Back to Iraq, In A Way

Tonight, “Only the Dead,” a documentary by my old Baghdad bureau chief Michael Ware premiers on HBO. I am both anticipating and dreading this documentary.

Ware was already well established as the guy with the sources in the insurgency by the time I started my second Iraq journey in early 2004. I met him in a hotel room in Baghdad and he struck me as someone deeply in love with the adrenaline of reporting on the insurgency, combat reporting, at continually cheating death. I was … not entranced, but deeply admiring. He’s a big guy, over six feet, with a build that reflects his days as a rugby player. His nose looks like he ran into a wall, picked himself up and did it again just to teach the wall a lesson. He was funny, profane, frightening and always ready with a good story. (It’s a shame I only have pictures of him at parties. I won’t post them, though. He’s been through enough.)

But he was also, by that time, deeply wounded. I didn’t realize how much, but he had gone from his native Australia to Afghanistan and then to Iraq. In three years of conflict, he had picked up an addiction to war that I would come to know as well. My friend Phil Zabriskie writes in TIME how damaged Ware would eventually become:

Ware’s camera catches a dazed, baleful expression across the Marine’s face. “I could see good men here losing their grip, losing themselves,” Ware narrates. He knows whereof he speaks, because the same thing, of course, was happening to him.

This became even more harder to ignore after Ware moved from TIME to CNN in mid-2006. Always high energy, he became increasingly manic and erratic. Friends and colleagues worried for his health and safety, concerned that the persona of Mick Ware, the madman Aussie war correspondent who’d take risks others wouldn’t, was starting to obscure the excellent, often prescient work done by Michael Ware, the journalist.

After he left Baghdad, he was a mess, Phil writes. “He could barely function away from war. He couldn’t sleep. He self-medicated. He saw roadside bombs when he drove and the faces of the dead when he closed his eyes.” He was suffering from serious PTSD. For a while, I had mild symptoms and likewise did reckless things. But Ware saw worlds worse than anything I encountered. “For a long time, Ware wanted to die,” Phil writes.

But thankfully, he found help. And now he’s telling the story of the war as only can, using the (initially) haphazardly filmed conflict. We haven’t spoken in years, but I hope that changes. If he can come back, there’s hope for everyone.

So I’m eager to see the film tonight (old addictions never really go away), but I’m also dreading the memories it will serve up. We had car bombsfriends kidnapped, and yes, killed. I almost took a bullet in Najaf. Iraq was unimaginably dangerous for reporters from 2004-2008 (and more so for Iraqis), a fact that our stateside audience just never seemed to grasp, no matter how many journalists were killed.

Anyway, Ware is right: Only the dead see the end of war. It never leaves you. And I don’t know if you can ever make peace with it. Maybe there are only cease-fires.

Crossposted to truly, nomadly, deeply

Three car bombs in Baghdad

There are reports of a mortar attack and two large car bombs at the Sheraton Hotel, home of Fox News and, next door in the Palestine, the Associated Press.

BAGHDAD — There are reports of a mortar attack and two large car bombs at the Sheraton Hotel, home of Fox News and, next door in the Palestine, the Associated Press. There has been a third car bomb attack on the al-Sadeer Hotel up the road from me.
[UPDATE 10/24/05 6:03:43 PM: Now it appears it’s three car bombs at the Palestine/Sheraton compound instead of mortars… No attack on al-Sadeer as near as I can tell. CNN’s footage is chilling; two smaller explosions in front of AP cameras on the Palestine Hotel, and then a third huge explosion. As you watch, you can see a tanker truck cement mixer enter the compound before exploding in a massive cloud of fire, dust and smoke.
[This means they knew where the cameras are. They know how to get into the compound. And there’s a good chance the first two explosions were designed to get journalists’ attention, draw them to the windows and then explode the third one.
[No good word on casulaties yet. Nothing reliable.]
Things are confusing right now and we’re unsure what has happened, but that’s the latest. The blasts rattled my windows and I’m three or so kilometers away.

U.S. hangs Kurds out to dry — again

These years: 1975. 1988. 1991. 1995. And now 2003.

Those dates will be burned in the collective memory of Iraq’s Kurdish population, which, for the past 12 years, has built a nascent democracy in the very face of Saddam’s tyranny. But now, it seems, that the experiment will be strangled in the crib because the United States is negotiating with Turkey to occupy the Kurdish area in northern Iraq.

The plan, which is being negotiated in closed-door meetings in Ankara, the Turkish capital, is being bitterly resisted by at least some leaders of Iraq’s Kurdish groups, who fear that Turkey’s leaders may be trying to realize a historic desire to dominate the region in a post-Saddam Hussein Iraq. The Kurdish officials say they fear a military intervention by the Turks could also prompt Iran to cross the border and try to seize sections of eastern Iraq.
American diplomats and senior military commanders, led by President Bush’s special envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad, are said to be encouraging the Kurdish leaders to accept the Turkish proposal. While Washington has strongly supported the autonomous Kurdish region in Iraq over the past 12 years, it is eager to secure the permission of Turkey’s leaders to use Turkey’s bases for a possible attack on Iraq. (Emphasis added.)

