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.

Calif. congressman: “I don’t trust this president”

It seems the Democrats were outmaneuvered by Bush & Co. yet again, just as Republicans were constantly outmaneuvered by President Clinton through most of the 1990s.

Woah. This firery deunciation of Bush comes from Rep. Pete Stark, D-Calif. (He represents Fremont, home of the largest population of Afghanis in the United States, interestingly enough.) His statement is full of red meat for leftists, calling Bush a lightweight National Guardsman in the 1960s, and questioning his tough-guy cred by quoting columnist Molly Ivins: “For an upper-class white boy, Bush comes on way too hard. At a guess, to make up for being an upper-class white boy.”
I’m not one to take away from Mssr. Stark’s statement. I agree with most of it, in that the people who will pick up the $200 billion (estimated) tab for Gulf War II: The Sequel will likely be people like my grandmother who depends on Medicare, but will see it cut to make way for Bush’s tax cut and war costs. Others likely to pay include those who need unemployment insurance, students who don’t get federal money to go to college and any number of natural Democratic constituencies.
And now that the House and Seanate have passed their respective war resolutions, we have politicians like Sen. Tom Daschle, D-S.D., who say things like, “The bottom line is . . . we want to move on.” The impression one gets is that Democrats want to move on to economic issues that play well a month from now, that might give them back the House and cement their hold on the Senate. Understandible, true, but at what cost?
It seems the Democrats were outmaneuvered by Bush & Co. yet again, just as Republicans were constantly outmaneuvered by President Clinton through most of the 1990s. Bush cranked up the war rhetoric from September on, to force an early vote, knowing the Democrats would be forced to either delay the vote, and open themselves up to charges of treason and/or wimpism (the Bush family’s least favorite slur!) or rush the vote and give the president what he wanted in the first place. Of course, this week’s quickie vote on war will come back to haunt the Democrats, when their liberal, anti-war supporters get wooed by the Green Party charging that Democrats and Republicans are but two sides of the same coin. (Nader’s party is active in many close races, potentially threatening Democrats from the left.)
So Mssr. Stark can afford to vote no and denounce Bush on the House floor. He’s in a safe district. The question is, now that he’s got his war on, will Bush’s action leave anywhere safe?

Update on House Vote

The Hastert-Gephardt proposal (H.J.R 114) passed the House today on a 296-113 vote.

The Hastert-Gephardt proposal (H.J.R 114) passed the House today on a 296-113 vote. The Senate also voted 75-25 to limit debate, meaning its vote on the war resolution could come as early as tomorrow. This is disappointing as the Spratt amendment was a common-sense approach to this whole killin’ Iraqis business. (For a glimpse of alternatives, Here’s a PDF that compares the various House and Senate proposals.)
All of this may be moot, however because sources on Capital Hill are saying that Bush doesn’t want war at all! That come Nov. 5, Bush will suddently start talking about how the United Nations is a useful body after all, and that inspectors will be allowed to do their job. I’m told Bush doesn’t want to be looking at an occupied Iraq two years from now when we have guerilla fighting in Baghdad suburbs, a massive drain on the national economy and a stable oil supply only because United States occupation forces keep Kurds, Shi’ites and Sunni Arabs (not to mention Turkomen and Iranians) from each others’ throats. Add to that a daily trickle of body bags as one or two GIs die every couple of days. That wouldn’t be very fun to run on, would it? Especially since Bush avoided the horrors of a long, drawn out guerilla war once before!
This would be a fascinating example of dog-wagging. At least President Clinton actually tossed some cruise missles around when he was accused of doing it to distract the nation from him “doing it.” In Bush’s case, however war with Iraq will have been talked up, the Middle East destabilized, the UN insulted and our reputation trashed with allies—all for short-term election gains. (Well, not all for short-term gains. No doubt there are plenty of true believers who think that Saddam should be blowed up real good, but trying to divine the influence of people like Karl Rove, Dick Cheney et al., is akin to Kremlinology.) A post-election change in rhetoric would prove the influence of “General Rove.”