Arbil in Celebration, Push on in the north
ARBIL, Iraqi Kurdistan — I returned from the front today south of Taqtaq near Chamchamal to a party. Arbil was celebrating from the images from Baghdad. Crowds have taken to the streets in the capital and were helping pull down statues of Saddam Hussein. I had the feeling that I was witnessing an event that would provoke the kind of emotion in Iraqis that the fall of the Berlin Wall did to the world in 1989.
“We are very happy for what is happening in Baghdad,” said Salah Hussen, 36, as he watched al Jazeera among a crowd on the street. “We are sorry for the innocent people who are killed and we hope this is finished as soon as possible.”
“But we don’t hope for anything happy for Saddam,” he added.
Interestingly, and this ties back to the Jornalists’ Union’s statement yesterday, but there is palpable anger at al Jazeera in Kurdish country, and the preferred American news channel is … Fox News.
“Fox News is true!” Hussen said.
If Arbil was a city verging on a rave, the northern front was as quiet as Sunday night in Dubuque, Iowa. In Dubizna, a blasted village five kilometers from Kani Domalin, a mountain range that overlooks the oil fields around Kirkuk, fighters on all sides seem to have settled in to see what happens now. Kani Domalin is the last ridge that stands between the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan peshmergas and Kirkuk. I can see it in the distance, down the road. While we’re standing there, next to bombed out structures that used to be barracks for Iraqi troops, artillery shells landed about two kilometers in front of us. I jumped. My peshmerga escorts laughed. We were in no danger. The Iraqis were shelling PUK forward positions, but without much effect, it appeared.
But before the PUK can advance up that ridge with American air support, a political barrier must be breached. The Kurds’ leaders have pledged no advance on Kirkuk or Mosul, which would provoke Turkey into invading the Kuridish enclave, something the Americans are desperate to avoid. Kurdish fighters are not to advance past Highway 2, which is the current dividing line between the forces. The last checkpoint before Dubizna is Redar, 18 km from the front. It’s the center of the strategically important Chwan township. Before that lies the town of Taqtaq, about 35 km from Kani Domalin. Until a few nights ago, this area was in Iraqi hands, and Taqtaq was being shelled.
Today, I had lunch with the peshmerga commander Arez Abdulla there, in a room recently used by the Iraqi general staff for the region — until it was abandoned and the Kurds occupied it, that is. Abdulla’s superior, Brig. Gen. Rabar Said, who I met last year near Halabja when we toured the Shriniwe Front against Ansar al-Islam together, said the Iraqis had withdrawn to Diraman and Hasar — towns straddling the Kani Domalin ridgeline — in the last two weeks, leaving behind weapons and vehicles.
I met Said earlier that day in a happy — and random — reunion, and the general estimated the number of troops defending the Kirkuk area at 20,000, all in a state of very low morale. The Iraqi commanders can’t do anything without the OK of the Ba’athish Party political officers assigned to the units, Abdulla said. And the troops don’t get any news except the Ba’ath Party propaganda.
“They hear only lies,” he said. “They have no idea what is going on.” I got the feeling he felt sorry for them. Said estimates that one division of the Nebukhidhnezar Republican Guard, a division of the Saddam Fedayeen and a “force” (qa’ qa’) of Division 44, which is regular army. Throw in the police and local militia, and you get 20,000, with their headquarters in the neighborhoods of Hai Nasir and Qadisiya in Kirkuk.
Joining Said in Taqtaq was Brig. Gen. Jalal Aziz and a PUK member of the Kurdish Parliament in Arbil, Mala Shaki. As he turned on the television to Fox News (of course,) Shaki expressed his gratitude to the United States.
“In the past 30 years, we have been suffering from genocide and Anfal, chemical weapons,” he said. “We are very grateful and thankful for the American support. They crossed thousands of kilometers to liberate the Iraqi people — “
” — and Kurdish people,” interjected Aziz.
“Including the Kurdish people,” Shaki responded. “We don’t think about revenge. Our aim is democracy and human rights for a country that will be free. “From now on, all of the Iraqi people will be happy.”
While the peshmerga are being kept on a tight leash by the Americans, what about the approximately 300,000 internally displaced people who will want to return to Kirkuk and Mosul at the first opportunity? Are there any plans to stop them? It turns out that there isn’t, according to Shaki, despite the fact that Turkey has said this, too, will be seen as a provocation.
“The people are not armed and hopefully they will not do that,” Shaki said. “The order from Jalal Talabani is to discourage people from looting and revenge.”
Taqtaq wasn’t just a base for the peshmerga. It was also a base for a number of American Special Forces troops. When I wandered upstairs to try to talk to the American commanding officer, who Said told me was available, a young Airborne ranger of the 101st stopped me at the top of the stairs.
“You can’t be here, sir,” he said.
“Just wanted to talk to the commanding officer, please,” I replied.
“He’s not here.”
I beat a hasty retreat without putting up a fight. The feeling is that the troops in Kirkuk and Mosul will not stand and fight, Aziz said, according to two Iraqi prisoners captured yesterday in fighting. With Baghdad seemingly under American control, we may soon see a test of that theory. As we were leaving the region, we passed a company of peshmergas who were rolling to Qushtapa, a 45-minute drive to Kirkuk. When they stopped, we caught up with the leader and asked him what was going on.
“We going to join our commander,” he said and smiled. He didn’t refuse to say anything more, but he didn’t tell me a damn thing. He knew what he was doing and I didn’t blame him. Who wants to talk to pesky reporters when you’re on a mission? As it is, I just heard a rumor that’s there’s a press on for Kirkuk-Chamchamal tonight. I’m heading out.