Road to Tikrit

KIRKUK, Iraq — I’m standing about 50 km from Tikrit and nervous enough to feel like I’ve just swallowed molten lead. The road is as straight as an sniper shot. Behind me, about 10 km, stands the last PUK checkpoint after Kirkuk. The land is flat, and perhaps it’s my imagination, but it appears stunted and less fertile than the hills and mountains to the north east. There is a light wind that smells faintly of burning oil. Every now and then a car passes our small encampment on the side of the road and its passengers peer at us intently. The ones coming from the direction of Tikrit don’t smile. Before us lies the stronghold of Saddam Hussein, and I have to make a decision to press on or not.

KIRKUK, Iraq — I’m standing about 50 km from Tikrit and nervous enough to feel like I’ve just swallowed molten lead. The road is as straight as an sniper shot. Behind me, about 10 km, stands the last PUK checkpoint after Kirkuk. The land is flat, and perhaps it’s my imagination, but it appears stunted and less fertile than the hills and mountains to the north east. There is a light wind that smells faintly of burning oil. Every now and then a car passes our small encampment on the side of the road and its passengers peer at us intently. The ones coming from the direction of Tikrit don’t smile. Before us lies the stronghold of Saddam Hussein, and I have to make a decision to press on or not.
J. and I left earlier this morning from Arbil thinking the war was done, more or less, after seeing the footage from CNN that things looked quiet. We left before we knew the truth. Correspondent Brent Sadler would come under fire from automatic weapons and flee the city under a hail of bullets.
Whenever we ask, peshmergas and other officials tell it is “very dangerous” to go to Tikrit, that despite the claims of CENTCOM, U.S. forces are nowhere to be seen. Fara’doon Abdul-Kadir, the newly appointed interim governor of Kirkuk, warns me that there are no peshmergas past the checkpoint — we’ll be on our own. We’re in a taxi with blue “TV” taped to the side panels and windows. Freydoon, our loyal driver and now bodyguard, is packing a 9mm Browning Hi-Power that J. picked up at the weapons bazaar when I wasn’t looking. It won’t do much good, however, against the Kalishnikovs of the Fedayeen Saddam.
The fact of the matter is that Tikrit is “hot” as the journos here say. It is not “fine” as I thought it might be from CNN’s early footage. A Kurdish journalist and his crew that I’ve become friendly with were chased by men in black in black sedans later in the afternoon when they got within a few kilometers of the entrance of the city. Fedayeen. From Mustafa’s description of his pursuers, they sound like James Bond villains.
There is a rumor that Jalal Talabani, head of the PUK, sent in Said Jabadi, a former Ba’athist, to negotiate a surrender of the city. Twenty-five of the 28 clans have agreed to surrender their weapons, but only to allied forces. No peshmergas. The other three, including Saddam’s clan, have said they will fight to the end. It seems, then, the American bombardment will continue.
The leadership is holed up there, some believe, and the U.S. doesn’t want to take any chances on losing them. What happens in the next few days will be a sharp, short shock. Tikrit, I’m guessing, will be cut off from the outside world — no one in, no one out. The question is whether to be inside or outside when that happens.
Ultimately, I decide to turn back. It’s not worth it. We don’t have eight cylinders under our hood, we don’t have the protection, we don’t have the backup and so far, we don’t have a story. Yeah, it’d be cool to say I was in Tikrit before it was sacked, but I need to have a better story than what Tikritis think about the U.S. Marines and the demise of Saddam’s regime.
Tomorrow, we’ll try another probe, to see what we can see, but I’ve reserved the right to turn back at any time. See? I am a physical coward.
*In other news*
Kirkuk has been mostly brought under control, and Mosul is on its way. The road to Kirkuk is patrolled and managed by U.S. troops. No weapons go in, except for a few AK-47s carried by authorized peshmergas. Inside the city, which saw much less looting than Mosul, the process of cleanup has begun. Jarringly, police trucked in from Chamchamal and Suleimaniya are wearing Iraqi police uniforms, which look exactly like Iraqi Army uniforms. The whole time I was in Kirkuk, I thought we were surrounded by Iraqi troops that had decided to make themselves useful after surrendering.
Not the case, as it turns out. The Kurds are using the old uniforms of the Iraqis so as not to antagonize the Turks (or anyone else) into thinking that “Kurdish uniforms” were the mark of an independence bid. So the Kurds, who have suffered grievously under the regime, have donned the silver eagle, black beret and green fatigues of their enemy to keep Turkey and Iran happy. The new police force numbers 1,500 men, said Abdul-Kadir.
The interim government — which as yet has no expiration date — will be made up of a 21-member committee, with four members of each ethnic group: Kurds, Arabs, Turkomen and Assyrians, said Sadi Ahmed Pire, who is with the PUK international relations office and the chief PUK representative in Arbil. The last member will be Brig. General James Parker, commander of the northern forces. (*CORRECTION:* I incorrectly reported his name earlier. I apologize for the late correction.) The committee will advise Adbul-Kadir as he navigates the ethnic minefields of the region and attempts to answer questions such as what will happen to the Arab families who were moved, often against their will, into the homes of expelled Kurds? What happens if the Turks move in? Where will the Kurdish refugees, which some estimates put near 300,000, go?
These questions are as yet unanswered.

