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.