The Jubilant Desolation in Kirkuk

KIRKUK, Kurdistan—The peshmerga took Kirkuk today. The sun was shining, the hills were green, the sky was blue, and many silver B-52s soared overhead. In the morning came the familiar percussive thump of bombing—reports of Iraqi mortar fire into forward peshmerga positions—but at about 12:30, the news came that the checkpoints were open.

We drove, speeding through the series of undulating hills that insulate Kirkuk from the Kurdish side, rolling pasture and bumpy foothills. On this drive, there’s always another ridge ahead and never a place for a view; it’s a hermetic landscape, although expansive enough now that it’s littered with abandoned Iraqi positions that are more rubble than form. This time, we drove much farther than we had gone before, racing and stopping to catch our breath and ask questions of people we saw along the road. How far could we go? What was happening? We drove past a knot of American special forces (“We’ve had an interesting morning”), past dinky orange-and-white taxis, past streaming peshmerga loaded onto pickups stocked with guns and RPGs. We saw more on the back of trucks.

“There is nothing in Kirkuk!” they shouted at us. “Go, go, go!” They held out their arms in victory. They had heard the news before we could confirm it. Kirkuk had fallen.

We stopped again and stood on a bluff, less than a mile from Kirkuk. The peshmerga hurried past, shouting, careering, some jogging. Kirkuk was spread out before us, quiet, still.

“Kirkuk is liberated!” said Omar Fattah, a senior PUK commander.

“But have the peshmerga taken it?” I asked. This is an old contentious issue; the Turks would be livid if the Kurds were seen to be occupying Iraq’s northern oil cities.

“No, no, these are just militia,” said the commander, disingenuously.

Omar Fattah held up his radio to catch a better signal and shouted, “Where is Mam Rostum? Where is Mam Rostum?”

Mam Rostum is a famous peshmerga commander—larger than life, bluff, garrulous. Like so many displaced, deported Kurds, he is from Kirkuk. He’s been holed up in Kurdistan for the past 12 years and has said for months that he would go into Kirkuk. He didn’t care what the Turks or the Americans or the PUK or anyone else thought.

As we drove down the hill, we saw Mam Rostum’s car driving back out of the city. He was red in the face with a massive grin. He waved at us, barely stopped, and swooshed by in a convoy of his favorite female peshmerga.

A car drove by full of a Kurdish family. They were free, and they were going on a tour.

Jihad Jebari, one of the family, told me, “Before the peshmerga came inside Kirkuk, people attacked the ordinary soldiers. They took away their rifles and their weapons; there was little resistance. Everyone threw down their guns. I am extremely happy. I wanted to cry. I want to take a rifle and go to Tikrit”—Saddam’s hometown.

Another car, another Kurdish family. Kids crammed in the back; women wearing pink and red and orange. Said Mohammed Qadr, “This morning the uprising began. It was all the people in Kirkuk but especially the Kurds. They attacked the military camps, and all of the soldiers surrendered. I gave some money for clothes, because they had left their uniforms, and they wanted ordinary clothes. We’re going to look around. For so many years, we have been prevented from looking. So many years we have waited for this day.”

He went on. “It’s different from 1991 because there’s no fear. We are sure the coalition forces are with us. We want to thank George Bush! Long live George Bush!”

A few minutes later a car came by with an Iraqi soldier called Abbas Razi in it. He said he was from from Najaf. He still wore his dark-green uniform, dusty and worn. He had surrendered five minutes before to the man who was driving the car, a Kurd called Ali Mohammed Nadr—not a peshmerga, just an ordinary civilian.

“I left my gun in the bunker. There were gun shots, and I came out and straightaway saw this man and surrendered to him,” he said, looking worried and relieved at the same time. He said he was very happy.

“What have you been doing for the past three days?” I asked him.

“We have been just sitting and watching the jets bomb us. Waiting for the coalition to come and save us.”

I asked him if he had had any news, if he knew what had happened in Baghdad.

“Until now I knew nothing,” he replied. “We had no news. We were not allowed out of our bunkers.”

His captor smiled and shook his hand and said he was going to get him some clothes.

Inside, Kirkuk was abandoned. The peshmerga wheeled around the city firing into the air, trailing green-and-yellow PUK flags behind them, holding up pictures of Jalal Talabani, the head of the PUK. Kids ran about with little American flags. Many people came up to us Western journalists and said, “Thank you. Thank you, Bush. Thank you, Blair.”