Concerning the Turkomen

ARBIL, Iraqi Kurdistan — Interviews with figures of authority (FOA) in this region follow a pretty standard pattern. You greet them, shake their hands and then you sit down. Then you explain what you’d like to talk about. What follows is a 15-20 minute statement by the FOA broken up by the translator who never works quite quickly enough for the statement-maker, so only about every other block of speech is fully translated.

ARBIL, Iraqi Kurdistan — Interviews with figures of authority (FOA) in this region follow a pretty standard pattern. You greet them, shake their hands and then you sit down. Then you explain what you’d like to talk about. What follows is a 15-20 minute statement by the FOA broken up by the translator who never works quite quickly enough for the statement-maker, so only about every other block of speech is fully translated.
After this statement, which is organized like a college term paper with points and sub-points and full of verbal subheadings like, “Concerning the Turkomen’s position in Kirkuk….”, then I can ask questions. Interruptions or questions are not tolerated in the opening statement (“let me finish, please,” the FOA says when I attempt to get in a question.)
This happens every time, and yesterday’s chat with Kanan Shakir Uzeyrag Ali, the head of the Turkomen Independent Movement, one of the three parties making up the Iraqi Turkomen Front, was no exception. The president of the Front, Sanan Ahmet Aga, was unavailable, despite my 11 a.m. appointment.
“Our God, Allah, can do things in seconds, but he chose to create the world in six days,” said Salim Otrakchi, a political advisor to Aga. “If you have to wait a few hours to see the president, you must be patient.”
Well, I got Ali instead, which was just as well, as he was the Turkomen representative at the Kirkuk meeting on Friday that also included U.S. Gen. Baker and representatives from the PUK and KDP. The topic was the governing of Kirkuk, which Ali said was a Turkomen city.
Sorting out the competing claims on Kirkuk and other cities in Iraq is difficult. There hasn’t been an official Iraqi census since 1957 and population numbers have been manipulated over the years to suit the Ba’athish regime’s purposes. Also, Kirkuk has been heavily Arabized, with Turkomen and Kurds expelled from the city and surrounding villages to make way for Arabs from the south. Because of such forced demographic changes and the age of the city, at the moment, no one can say — honestly — who has a greater historical claim on the city. How far back should the claims go? The only thing that is sure, concerning Kirkuk, is that its oil fields and refineries would be a plum to whichever ethnic group — Arabs, Kurds or Turkomen — that controlled it.
Throwing more gasoline on this oil fire is the threat of the Turks to invade if the Kurds do anything to alter the characteristics of the population of Kirkuk. That means if the Kurds allow the tens of thousands of families Arabized out of their homes since the 1920s — and the Anfal campaign of 1987-88 in particular — to return, Turkey will see that as the crossing of a red line and send in its approximately 15,000 troops massed on the border to the north.
None of this matters to Ali, who portrays the Turkomen as an oppressed minority in the Kurdish area of Iraq, who can depend on no one but their Turkish brothers to the north.
Ali said the Turkomen felt betrayed by the United States when the PUK peshmergas flowed into the city on Thursday, liberating it from Saddam with little bloodshed. Before order was more or less restored by a combined Kurdish and American presence, there was widespread looting. Nothing like the savagery in Mosul, mind you, which happened because the main peshmerga forces were kept out of that city and the U.S. military felt securing the oil fields was more important than filling the power vacuum left by the Iraqi V Corps’ vanishing act. There’s a growing sense of resentment among all ethnic parties toward the U.S. because of this failure to provide basic security in the wake of Saddam’s ouster.
But back to Kirkuk, Ali told me that Turkomen had been targeted for crimes and human rights violations.
“We have 200 documents that show Turkomen people were robbed,” he said. “The people who have suffered the most are the Turkomen. Any time there is some situation, the victim was Turkomen.”
I asked him how this compared to robbery reports by Kurds or Arabs or even Assyrians. He said he had no idea, as they went to their own people. How do you know there weren’t 500 robberies of Kurdish people or 1,000 assaults on Assyrians, I asked. Is the violence against the Turkomen targeted or are they just getting caught up in the general chaos? “This point is clear,” he added. “The Turkomen are not armed people. And the people stealing from them are armed people.”
This claim of Turkomen pacifism is, frankly, hard to believe. Practically every man in this country owns some kind of firearm. Most men in the ITF office where I interviewed Ali carried a sidearm or a Kalishnikov.
Ali said the meeting Thursday was productive in that Gen. Baker asked the Turkomen to take part in the security of the city, but he said the Turkomen, who have an aversion to guns, remember, would not be able to help until security was guaranteed by — surprise! — the Turks.
