Killing Time With the Kurds in Northern Iraq

SULAYMANIYAH, Kurdistan—We’re waiting. The waiting in northern Iraq is interminable, everything is close, a few days away, tomorrow, even tonight, changeable and static at the same time. Everyone is watching television: Al Jazeera blares in every command post, living room, and tea house full of Kurdish militia, the peshmerga.

On Monday it was gray, the clouds low slung and full of rain. We stopped in the morning at the houses, cinderblock and mud walls, next to the airstrip on the edge of Sulaymaniyah that has been refurbished in the past weeks. The villagers said they had heard loud engines again and that the planes landed in darkness. “I only heard two planes, last night,” said one man. “But we need more than that. Eight hundred would be better.”

Kurdish officials are close-mouthed about the landings, presumed to be more American special forces. Sometimes they deny them, sometimes they shrug and smile indomitable Kurdish smiles and offer more tea. After several weeks now of Kurdish disingenuousness, I am beginning to understand that most of the time they don’t know the answer because the Americans haven’t told them, and that, if there was once a plan, it’s not so clear anymore. In any case it seems that plans for a northern front have been moot since the negotiations with Turkey failed. Sixty-two thousand American forces will not now be rolling through here on their way to secure the northern oil cities of Kirkuk and Mosul. A couple hundred special forces is probably the most excitement the Kurds are likely to see.

We drove 40 minutes down the road to the front line at Chamchamal, a huddled, dusty, gasoline-smuggling town largely populated by Kurds who have been “Arabized”—made to sign forms renouncing their ethnic identities and declaring themselves Arabs—and deported from Kirkuk, about 25 miles on the other side of the Iraqi checkpoint. It was 9:30 in the morning; just as we came through Tekhia, around a hill to a view of Chamchamal, we could see black smoke in mushroom puffs hanging over the ridge above the town. That’s where the Iraqis were.

“Five minutes ago,” said the peshmerga at the checkpoint, grinning broadly. “It was a jet.”

We went up on the roof of the peshmerga headquarters to watch; all the peshmerga were smiling, taking pictures, people all over the village were climbing up on their roofs to see better. Four plumes of black smoke were rising. It seemed as if finally the war was coming our way; and everyone was glad.

Mam Rostum, a well-known senior peshmerga commander, sat in the municipal headquarters in Chamchamal, a big fat smile on his face, his arms crossing his barrel chest. “I am very happy with the attack. Those Iraqis on the ridge are always attacking us and now it’s our turn.” Mam Rostum is originally from Kirkuk and often jokes about retaking the city, in spite of Kurdish promises to the Americans that the peshmerga will not occupy the cities of Kirkuk and Mosul, considered by Kurds to be Kurdish cities, as they were briefly and chaotically during the 1991 uprising.

“So, Mam Rostum, Kirkuk this afternoon?” I teased him, and he laughed.


Half an hour later however, there were no more missiles, and I was asking Mam Rostum questions like, “Are you surprised there hasn’t been a more concerted attack?” We waited all morning for more jet fire; we could hear a sonic boom above the clouds and very distant thuds. After a while, over a cup of coffee with the reporter from the Associated Press, I said, “Probably it was part of a bigger bombardment on Kirkuk and the two divisions between. We can’t see anything. It’s raining.”

Looked up at the ridge, through the mist, triangular embrasures visible, little moving sticks of Iraqi soldiers moving about, an empty road leading up through the middle. Very static, no mortar fire, no response, despite the odd mortar and Kalashnikov crack over the past few days, especially at the journalists milling around below the checkpoint.

In the afternoon I went to see Simko, chief of staff of the peshmerga in the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, which controls this area. Simko alternates between his peshmerga uniform—khaki baggy trousers—and a dapper cream linen suit. He doesn’t give much away but is very friendly. He had been up in Halabja, the other Kurdish front line, where the Americans have been bombing the mountain positions of Ansar al-Islam, a heavily bearded group of Islamic militants and itinerant jihadis washed up from the Afghan melee. The Kurds have been facing Ansar for two years. Ansar is nasty; the militants like to kill their peshmerga prisoners with swords and then video themselves decapitating the corpses. Fifty Tomahawk missiles blew up their positions in the early hours of Saturday. In the middle of the afternoon I drove through the area, a taxi driven by a suicide bomber blew up at a checkpoint 300 feet in front of us and killed four people, including an Australian cameraman.

Simko was pleased about the Americans bombing Ansar, though it seems Ansar took to the mountain caves long ago and the bulk of the casualties were from Komal, an adjacent, bearded group who provide an odd sort of hinge between the PUK and Ansar (such are the internecine complications of Kurdish politics). He expected the peshmerga to attack Ansar soon.

So, we’re waiting for a battle against Ansar. Nothing is moving on the Iraqi front, and it doesn’t look very likely to. The Iraqis can’t afford to attack the Kurds and create another front; the Kurds have promised the Americans they won’t attack and antagonize the Turks who are extremely sensitive about any kind of Kurdish ambition.

“If the U.S. has a plan, they haven’t told us,” said Simko. “But how can they attack Kirkuk? They have no forces here. When Baghdad is controlled, then the forces above Chamchamal will leave. When Saddam is destroyed, everything will be destroyed.”