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Iraq spring

Ayub Nuri
27 April 2003

19 and 20 April

The anti-climax of freedom

It is well understood by now that a number of different minorities and religions exist side by side in Iraq; all were oppressed by the Ba’ath party regime. Kurds, Arabs, Assyrians, Turcomans have never stopped struggling against the Iraqi regime and fighting for their rights, since well before Saddam took power.

Iraq’s neighbours, each with their own motive, have kept in touch with these groups and minorities, and helped them in various ways, especially with arms. Turks have helped the Turcomans; Iranians the Shi’a Arabs and sometimes the Kurds; westerners as well have made their contribution. Yet their aid has stopped short of addressing the struggle against the Iraqi regime as a whole.

2003 has been different. Americans offered to end Iraqi dictatorship and help the people procure peace and justice for themselves; help was thus offered to the whole people of the country, not only one part of it. Although millions of people throughout the world were steadfastly opposed to the war option, the Iraqi people themselves showed every willingness to co-operate with it. This is not surprising, for we are the ones who have suffered for so many years from the oppressiveness of Saddam’s regime.

The war started, and day after day progress was made. But as it continued, a certain disappointment crept in.

Sulaimaniya: a moment of celebration

As the war offensive pressed on towards Baghdad, Iraqi-controlled lands were taken back by the Kurds in the north. This would have been impossible without the heavy bombardments on Iraqi positions by American jets, forcing the Iraqi troops to pull back and enabling the joint advance of the Kurds and American special forces. One of the areas liberated by the Kurds was a strip of fifteen kilometres around Mosul, inhabited by a large number of Christians.

I visited villages there, and talked with people who had just been liberated. They could not find words to express their happiness. They told me that it had been obligatory for them to mention the name of Saddam Hussein in every church service; and that while Jesus teaches a life of peaceful co-existence, the Iraqi regime had never allowed them to live peacefully.

When I heard that ‘the fall of the heart’ – the collapse of the regime in Baghdad – had occurred, my friends and I headed for Sulaimaniya, from where we wanted to go on to Kirkuk, which (like all Iraqi cities) was expected to fall in Baghdad’s wake.

In Sulaimaniya, capital of the Kurdish region that has ruled itself since 1991, we came across an incredible crowd of people in the streets. They were singing, dancing and hooting their horns, celebrating the liberation of Baghdad with delirious happiness. American flags and pictures of President Bush – presumably arriving with US forces – fluttered in every hand and car windscreen.

We want him back

A day later, I travelled towards Kirkuk with a huge crowd of journalists and Kurdish peshmerga.

There are statues of Saddam Hussein in every corner of the city, and a picture or a poster of him on every electricity pylon. I asked an Arab resident why these pictures and statues were still intact. “Why should we destroy them?”, he replied. “No. Never. We loved Saddam Hussein and we want him back as soon as possible.”

There and elsewhere, we discovered a sobering truth: celebration amongst Iraqi people at the change of regime has not been universal. Sunni Arabs to the south of the Kurdish regions are especially disappointed with the war and its results. Most of those I talked to said that they enjoyed life under the old government, and even gave Saddam Hussein personal credit for that.

Around Tikrit, where Saddam grew up, Arabs complain bitterly of their treatment by the hordes of looters who entered Kirkuk when it fell to the coalition, and then ploughed on into the surrounding countryside where these Arab tribes have held land, property and cattle for many years.

I stayed in Tikrit for two days. Its inhabitants rejected outright the presence of American forces, referring to them as ‘forces of occupation’. They said that they had been without electricity and water since the Americans approached the city, and complained of being imprisoned in their own homes.

There are statues of Saddam Hussein in every corner of the city, and a picture or a poster of him on every electricity pylon. I asked an Arab resident why these pictures and statues were still intact. “Why should we destroy them?” he replied. “No. Never. We loved Saddam Hussein and we want him back as soon as possible.” In Kirkuk, another man told me that “Saddam Hussein himself was a very kind man and loyal to the Iraqi people, but it was Ali Hassan al-Majid and Izzat Ibrahim al-Duri who gave him misleading reports which turned him against the people and made him a dictator”.

Kirkuk: a complex liberation

Kirkuk is an oil-rich city with a population of many different peoples, religions and languages – Assyrians, Turcomans, Arabs, Kurds. Kurds remain the majority despite years of forced ‘Arabisation’.

The day I entered Kirkuk, civilians in some parts of the city were still fighting a number of Ba’ath party and fedayeen militants loyal to Saddam. Wounded people were being carried into the hospitals. The Americans, it seems, had thought as far as liberating the city from the Iraqi army – and no further. The Iraqi regime, similarly, had no plans beyond defending the city and fighting the Americans. The result was chaos.

As in every other city in Iraq, civilians began looting every building of the Iraqi regime and other civil service buildings they could gain access to. Then they set the buildings on fire. At first, people cared little about this looting: all they wanted was to get rid of the brutal Iraqi ruler and his army. When it took on a life of its own, they started to fear the collapse of order.

On the morning of Kirkuk’s fall, many Iraqi soldiers left their bunkers and strongholds and handed themselves and their guns over to civilians. It was this huge cache of arms which were then used to assail and loot the Arab tribes of Kirkuk and its vicinity.

“We are the biggest tribe in the country. We can make or break the peace. We must be paid our due respect.”

One of the biggest Arab tribes in the region is the Ubed. It inhabits a wide region extending from Kirkuk to Mosul and on to Hawija. These Arabs now were faced with Kurdish gunmen demanding they hand over their property and leave their villages.