“Our people are sitting in their homes and they are having their families taken captive and their furniture taken,” he said. “How can he be a soldier? We are ready to help, but other military people are coming to capture us. We don’t know who they are.”
Hm. Anonymous thugs taking advantage of the chaos and terrorizing families I would buy. The implication that this is the Kurds’ fault or that Kurds themselves are doing it is a little more problematic. The translator embellished her boss’ words with the the lovely detail that the thugs wore the green and yellow ribbons of the PUK and KDP, respectively, but Ali corrected her and said that wasn’t the case. So some Turkomen, at least, are willing to blame the Kurds.
The ITF demands these foreign militia and peshmergas removed from Kirkuk, Ali said, and it wants a shared administration of the city, including Turks, Kurds, Arabs and Assyrians. The idea, he said, is to have an administration based on proportional representation in Kirkuk.
And here we come to the crux of the matter. If the Turkomen can use the threat of Turkish intervention to pressure the Kurds into preventing the Kurdish refugees — most of them currently living in squalor in camps such as Binislawa outside Arbil — from returning to their old homes, Turkomen numbers won’t be diluted and their power in Kirkuk’s government — and their share of the oil revenue — will be that much greater.
To accomplish this, the Turkomen must claim oppression at the hands of the Kurds in the Kurdish enclave in the north.
“We have suffered under all people,” Ali said. “The Turkomen suffered under the KDP, politically, security and culturally.”
How so, I asked. In Iraqi Kurdistan, the Turkomen have a newspaper, a radio station, a television station (one of the biggest buildings in town with a huge satellite dish on the top) their own schools, the right to speak their language, three political parties and representation in the Kurdistan Regional Government’s parliament. The Turkomen in Iraqi Kurdistan have more cultural and political rights than the Kurds do in Turkey. What more do you want, I asked.
“These rights are the original rights of all people,” he said. “They are given from God. Other people don’t grant these rights. Arabs and Kurds have not power to grant these rights. We get these rights from our activities. A constitution would be helpful.”
I asked for specific examples of how their rights have been violated. The ITF has not been recognized, Ali said, and isn’t official. (But the three Turkomen parties that make up the ITF each have parliamentary representation.) Their reporters for the various media can’t leave the building and interview people on the street (Not true, I’ve watched Turkomen TV and they go out and interview people.) The Kurdish government officials won’t talk to their reporters (Well, sometimes they won’t talk to me; that’s the breaks.)
Their chief of security, Amir Azad, was arrested two months ago, Ali said, and they only now were able to send him a lawyer. “We are ready to give you a dossier about it,” he said.
“Great!” I said. “I’d like to see it.”
Then some discussion in Turkomen followed. “Oh, we have filed it with Kofi Anan at the United Nations. You can read it there.”
And then, after listing this litany of wrongs done to the Turkomen, Ali reversed himself.
“But we want to forget all and start a new page,” he said. “We don’t want to speak of past times.”
As a representative of a people who have allegedly suffered so much from the Kurds, Ali seemed awfully quick to put all these years behind them. His stated desire to move on represents either a saint-like ability to forgive, or a recognition that Turkomen claims are exaggerated.
PS: While I was typing this, it appears Tikrit has fallen without a fight. We’re heading there now.

Southward bound

ARBIL, Iraqi Kurdistan — Sorry for the lack of updates yesterday. I was in interviews all day, and by the end of the day I could barely think straight, much less write. Plus, I needed a day off. However, I did get a good interview with the Iraqi Turkomen Front and will write up that account in the car.

ARBIL, Iraqi Kurdistan — Sorry for the lack of updates yesterday. I was in interviews all day, and by the end of the day I could barely think straight, much less write. Plus, I needed a day off. However, I did get a good interview with the Iraqi Turkomen Front and will write up that account in the car.
Where are we going? Well, this morning, CNN International broadcast extraordinary footage from the outskirts of Tikrit, with no resistance, challenges or other military presence to the media presence. Along the side of the road, groups of fighting-age men walked, some with weapons, most without. None challenged the CNN crew.
Today, J. and I are heading to Kirkuk to get a read on the situation and possibly probe toward Tikrit. The northern route — which we’ll be taking — is pretty heavily militarized but has been extensively hit by U.S. air strikes. It’s also the region where Kevin Sites was captured briefly by Fedayeen Saddam. We’ll have to look sharp to stay out of trouble if we do press on toward Saddam’s stomping grounds. But I’ll be honest: It may be too dicey and I may nix the plan if I’m not cool with it.