This is a betrayal on the level of the Algiers Accord in 1975, when Secretary of State Henry Kissenger pulled the rug out from the under the Kurds who were fighting Saddam with the help of the Shah of Iran. On the level of Halabja, when Saddam gassed that Kurdish village (among others in his brutal al Anfal campaign) and killed 5,000 men, women and children in less than 20 minutes and the United States (and the rest of the world) stood by.

Hameda Farag, 46, a victim of 1988 Halabja attack, photographed in Halabja's single hospital. It was near sunset when she smelled something odd. "I didn't know it was a chemical attack until I fled to Iran," she said. She was pregnant at the time and lost the child. Since then, she has had three miscarriages and now can no longer have children. At the time, the world didn't care. The United States still doesn't. ®2002 Christopher
Hameda Farag, 46, a victim of 1988 Halabja attack, photographed in Halabja’s single hospital. It was near sunset when she smelled something odd. “I didn’t know it was a chemical attack until I fled to Iran,” she said. She was pregnant at the time and lost the child. Since then, she has had three miscarriages and now can no longer have children. At the time, the world didn’t care. The United States still doesn’t. ®2002 Christopher

Turkey has been driving a hard bargain to allow the United States to use its bases for this invasion. Back in December, it even asked for 10 percent of Iraqi oil annually. And back in October, I wrote about the Kurdish plans for autonomy within a post-Saddam Iraq here and here. (If you’d like to see a copy of the proposed Kurdish constitutions given to me by Dept. Prime Minister Sami Abdul Rahman, click here and here.) The official word is that the Turks’ role will be extremely limited, with a few thousand troops confined to the northern regions near the Iraqi-Turkish border. They would be under American command and limited to humanitarian duties.

However, the Times story quotes a Turkish official — it doesn’t say if the official is with the military or the civilian government — as saying the deployment would far exceed the numbers talked about with the Americans. And Turkish prime minister, Abdullah Gul, suggested that the Turkish Army’s role would go beyond humanitarian concerns to protecting Turkish interests in the region.

“Turkey is going to position herself in that region in order to prevent any possible massacres, or the establishment of a new state,” Gul told Turkish reporters.

This isn’t fair. I met several of the men and women working to create a democracy, flawed as it is, in Iraqi Kurdistan, and I can’t even imagine the disappointment that this news must have generated. Adding insult to injury, the Americans intend to seize the oil-rich cities of Kirkuk and Mosul for themselves, to prevent the Iraqis from sabotaging the oil production facilities there and the Kurds from seizing them for themselves. (Kirkuk is the proposed capital of an envisioned Kurdish autonomous region.) Turkey has long coveted both Kirkuk and Mosul, having lost them to the young Kingdom of Iraq in 1926.

I worried about just this development back in October, and said America was sending mixed signals to the peoples of the region. As I wrote back then,

Kurds certainly think a democracy is in the cards, what with their proposed constitution and all. Fowzi Hariri, the smooth, British-educated deputy head of the KDP Bureau of International Relations, told me in July that “We want Baghdad.” I didn’t know what he meant by that, but he went on to explain that the Kurds want the chance to hold the office of chief executive in a Federal Republic of Iraq. “We want a direct say in government,” he continued. “Whenever we have relied on other systems or people, we have ended up with a dictatorship.”
That was a thinly veiled barb at the on-again, off-again support from the United States. My suspicion is that we’re at it again, telling the Kurds they will have a place at the table in order to lure them into committing to a fight against Saddam while we tell the Kuwaitis, Turks and Syrians that a messy, unpredictable democratic Iraq is “not in the cards,” as the Kuwaiti said to Kristof. And when the hammer hits the anvil, I think we’ll hang the Kurds out to dry.

Sometimes it sucks to be right.

Welcome to Kurdistan

ImageWelcome to Kurdistan.jpg

WHAT WAS HAPPENING: I had this picture taken as I stood on the shores of the Tigris after we had just crossed from Syria into northern Iraq. Downstream, about 2 km, I could see a tower from the Iraqi base that commands the area. The Kurds told me that the Iraqis sometimes snipe at the families that use the crossing. (About 150 people cross a day, making it one of the more busy transit points between Syria and Iraq.)

Kuwait backs U.S. on ICC

In another indication that war seems inevitable, Kuwait has exempted American troops from prosecution by the Internationl Criminal Court. The agreement would exempt U.S. troops from war crimes while operating in Kuwaiti territory, which is convenient in its timing, to say the least.

