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.

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