

Saddam Hussein has been ruthlessly cleansing Kurds from Kirkuk and its surrounding villages for twenty years and more. The Kurds have been attacked, bulldozed, arrested, executed, Arabised, Anfal-ed. During this period, many survivors have shuffled between Saddam’s bleak collectivised towns and concrete, functional UN-built boxes. Others have lived in tents, in Iran, in breezeblock hovels, with relatives. Displaced Kirkukis want to go home. Mam Rostum is one of them.

Black smoke and a hundred rumours

The long travail is not yet ended. A plume of black smoke spreads above Kirkuk into a tier of charcoal sky above the horizon. One of the oil wells has been burning for three weeks. Apparently, the Iraqis were laying mines around the oil wells and one exploded by accident.

Black smoke and a hundred rumours. Sa’ad Hassan Majid, brother of the infamous Ali Hassan al Majid (‘Ali Chemical’ – the henchman responsible for the Anfal campaign of 1988), has taken charge of the defences. The Iraqis have encircled the city with trenches filled with black oil that they will burn to smoke to obscure the city from the sky. They have dug holes along the pavements, covered with concrete lids, large enough for two soldiers to stand in.

Every roundabout is sandbagged and equipped with a heavy machine-gun. There are soldiers everywhere. A bomb goes off in front of a portrait of Saddam. The diminished Kurdish quarter is under curfew from 5pm; no one goes out; the shops are all closed. Ba’ath police carry out searches of Kurdish houses, find caches of Kalashnikovs; a hundred people have been arrested.

Loudspeaker addresses in the bazaar have told Kurds not to leave the city; there is no need and they will not be harmed. Families in some quarters have been gathered together and told that if Kurds leave their houses during an American attack, they will be killed. Others manage to escape towards the northern zone.

Most days I drive down to the border at Chamchamal, a dusty petrol smuggling town huddled below a ridge of encamped Iraqis. Kirkuk is only forty kilometres away. I talk to people coming through the checkpoint, but in the last few days the Iraqis have closed the road to all but a handful of buses.

Kurds who have identity cards issued inside Kurdish-controlled territory are allowed to pass; thousands of them are fleeing. They are not running away from the imminent American bombing but from the fear that Iraqi authorities will target Kurds for a campaign of arrests to pre-empt an expected uprising inside the city. Saddam is more frightening than an American attack.

Kirkuk stories

Mohammed Azad walked to the checkpoint, carrying no possessions or luggage with him. “At the checkpoint out of Kirkuk, if they think you are leaving they will arrest you”, he said. In his pockets he had his passport, residence card, identity card, demobilisation card and two thick wads of devalued Iraqi dinars worth about $15. Because his identity card was issued inside Kurdish-controlled territory, he was allowed to pass. He said there were 300 or more others stuck, not allowed to cross the checkpoint. Others with Kirkuk identity cards are walking around Iraqi military camps along smugglers’ tracks into Kurdistan, paying $15 to a guide.

The young men wait on the verge by roadside for their families to cross. When the bus arrives, everyone swarms around it, hugging relatives, laughing, relieved, worried, smiling; trying to find their relatives in the crowd that crossed yesterday, the day before, three days ago.

“My husband came three days ago; I have a sister in Sulaimaniya.”

“I walked to the checkpoint today with my brother. They arrested my neighbour in the bazaar. He had never been in trouble before.”

“They found six kalashnikovs in the house of one man and arrested him; his brother had three guns in his house and he was also taken away.”

“There are Ba’athists on every corner.”

“Kirkuk is empty. 80% of people have left.”

“There are Arabs living in my house, they came three months ago. They said if we made a fuss they would go to the amin (interior police) and tell them we were with the peshmerga and they would arrest us forever.”

“My uncle was taken to the amin department. He was sitting by his door and three cars came and took him. I don’t know why.”

“You know we are used to leaving. Once every two months we come here to avoid being recruited into the Jerusalem Army. You know every family has to give one son to the Jerusalem Army for two months every year. We don’t know if we are supposed to be going to liberate Jerusalem or not!”

“Young people can’t sleep at night because of the arrests.”

“I know ten or twelve people who were arrested, my relatives, neighbours.”

Will the Iraqis fight?

The petrol market where the taxis shuttle across the border, siphoning out fuel into plastic jerry cans, is null. Chamchamal itself is emptying. The shops are shuttered and residents have packed up their belongings in tractor-trailers to head away from the front line.

Najmadin Seid Gol owns a restaurant in the town. Like many in Chamchamal, he is originally from Kirkuk, but was deported in 1989, during Saddam’s twenty-five year campaign of Arabisation.

In 1991, Najmadin was a tank driver in the Iraqi army that invaded Kuwait. “I was a soldier for many years and I have experience of the Iraqi army”, he said. “They have no ability to withstand the kinds of bombs the US has”. He was going to close his restaurant and send his family to stay with relatives further into Kurdistan. “I am going to stay here to protect the shop and my house. I’ve prepared for a week. We think the situation will be bad for a week or ten days and then everything will be normal again.”

The Kurdish authorities have told the Americans that they will not rush into Kirkuk, as they did during the 1991 uprising, when they held it for a scant two weeks. Mam Rostum, nominally the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan parliamentary representative for Kirkuk, is adamant about the morale of Iraqi forces. “They will not fight”, he said. “In 1991 I took that ridge above Chamchamal with just a small group of peshmerga. Two of us were killed taking that place; we had 500 Iraqi prisoners”.

Bombing, yes, and then what?

Indeed, everyone seems pretty certain that the Iraqi army will give up quickly. A Kurdish political officer stationed near the front line told me about letters sent through messengers from colonels in the opposing Iraqi forces. “Why are people leaving Chamchamal?” one colonel asked; “we will not fight you”.

Deserters from the Iraqi forces leak over the lines, two or three a day. But it’s difficult for them to leave because they know they families will be arrested if they desert and there have been incidents of soldiers being shot as they ran off. Soldiers pass on messages to the peshmerga via shepherds: do not attack us, we do not want to fight.

Intelligence about Iraqi troop movements is random. Units are pulled back from the front and then pushed forward; artillery shifts sideways in no discernible pattern. “Even Saddam doesn’t know what he’s doing”, says a Kurdish intelligence officer. “The Iraqis just move their forces from one area to another. The government of Iraq doesn’t trust its own forces. It moves them around so that they can’t stay in an area long enough to make contact with the peshmerga”.

We are on the eve of war but still no one knows what is to come. Bombing, yes, and then what?

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