What the Iraqis Left in Karahanjir

SULAYMANIYAH, KURDISTAN—On Friday I rode with with a driver, a translator, and another journalist up a road beneath a row of evacuated Iraqi bunkers. For a long time I had studied that ridge—triangles of embrasures, soldiers wandering around, and, in the past few days, the puffs of black smoke from American missiles fired from jets. I knew it was the other side. Behind this ridge were four divisions of the Iraqi army in a no-man’s-land of ruined Anfaled villages. Beyond them is Kirkuk.

On Thursday afternoon, the Iraqis pulled back and left, and on Friday morning the sun came out. The green hills seemed benign again, full of friendly peshmerga running up onto the promontories to inspect wide room-sized bomb craters and rummage in the bunkers for what was left behind. It wasn’t much: five unburied corpses killed in the recent bombardments, some papers, a few guns. There were also mines buried in the road.

The road ran parallel along the bottom of the ridge. We were apprehensive: This was a dead-end road that ran about 6 miles before coming on what had been Iraqi-controlled territory 24 hours ago. Pickup trucks went by full of local irregulars with sunburnt faces and nicotine-stained teeth. They had Kalashnikovs across their knees, and they were beaming. They told us that Karahanjir was empty, that the Iraqis had left, that there was no fighting, that they had taken everything.

After about 10 minutes, we came across a large mound of dirt blocking the road. Driving over it, we found a series of networked Iraqi positions. The hills were scarred with scooped-out niches for tanks and artillery. Scabby huts made out of cinderblock were linked by pathways up the slopes. Bunkers had been fortified with bulldozed earth. Loose rolls of barbed wire were scattered around. Holes had been cut into the side of slopes; they had sandbagged entrances. A line of electrical wire was propped up on lopsided sticks. A threadbare volleyball net was strung up on a piece of flattened ground. Locals were still loading into their trucks anything that might be useful, particularly sheets of corrugated iron, bare iron tables, and discarded Iraqi army helmets.

One of the locals, Habib Mohammed, told us he was very happy. “The government of Iraq killed my father, my uncle, my cousins. I come from Chiman village and it was destroyed in 1988. This is our area. We are taking their property. We want to destroy their camps, to be revenged. If we go back to our village, if, insh’allah, Saddam is destroyed, we will use these things to rebuild.”

Karahanjir was once a pretty town with fir groves on its hills and restaurants where people went on Fridays in the summer. The Kurds who lived there were deported in 1988, their homes given to Arab families, who left in the 1991 uprising. It then became an army barracks. Now the buildings are cracked, unused, and ruined. The Iraqis had taken everything. We went into a small military hospital that had the slogan “Yes Yes Yes Saddam‚” painted across the front. Inside was a pile of burnt papers, empty cigarette cartons, and a manual on how to treat the victims of chemical attack. A few Iraqi flags painted on doorjambs were faded, along with a set of warnings about not smoking in your tank and wearing protective goggles. The atmosphere was palpably tense; another Kalashnikov cracked somewhere, but underneath there was something worse—an eerie, still menace.

The only thing in that place to look at, the only thing with any color, was a portrait of Saddam, 15 feet high, in the middle of the main road. He was wearing his military uniform with his hand outstretched. There were eight bullet holes in his face.

After six weeks of being in Kurdistan, in Free Iraq, I was getting my first look at the other side. It looked terrible: sparse and mean. As I stood there, a pickup truck sped in from the direction of Kirkuk. Two men were inside—Kurds, probably, with guns, as everyone has guns now. We wanted to ask them what they were doing, but they just raced around the portrait of Saddam and disappeared. A little way out of the town on the Kirkuk road is a large—and, this time, insurmountable—pile of dirt; the road has been heavily mined on the other side of it. It was impossible to know where the drivers of the truck had come from, what they wanted, and where they had gone.