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A light in the north

Wendell Steavenson
31 March 2003

Sulaimaniya, Kurdistan, Saturday 29 March, day 10 of the war

The Shabab tea-house is a cavernous room filled with men smoking, drinking tulip glasses of tea. The smack of dominoes resounds loudly. In Kurdistan they have had freedom from Saddam for twelve years. This means: satellite television, mobile phones and the internet; information and discussions, contacts with the wider world; opinions.

In Kurdistan everyone agrees that the American invasion is welcome. Everyone is watching the television all the time, watching the American advance. Here are the results of some random conversations, while we wait to hear what Iraqis inside Saddam-controlled territory cannot yet tell us.

From Iraqi army to peshmerga

Ahmed Mohammed is sitting with his friends beneath a row of photographs of famous Kurdish writers.

Why are the Americans having difficulties?

“Because Saddam forces people to fight. Anyone who wants to surrender; there are death patrols who will shoot them if they don’t fight. ‘Ali Chemical’ (Ali Hassan al-Majid, the commander in charge of the Anfal) is the supervisor of the south, if anyone gives up he will shoot them.”

Were you in the Iraqi army?

“Yes. Twice and twice I deserted. I was mobilised for the Kuwait war. I was the driver of a tank trailer. I saw all the soldiers surrendering and giving up their guns. We knew that the invasion was an insult to morality. I remember one night; it was a bad night for me. We had to drive without headlights. We were in a bad condition; we were starving. All the soldiers were hungry. There was no food. Instead of giving us rice they gave us cracked wheat. There was no salary. All the Arabs from Najaf and Basra and Baghdad couldn’t desert, because they had nowhere to go and hide themselves. As Kurds we had the mountains.”

What do you think will happen now in the war?

“I expect that Saddam will use chemical weapons. He is waiting for the US to get to Baghdad and then he will use them to keep his ‘chair’. When I deserted in 1986 I was a peshmerga until 1989. I was affected with chemical weapons twice when I was a peshmerga

What is different now from 1991?

“In 1991 the government of Iraq was stronger than it is now. The government of Iraq controlled everywhere, even the mountains; but now Saddam only controls the streets.”

So why are the Americans having difficulties?

“The US wants to control Baghdad and stay away from fighting in the cities. I am sure this war in Baghdad will take a lot of time and many people will be killed.”

A life on the run

Kharzan Hussein is a young man, 23, fair-haired (as some Kurds are) and has no moustache.

Why are the Iraqi people quiet?

“In 1991 we saw what happened in the uprising. Something even worse than what had gone on before. Now they know that if they rise up, Saddam’s answer will be fire and metal.”

You belong to the generation that grew up without Saddam?

“I can’t say I grew up without Saddam. An RPG hit our house during the uprising. We fled to Iran. But my generation is different from my parents. They have spent their whole lives suffering the disaster of Saddam; always running to the mountains. They have had a bad life. We are worried that Saddam, at the end of his life, will do something to harm all the Iraqi people.”

The sense of freedom

Awat Ahmed Daoud, a primary school teacher, is playing backgammon.

“We have all been slaves for thirty-five years, but we Kurds have been free for twelve years. In Iraq, they see only Iraqi TV and hear only the names of Saddam and Uday Hussein.”

Are Iraqis angry about sanctions and bombing?

“The people in the south are worried about their homes, their relatives being killed. Many of their sons are forced to be soldiers. Of course they are worried. No one is going to help them on the outskirts of Basra. The US and Britain want to keep civilians away from the war. The Iraqi regime uses civilians to defend itself. In 1991 there were three weeks of bombardment. Then the Iraqi soldiers were in the desert; now they are in the cities.”

The Iraqi people are a human shield

Mohammed Towfiq, works for a UN agency and translates human rights books about the Anfal.

“Everyone here feels that the Iraqi opposition has been neglected and ignored. Nothing is clear. People have a bitter experience of 1991; and now the Americans have given them messages to stay in their homes. We know the Iraqi regime is not stupid. They are clever and have good experience in the means of killing human beings. They know how to control people in these situations; this time they are prepared.

They have built an apparatus of security, of spies, Mukhabarat, Fedayeen. The forces of the regime in the cities are using the people as human shields. In the last four decades Saddam has built a society a large proportion of which now thinks like him. From the curriculum in the schools, to the establishment of a military society, it has an effect on people’s minds. People in the south and central Iraq are under great pressure; no one outside can guess how great. It is a huge repression.”

Boxed in

In all the confusions of the southern war, there is nothing more puzzling than the Iraqis themselves. Here is a sort of wild mix of desperation, of fear, worry, wailing injured relatives in stark Iraqi hospitals, anger, grabbing at food parcels, subdued waiting, remnants of refugees walking across the bridge at Basra, shots fired in the air, at Ba’athists, at coalition forces.

Meanwhile, the Iraqis outside Saddam’s control are a parallel nation who are as confused as we are about the strange, disparate and unexpected scenes of hysterical Iraqi crowds in Baghdad hunting for mythical downed helicopter pilots or the young men being handed bottles of water in southern cities shouting: ‘You will lose, America, Britain’, at the TV cameras.

Mostly, those in the north who know the limitless violence of Saddam reiterate that the terror regime in Iraq is unimaginably huge. The society is so closed and conditioned that everyone’s mind is in a box. They can’t say anything, they daren’t say anything. They will be killed.

In all the tea conversations I understood that this is twelve years away from 1991 and those twelve years have undone hope. In all my conversations with Kurds leaving Kirkuk and other Saddam towns, I hear that they have left because they are afraid of being executed or arrested, not because they are afraid of American bombs. The war is not going well, but I still think that although coalition bombs are a terrible thing, Saddam is much worse.

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