Heading south

KIRKUK, Iraq — This newly liberated city was a scene of joy and jubilation as the people took to the streets, letting out a collective breath they had been holding for 35 years.
It had been a mostly bloodless capture by the PUK and KDP peshmergas. It started this morning, and the Iraqi defenders just gave up or melted away, leaving the Kurdish fighters — with U.S. support — to walk practically unopposed into the city.

saddamface.jpgKIRKUK, Iraq — This newly liberated city was a scene of joy and jubilation as the people took to the streets, letting out a collective breath they had been holding for 35 years.
It had been a mostly bloodless capture by the PUK and KDP peshmergas. It started this morning, and the Iraqi defenders just gave up or melted away, leaving the Kurdish fighters — with U.S. support — to walk practically unopposed into the city.
By the time I got there around 3 p.m., the looting had begun. A government shopping center was gutted and scorched from fire. Young men walked the sidewalks carrying ceiling fans, chairs and anything else they could pick up and carry off.
But in a pleasant surprise, on the way back to Arbil, the peshmergas had set up checkpoints and were relieving people of looted material. Freydoon and Delshad were both pleased to see this. I was too.
But it seemed the majority of the Kirkukis were in the city’s central park where a large statue of Saddam Hussein stood. The scene yesterday in Baghdad was replayed as the crowd noosed the statue with steel cable and pulled it down. There were no American troops to help them this time, and that seemed to suit the Kurds just fine. I’m told the Arabs and the Turkomen of Kirkuk are less than pleased by the Kurds’ ascendency, but I couldn’t verify that. No one wanted to spoil the day with words of ethnic strife. That can wait.
After the statue was felled, the crowd torched a portrait of Saddam that adorned the main government building. Like the Iraqi regime under the firestorm of the last, lightening-quick three weeks, phoof! It was gone.
Majad, a friend of Delshad’s shook my hand warmly and then whispered in my ear, “Saddam, goddammit!” Then he looked and me and grinned like a schoolboy who had just gotten away with something. Then he asked me if the war was over. I didn’t understand his question, until Delshad told me that the Kirkukis didn’t know about the situation in Baghdad. The paranoia of Saddam’s regime was such that no one trusted the radio and they hadn’t seen the images of the crowd pulling down the statue of Saddam in the capital because the Iraqis had banned satellite dishes. So isolated was Kirkuk that people begged to use my satellite phone so they could call the outside world. I accommodated as many as I could, but it wasn’t enough.
Inside the government building, there was nothing but broken glass on the floor and a defaced mural of Saddam Hussein. Oh, and many, many milling peshmergas. This was their victory and they knew it. There is a light American presence here, outside the city, but inside, the peshmergas are the new sheriffs in town.
And none too soon. People were being executed as recently as yesterday, said Jalal Khoshna, a peshmerga commander who was born in Kirkuk.
“I feel like I am newly born!” he exulted.
The city had been one of the ones hardest hit by Saddam’s program of “Arabization,” which would displace Kurdish families and give their homes and property to Arab families settled from the south. There are up to 300,000 internally displaced people, as the United Nations clinically calls them. Many of them live in squalid refugee camps outside the Kurdish cities such as Arbil or Suleimaniya.
But in a vivid homecoming scene, Khoshna described how he returned to his family’s old home in Kirkuk only to find an Arab family living there. He said they were afraid of him and his troops, but he reassured them they could live there until they found a new home. Then he would like his house back, please.
We’re now on our way back to Arbil. I’m collecting my stuff and heading south toward Baghdad. I will post pictures very soon that can tell the rest of today’s extraordinary story.

KIRKUK

15 MINUTES OUTSIDE OF KIRKUK, Iraq — The highway to Kirkuk is packed with thousands of civilian vehicles at mid-afternoon today, after news broke that peshmerga had entered this oil-rich city that Kurds have claimed as their own, despite the Turkomen, Arab and Assyrian residents.

15 MINUTES OUTSIDE OF KIRKUK, Iraq — The highway to Kirkuk is packed with thousands of civilian vehicles at mid-afternoon today, after news broke that peshmerga had entered this oil-rich city that Kurds have claimed as their own, despite the Turkomen, Arab and Assyrian residents.
The mood is World Cup crazy as people were hanging off trucks and speeding to the city. Armed men stood up in the back of pickup trucks waving the yellow or green flags of the KDP or the PUK, respectively. As we passed, they waved to me and honked, chanting, “America!” On the horizon, however, four thick, black plumes rise up. The faint smell of burning oil was in the air.
I met a B2I reader earlier, djoy, who now says I can use his real name: Delshad Fattah, 33, a former resident of Kirkuk. He came with me to Mosul and was now on the way to Kirkuk with me and Freydoon. I don’t think he expected this when he agreed to meet me for tea at 10 a.m.
He said many of the people on the road were going to Kirkuk to loot, and shook his head in sadness. “This is what Saddam has done to my people. He has turned us all into thieves.”
We hear news that there is an intifada in Kirkuk. Delshad is a little worried about the conflicts among the different groups now and wonders if we need a weapon.
Along the way, we stop at one of Saddam’s old prisons on the road. A peshmerga tells us, when we ask if the road ahead is safe, that we should go ask his commanding officer based in the prison.
Of course there’s no such officer but there are about 300 Iraqi soldiers there who have surrendered. They are happy to see me and the two peshmerga guards let me interview them.
They surrendered this morning around 9 a.m., said Motaz, 23. “We know that everything is over, so why fight?” he says. “The leadership is gone, so there is no need.” He’s a conscript and, like his buddies, glad to be done with the war. This group will be sent to Arbil for processing and then, the guards say, they will be sent home.
The Iraqis say they have been treated well, given good food, cigarettes and tea. They show no signs of mistreatment and even have a jocular relationship with the two guards. These guys have no fight left, if they had any to begin with.
One Iraqi prisoner, Hamid Abdulahussein Karin, tells me he has two brothers in the United States who fled after the first Gulf War. He knows nothing about them and asks me to publish his name in the hope that someone will be able to able. I promise him I will.
“They are too young for this,” said Delshad. “They have seen nothing good in this life.”
We’re close to Kirkuk now, and the smoke is heavy on the horizon. I think it’s a refinery, but I don’t know. It could be fires in the city. We’re going in, as the way seems safe.