It is true that many Arabs were brought in from the south of the country by the Iraqi regime to settle on Kurdish lands around Kirkuk. This ‘Arabisation’ programme served both Kurds and Arabs very badly. Displaced Kurds have now started coming back to their villages and lands to challenge any Arab family living there, regardless of whether they were involved in the programme of organised land confiscation.

At first the Ubed tribesmen desisted from reprisal; they thought that the looters – many of whom were holding the banners of Kurdish political parties such as the Patriotic Union Of Kurdistan (PUK) and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) – were allied to the Americans, and sent there as part of the new authorities of the country. But once they discovered that the looters were acting under no one’s authority but their own, the Arabs decided to fight back.

Thus, from the second day of Kirkuk’s liberation, many fierce skirmishes took place, and the tribesmen swore to slaughter anybody who attempts to loot. The Arabs became intensely angry with the Americans for not having held direct meetings to tackle the looting problem with them from the outset. They accused the Americans of being solely concerned with protecting the oil fields and of being responsible for wholesale destruction rather than liberation.

The experience of Kirkuk made two things clear: the Americans had not brought in enough forces to control the whole region, yet local people were not yet able to ‘rule themselves’ without an authorised leader.

One Ubed leader told me: “if the Americans want war, let them tell us so openly, and give us a chance to prepare ourselves; but if they want peace, they must equally say so and we will co-operate with them for peace in the whole country. We are the biggest tribe in the country. We can make or break the peace. We must be paid our due respect.”

Turks and Turcomans

Looting, and the wider issue of inter-communal rivalry it raised, was not the only problem in Kirkuk. The Turcomans make up only a small part of the population, yet have the capacity to create widespread problems across the region. They were oppressed by the Iraqi regime in the past, but found relative freedom in the post-1991 Kurdish-controlled region. More recently, the Turkish government sought to exploit the Turkish people’s affinity with their ethnic cousins across the border to attempt to gain influence in Kurdistan by championing the Turcoman cause.

It was, after all, the support given to Saddam by America and other ‘great powers’ that gave the ruthless dictator his long years in power. Never again.

Since the liberation of Kirkuk, several political parties have appeared in the city with their banners: the PUK, KDP, Socialists, Communists and – amongst them – the ‘Iraqi Turcoman Front’ which even has its own bases in the city. These are directly backed by Turkey itself.

One evening, from my hotel, I witnessed around fifteen Turcomans gathered in front of the body of a small boy whose head had been smashed open. They were calling on Turkey’s aid, and chanting “Turkey, Ataturk. They claimed that the boy had been killed, and eight of their comrades injured, when a number of Kurdish peshmergas had opened fire on one of their bases.

Even if true, in my view the Turcomans were being encouraged by Turkey to create tension in Kirkuk. Yet it is possible that both Kurds and Arabs could cooperate with them in the absence of the Iraqi Turcoman Front.

Thus, post-liberation Kirkuk soon faced problems with its Turcomans, its Kurdish land claimants, its tribal Arabs and also its Assyrians – all problems that can only escalate if the Americans, who claimed that they will fight for peace and justice in Iraq, cannot come up with a speedy solution.

But, could it be, after all, that all the Americans want is oil?

Patience and work

People in Iraq did what they could against the Iraqi dictatorial regime, sacrificing many victims in a hopeless cause, until it became obvious that only a strong power from outside could help them win their struggle. Thus, the prospect of war against the Saddam regime raised by the American government stirred hope throughout the Iraqi population – deeply tired of war as they were.

When the war was finally launched, many Iraqis rejoiced. The more the Iraqi army suffered, the happier these people were – for it was an army that had murdered and oppressed them for years. Perhaps the deepest joy was in the north, where the Kurds had endured so many years of being killed, ‘disappeared’, gassed and uprooted from our homes, our villages and towns razed to the ground, and every basic amenity denied to us.

Of course, there were Iraqis who benefited in material terms from the old regime, and it is difficult for them to come to terms with the huge change that has happened. Yet, now that liberation has occurred, I begin to realise fully what a huge transformation is underway in Iraq, one that will in time touch everyone in their innermost hearts.

Already, things are changing. Most people in Iraq have never known what it was to participate freely in a demonstration. Everything was done by compulsion and in favour of the regime. But since the Americans took control of the country, people on all sides are taking to the streets in protest or with some set of demands.

That evening in Kirkuk was the turn of the Turcomans gathered in front of my hotel. In Mosul, other groups were to the fore. In Baghdad, people are calling for urgent change and demanding their rights.

This in itself shows that the Iraqi people are free to talk and come onto the streets to express themselves. It is the beginning of a remarkable transformation brought about by the war. It is true that Saddam supplied his favoured few with drinking water, electricity, schools and services. But the entire Iraqi people suffered from uncertainty, insecurity, war fatigue, years of army recruitment, injury, disappearances and displacement. All are discovering the heady possibilities as well as problems of freedom.

We must be patient. Time will clarify, and hard work will heal, many current difficulties. But for this to happen, Americans must support only democracy, freedom and peace in the country. The last thing we need is the promotion of a successor as the supreme leader of Iraq whose main qualification is that he is not Saddam Hussein. “Anybody is better than Saddam!” is not a viable option for the Iraqi people. It was, after all, the support given to Saddam by America and other ‘great powers’ that gave the ruthless dictator his long years in power. Never again.

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