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.

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.

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.)