At the gates of Mosul and back to Kirkuk

AT THE KAZAR RIVER, Iraqi Kurdistan — The bridge over this river to Mosul has been blown by the Iraqis last night as they retreated back toward Mosul. We’re about a 15-20 minute car drive to Iraq’s third largest city and a Sunni stronghold. Well, 15-20 minutes if the bridge weren’t demolished.

AT THE KAZAR RIVER, Iraqi Kurdistan — The bridge over this river to Mosul has been blown by the Iraqis last night as they retreated back toward Mosul. We’re about a 15-20 minute car drive to Iraq’s third largest city and a Sunni stronghold. Well, 15-20 minutes if the bridge weren’t demolished.
In last night’s destruction, the Iraqis also hit a civilian truck, killing the family inside. (See attached pictures.) Kawa Ramadan, a 22-year-old peshmerga, goes on to tell me that Kurdish troops are 10 km beyond this bridge and advancing on Mosul. But we’re stuck.
As we’re standing there. the contrails of a B-52 looms overhead. Kurdish radio has just announced that Kirkuk has fallen. Off we go.

Making love, not war in Taqtaq

TAQTAQ, Iraqi Kurdistan — There is no fighting in Kirkuk tonight. But we still got more than we bargained for.

The evening began with word from Sabah, my translator, that the push for Kirkuk was underway. J. and I, along with his new buddies Rex, Juan Carlos and Jason, were ready to go, especially after Rex had heard of fighting near Chamchamal, close to Kirkuk.

A word about Rex. He’s ex-Army Special Forces freelancing for — no kidding — Soldier of Fortune. I’ve never met anyone who read that magazine, much less anyone who writes for it. Rex looked the part, too, striding around the hotel lobby in desert camouflage pants and a flak jacket, hooah! Physically, he’s an imposing guy, shaved head, strong jaw. He is Mr. Clean at War.

Once our party was assembled, we headed out to Taqtaq, a town about 35 km from Kirkuk where I had been earlier in the day. Brig. Gen. Rabar Said, the regional commander — and the one who would know what was going on — had invited me to stay the night but I had turned him down. Now, I wondered if he had been sending me code, offering me a front-row seat to some action. He was an old friend, after all.

Tearing through the darkened countryside of Kurdistan, we passed several checkpoints where bemused peshmergas told us all the same thing. No fighting in Kirkuk. All quiet. The general is in Taqtaq.

As we arrived at the command post at around 11 p.m., a group of peshmergas greeted us. No, there was nothing happening in the region tonight, they said, and in fact, Said had left the post. There was a party down in the town and he had gone to celebrate the fall of Baghdad. His staff had gone with him.

Hm, I thought. I doubt the Battle for Kirkuk is on when the general staff is partying in the village square. J. agreed. Rex, however, wanted to find the general. Fair enough, as I wanted to go to a party.

When we arrived the village square was packed. Young men or every appearance were dancing to recordings of Kurdish singers but Said was nowhere to be seen. As we got out of our cars, several young men began to approach us. They pressed close and I could smell the sweat on them. They noticed we were American and began shouting, “George Bush!” “I love George Bush!” “Thank you, America!” I began clapping to the music, and they started clapping and applauding. Soon their hands were lifting me and the rest of my party up on their shoulders, hoisting over the crowd. It was a scene of genuine jubilation, which I have never experienced first hand. They treated us like rock stars, grabbing for us. My kafiyah disappeared, only to show up in the hands of an young boy who looked around 10-years-old. He carefully placed it back around my neck.

I was lifted up again, amid cheers of “Amrika! Amrika!” “Thank you!” “We love you!” The raw emotion bubbling up from this mass of Kurdish Iraqis was overwhelming. For the first time in their lives, they no longer felt the threat of Saddam Hussein hovering over their heads on mountains just a few kilometers away. And they found Americans in their midst. Jubilation doesn’t do it justice.

I was disoriented, turned around, I couldn’t get them to put me down. People were slapping my back, shaking my hand. And they were everywhere, everyone yelling out “George Bush!” They began kissing me in thanks. I tried to get out of the crowd, and noticed J. and Rex still up on the shoulders of the youths. They were having a ball.

Sabah grabbed my hand and got me into Freydoon’s taxi. He had to shove people out of the way. I just tried to catch my breath. Faces and hands pressed against the windows, still shouting thanks to me. I gave them a thumbs-up and smiled, as I had been doing the whole time.

I was uncomfortable being in that flesh-press, welcoming as it was. I felt like I had become the story and my presence made it impossible for me to report or take photographs. I was glad they were happy, though, and felt honored that they would share their emotions with me. But I was glad to be out of the mosh pit of love, and on our way back to Arbil.

Tonight was a night for celebration. Saddam’s government seems to be kaput. I just wanted to get to bed.