Finding No Answers in Mosul

MOSUL, Iraq—Mosul is in anarchy. I don’t think I have ever seen real anarchy before; it’s terrifying. Plenty of people filled the streets of Mosul, and the random gunfire was minimal, but the atmosphere was palpably miserable, burnt, and untrustworthy. A few miles south of the city, hundreds of tons of sulfur were on fire; you could smell it on the road. We drove with the windows up, the doors locked, our flak jackets on. Everywhere was detritus from four days of fighting, looting, and firing. Now vast Iraqi flags lay draped across walls in Arab quarters; the Islamic Movement of Kurdistan had opened an office; Kurdish peshmerga manned the checkpoints. When the Kurds of the KDP went in, the looting had been especially fierce; hospitals were attacked, banks raided, shops and offices smashed.

I sat in Kirkuk last night with a bottle of whiskey and an MRE donated by a kind Marine. I feasted on beef in mushroom sauce, chicken breast with apple jelly, and M&Ms. An American journalist told me about the first day of liberation in Mosul; she said it was the most frightening place she’d ever been. While she was at the hospital, two Arabs and a Kurdish peshmerga were brought in dead. She went to interview a doctor, and when she returned someone had cut off the Kurd’s head and taken it away. She kept repeating, “I mean, when heads are missing; Jesus Christ, his head was gone; they took his head. …”

The ransacking may have exhausted itself, but there is still no law in Mosul. There are barely 1,000 American soldiers holed up in the airport on the edge of town. Some regular Iraqi police are present, and clots of KDP commandos drive around in stolen Iraqi government cars. They are shot at as indiscriminately as everyone else.

A man called Nouradin in a yellow shirt said he was an engineer. “Now I am a fighter. I have to fight to defend my family. My quarter looks like a military camp.” Residents, in desperation, have set up road blocks in every alley—small barricades, bits of twisted corrugated iron, a pile of logs, sandbags taken from the abandoned Iraqi positions in the roundabouts, a row of broken cinderblocks. “No one has any problem with the Americans,” he said. “This city was taken without a single bullet.” Instead, he blamed the Kurds for the lawlessness, for the violence of the spree. The people here are divided between Kurd and Arab; the fighting has been seen as an ethnic conflict. “They stole ambulances, everything. This was an educated city, but we have thrown out our education and gotten weapons.”

There was no information to be had here, only anger. We drove into the center of the city to talk to people. Frankly, the scene was too scary to get out of the car. We couldn’t understand the crowds of young men who gathered, crowding around and shouting at us. “They killed two Americans this morning!” “Who are you?” “Journalists! No bloodshed!” “There are families here crying out for help!”

The traffic lights were dead, the gutters full of garbage, the streets strewn with smashed glass. Small fires had left patches of black, oily ash. We drove past one crowd of unidentified demonstrators; they jeered at our cars with our press IDs plastered on the windows, and threw stones.

All the while, two American jets roared overhead, swooping down to the city at a couple hundred feet, tearing noise across the sky. “Tell them to stop!” shouted one man, as we stopped for directions. “The children are petrified. They must stop it, they must stop!”

We found Americans at the airport. I tried to figure out what the hell was going on. They told us to wait for the press coordination officer. We waited for the press coordination officer. A kind, rattled French woman from the Agence France Presse said she had been in the hospital. There were dozens of injured people there, she said, along with eyewitnesses who claimed that American soldiers had shot into a crowd of demonstrators at the governor’s mansion. The new governor, a big tribal chief, had been trying to address the crowd.

Staff Sgt. White, the press coordination officer, finally arrived and told us that the protestors had become angry—”I don’t know why‚” he said—and they had overturned a car and set it on fire. He said gunmen from the upper stories of an overlooking building fired on the American troops in the square. “We returned fire.” He said he did not think anyone had been hurt and that the exchange had lasted one or two minutes. No Americans were killed, he added.

Nouradin said he had been at the demonstration, which was apparently to protest the continuing presence of KDP peshmerga in the city. Jomburi, the new governor, addressed the crowd and told them that traitors were in the city and that tonight they would be slaughtered.

“Who are the traitors?” I asked. “Does he mean the Kurds?”

“No,” said Sgt. White. “He meant the Baathists. People were angry with him because they don’t want any more killing. There were casualties. But the Americans had only fired in the air, high up, to try and dislodge whoever was firing at them. It was the peshmerga who fired into the crowd,” he said. “There were hundreds injured on the street; I saw them with my own eyes.”

Just then a peshmerga commander came up. He wore a camouflage uniform and a black beret.

“It’s a lie.” he said. “Don’t listen to these untrue stories. Don’t believe these people. It only happened after we had left the place. We are defending these people. We have not slept in many nights. People are only blaming the KDP! We have taken looters to prison.”

Another F-16 seemed to scrape across our scalps, its metal underbelly winged up against the sky.

“We should leave,” I said. There was no truth in Mosul. God knows what had happened.