U.S. to pay Russia $10 billion for Iraq backing

Russia gets its money and Qatar survives a coup attempt. Americans hear none of this news.

Careful readers will remember that I said that Russia was dragging its feet at the United Nations on America’s “kick Saddam’s ass” resolution because it was hoping for some guarantee that the $8 billion that Iraq owes Russia would be paid. Well, here is the reassurance. In response to taken questions, a State department spokesperson said that Russia could be compensated for more than $10 billion if they stopped their nuclear cooperation with Iran and allowed their country to become a nuclear waste dump.

One example is the potential transfer to Russia for storage of spent reactor fuel currently held by third countries, much of which requires US approval for such transfer because the US originally supplied the fresh fuel to those countries. If the Russians end their sensitive cooperation with Iran, we have indicated we would be prepared to favorably consider such transfers, an arrangement potentially worth over $10 billion to Moscow.

This kind of deal will lead Russia to ultimately support the United States against Iraq.
Also, some other news that hasn’t been widely reported here in the States: an attempted coup in Qatar! Who knew about this? Anyone? Anyone? Seems that American troops helped put down a coup attempt against Sheikh Hamad Bin Khaleifah al-Thani on Oct. 12. High ranking Qatari army officers were arrested and suspicion immediately fell on an Islamist organization and Pakistani and Yemini army recruits with alleged ties to Al Qa’ida.
The is big. Relations with Saudi Arabia have cooled since Sept. 11, 2001, and Al Udeid Air Base outside of Doha is the best alternative. If Qatar were moved out of America’s camp, the United States would have to rely on Incirlik in Turkey and Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean to fly sorties against Iraqi targets. And most of the aircraft in the south would have to be carrier based, which would cut down on the number and frequency of sorties. It wouldn’t make an Iraqi operation impossible, but it would make it more difficult, I’ll wager.
What’s most worrisome, from a Pentagon war planner’s point of view, is the potential loss of Qatar, the continued refusal of Saudi Arabia to allow the use of its air bases and troubling Al Qa’ida attacks in Kuwait. None of these things is crippling individually, but in a worst-case scenario, America’s entire southern front in a Second Gulf War could crumble.

Turkey preparing to invade Kurdistan?

Turkey has been making noises that the Iraqi Kurds should not get too hopeful about establishing a quasi-independent entity in the three governates they control in northern Iraq. Now, it looks like Turkey is ready to back up their words with force. However, there is an election coming up in Turkey, so the possibility that this is all fodder for domestic constituencies cannot be ruled out.

Turkey has been making noises that the Iraqi Kurds should not get too hopeful about establishing a quasi-independent entity in the three governates they control in northern Iraq. Now, it looks like Turkey is ready to back up their words with force. (At least they’re consistent.) However, there is an election coming up in Turkey, so the possibility that this is all fodder for domestic constituencies cannot be ruled out.
On the they-really-mean-it side of the equation, ArabicNews.com is reporting that Turkish deputy prime minister Doulat Bahjali said that his country must reconsider its stance regarding northern Iraq. Since 1991 when it got dragged into Operation Provide Comfort (the allied establishment of the northern no-fly zone to protect Kurdish refugees from the 1990-91 Gulf War,) Turky has gone back and forth in its relations with the PUK and KDP. At times the relationship was warm enough that Barzani and Talabani, the leaders of the respective parties, traveled under Turkish diplomatic passports.
That has apparently ended with finality after the Kurdistan Regional Government convened its parliament in October and introduced a proposal for a federal republic of Iraq with a Kurdish entity in the north and with Kirkuk as its capital. Kirkuk, rich in oil and history is home to Kurds, Arabs, Assyrians and Turkomen, to whose defense Bahjali is leaping.
“The pressures which are imposed on the Turkomen under Saddam Hussein were great and that they are at the meantime exposed to a new threat by the two Kurdish leaders Masoud al-Barazani and Jalal al-Talabani targeting their cities of Mosul, Kirkuk and Arbil,” ArabicNews.com says. (Ed. I changed some spellings of towns in this quote.)
This backs up the it’s-all-politics argument, since the Turkomen are a natural ally of Bahjali’s National Movement Party, and bashing the Kurds is always a surefire way to rally the nationalist faithful. However, Turkish defense minister Sbah Eddin Oglo said Oct. 14 that Turkey intends to establish ‘a security belt’ in northern Iraq and that intelligence agencies have reported that Turkey has increased its troop strength in Iraqi Kurdistan from 4,000 to 10,000 troops.
All of this must be driving the United States crazy. The last thing it needs is a Kurdish-Turkish dispute in northern Iraq just when it’s trying to get its ducks in a row should shooting start. And this is exactly the kind of chaos various pundits have predicted would happen if Saddam is removed and regional rivalries are allowed to flare. But wasn’t that supposed to happen after a war?
Keep watching the Turks. They hold the key to all of this.