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The northern Iraqi kaleidoscope

Ayub Nuri
25 March 2003

19 March

It is true that the Iraqi people, especially the Kurds, have undergone multiple, successive traumas and hardship in their lives. But this is something different. Chamchamal is only forty-five minutes away from Kirkuk and is now under Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) control. The town is completely evacuated with people heading to surrounding villages, many of them settling in the open plains and on the hillsides. People have fled from Arbil, Takya, Sangaw, Kifrii – all near to the Iraqi front line – but also from Sulaimaniya which is further from the battle zone.

The price of fuel, especially benzene, has risen from 30 to 80-90 Iraqi dinars for 20 litres. People need petrol for flight. Despite all this, what I am more aware of than anything else is the smiling and happiness on the faces of everybody I meet in Kurdistan, whether they are fleeing or remaining. In past years such violent displacements left nothing but disappointment in their wake whether people were safe or not, because people knew that even when the war ended Saddam would still be in power.

This time everybody is – almost – fully convinced that this war is indeed aimed at overthrowing Saddam Hussein and ending dictatorship in Iraq in all its forms. People even enjoy an evening of music before they leave their towns, especially those originally from Kirkuk, because they hope – they are nearly certain – that when they return it will be to their liberated city of origin.

People are not afraid of war in itself, but they are afraid of the use of chemical and biological weapons by the Iraqi regime against them. Kurds are quite used to protecting themselves in war, but chemical gas is not something to be taken lightly.

Ask anybody, ‘what are you fleeing from’, and the answer is the same: ‘Saddam may use chemicals against us’. Last week the regime even sent Ali Hassan Al Majid – ‘Ali Chemical‘ – to Kirkuk on a quick visit, just to intimidate the people of the city and drum all thoughts of any sort of uprising during the war out of their heads.

The regime has dug a deep ditch all around the city of Kirkuk, and filled it with crude oil (black oil), as a safety belt encircling the city. They have started arresting all the young people, to prevent them from fleeing to Sulaimaniya or Arbil. In one day alone, 504 people fled the city, registering themselves at the peshmerga check-points.

Do the Kurds plan to attack Kirkuk? Certainly they have been preparing for years to attack the city in the event of war. A huge number of people have been forcibly displaced from Kirkuk by the Iraqi regime over the past twelve years. They all joined the peshmerga forces and have been training since then. In my view they will certainly seize this chance to attack Kirkuk, but under their own names and not on behalf of either the PUK or the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP), as both these parties have been given strict warning not to attack Kirkuk. The Americans, to make their own task easier when the war against Saddam begins, and to prevent Kirkuk from Kurdish attack, may well try and steer Kurdish forces in a different direction that is against the Islamic group of Ansar al-Islam.

All the Kurds ask for is that the Americans are the sole force deciding on the type of government which should be set up to govern a future Iraq. However, not every opposition party or group has the same view. The Majlis al-A’ala – the Shi’a high council backed by Iran – has a completely different idea about the transformation of Iraq. They say: no to America, no to temporary military rule in Iraq, and yes only to the Iraqi people ruling the country themselves.

Towards Turkey, the PUK and KDP have quite different positions. The KDP does not accept any Turkish incursion in Kurdistan, and has warned the Turks a number of times that there will be a bloody feud between Turks and Kurds if Turkey invades. They have organised a number of popular demonstrations in which the picture of Kemal Ataturk and the Turkish flag were burnt. The PUK has kept silent in the face of every development, allowing no equivalent demonstrations.

Meanwhile, British special forces are now in Arbil and the Americans are going to use the Harir airport near the town. Everybody knows of course that the Americans betrayed the Iraqi people in 1991. The Americans then allowed the Iraqi regime to frustrate the Arab uprising in the south in the most ruthless manner. This time, the Arabs are happier than the Kurds; the latter fear another American betrayal.

Neither the United Nations, nor any foreign aid agency, nor the American government have provided any anti-gas equipment to the Kurdish people, despite pleas from the Kurdish authorities. Kurds are angry with the Americans for neglecting the people in this way. But thankfully, nature seems to take its own care of people in such a situation: since yesterday, it has rained often. The rain will certainly reduce the risk and the impact of the gas. It was the only thing the people of Halabja really could have done with in 1988.

20 March

The war started tonight, but nothing particularly happened on our side. It will be over soon, and the people who have left their homes and properties will be able to return home.

But the majority of peshmerga have grouped together to head for the Shinrwe mountain on the outskirts of Halabja, from where there is a clear overview of the Ansar al-Islam strongholds. The peshmerga believe that they will go to war with Ansar, defeat them and then head for Kirkuk. They are convinced that no journalist will be able to enter Kirkuk until the war with Ansar is over.

Everybody is sure that there won’t be any resistance from the Iraqi side, but I myself am worried about the Ansar side because we are now facing two quite different enemies. The Iraqi soldiers and army are very tired of the regime which recruited them over the last twenty years. Each soldier has served for several years in the bellicose army of Iraq. It has always been a tendency of the Iraqi army to surrender themselves to an enemy, whether Kurds or Americans, in any new war. Ansar al-Islam is a very different beast. Its militants are fanatical. They will never agree to surrender but keep fighting until they are killed to the last man. And they have taken up their position in a very mountainous area which has always been indomitable. They do not care a whit about civilians. If the Americans participate in the Ansar war, there will at least be some triumph and purpose in defeating them, but if it is left to the Kurdish peshmerga to do it, it will be a bloody war of some duration, as the Ansar is far stronger than any other Kurdish military group in Kurdistan.

Iran has always played and still plays a big role in Iraqi affairs. This war and direct American intervention in Iraq are thorns in Iran’s side, so I hope they do not start spoiling everything and creating worse problems through the Ansar and the Shi’a high council.

All the journalists seem to be interested in covering the Iraq war rather than the Ansar war.

22 March

The Americans started bombing and firing at the Ansar last night: forty Tomahawk missiles from the Red Sea, killing a good number of them. To see the aftermath of the bombing, and hear from the people of the region, I paid a visit to the Halabja region with a pack of journalists from many different countries. On our way back to Sulaimaniya we dropped by a village which had already been taken back by the PUK during the night.

I was reluctant to go, sure that something would happen to us. But we arrived and started interviewing a number of people who were fleeing their homes for fear of the bombs. Then we got back in our car to leave.

I started remonstrating with those who employed me, and was actually in the middle of warning them not just to follow blindly any journalist or driver ignorant of the region, when a car bomb blew up just a few metres away from our car.

The bang was so loud that we thought it was our car which had been targeted. We escaped as soon as we could, but the explosion killed two people and injured sixteen. One of those killed was an Australian cameraman standing just behind our car: his body was torn to pieces. His interpreter, driver and another Australian were injured. I saw them to the hospital.

We were so lucky to have been inside our car and not theirs. Otherwise we would all be dead now. It was terrible.

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