In the main square, the base of the enormous, felled statue of Saddam was filed away, his bronze face covered in red paint. “USA” was written in graffiti on the plinth and, ultimately, in front of the CNN cameras. Many peshmerga found an old Soviet-era APC and rode down the main streets, happily catcalling.

By the side of the road, in a residential area, there was a boisterous family reunion. Manur Osman had driven from Erbil, in Kurdish territory, that morning. He was Kurdish Democratic Party; he had not been able to come to Kirkuk for 12 years. He hugged and kissed his cousins. One of them, Samil Abdul Rahman, talked about the difficulties of being Kurdish in Kirkuk.

“We could not buy or sell anything as Kurds. My son has finished college, but because we are Kurds we cannot have good jobs.” He explained that the family had an illegal television aerial and that they had watched the scenes in Baghdad on PUK television. Then he stopped talking. His brother had just called from America, from Salt Lake City.

I stood on the Third Bridge, across the city’s river, which is dried green mud rivulets. The city was spread out before me in sand-colored boxes, dotted with palm trees, green mosque domes, and red, rusty water tanks. Smoke from a burning oil fire hung in the sky. There was a hollow, uncertain air to the place.

Many people were happy, it’s true—but the underlying poverty, everywhere, was obvious. The looting was without joy. People were just taking things, much of it stuffed furniture from offices. But there was a lot of it. Every police station and every regime office were shells of smashed glass, flooded floors, strewn documents. From Chemical Ali’s office, people were carrying away doorframes—this, though his house had already been secured by special forces with an Arabic tannoy that announced, “Do not come any closer or you will be shot.” Naturally, Chemical Ali’s house was the only secured place in Kirkuk this afternoon.

Emaciation and meanness were visible in the faces of the boys who gathered in the streets. Their clothes were poor, their bodies concave; some extremely thin children had bad, rotted teeth. They clutched each other and looked wide-eyed at us. They were weary, with a collective dimmed, haunted look. They appeared passive and lost.

The shops were shuttered. The Mukhabarat and the Baathist Party Headquarters were gutted and flung open with bombs. Every Saddam portrait had been defaced—crossed out with red paint, smashed with bullets.

In the Arab quarter, families stood in their doorways. When a truckload of peshmerga pirates went past, cracking bullets into the air, ululating, they stiffened and shivered slightly.

One man, Ramzi Salman, was surrounded by a score of children. I asked him at what moment he realized the regime would end.

“Some of us still don’t believe it is happened,” he said. “But two days ago, some of the soldiers that surrendered in Baghdad came to Kirkuk, and we realized this might be it. My brother was in the Republican Guard. He went to his headquarters in Baghdad and they told him, ‘Why do you stay here? Everyone should go home.’ So I knew two days ago that everything was over.”

“When was the last time you saw a regime person on the street?” I asked.

He thought about it for a moment. “Five days ago. One of the big guys drove past.”

Another man in the family stepped forward. He pointed to the college down the street, explaining that he was a professor.

“They are looting the college,” he said. “Why are they doing these things? There is no government here.”

“Are you afraid of the Kurds?”

The professor started to say no, but his friend stopped him.

“Of course we are afraid,” the man spoke up. “We should speak frankly. They took all the government cars already. There is a problem between the nationalities in Kirkuk. It is better for the Americans or the British to come here and control things.”

A pickup truck full of Kurdish peshmerga pulled up at an adjacent house. It was Mam Rostum’s boys, looking for relatives.

“They took our house 13 years ago,” said Hatham Hafez Akhmed, adding that he wouldn’t go back unless it was allowed.

I saw a strange man in the crowd with blond hair; his face was scarred by burrs and his ears twisted into warped shapes.

“And what about the Turkmen?” he asked, in a plaintive Turkman voice. “We had the same problems as the Kurds. We could not buy or sell houses or cars, we could not have good jobs.”

I told him, somewhat too eagerly, that in a new Iraq all nationalities would have the same rights. He agreed. “There should be no difference between Kurd and Arab and Turkman,” he said. “All of the Turkmen are poor; we only want to live in peace.”

Somewhere a muezzin called to prayer.

The PUK had taken over the Kirkuk Governorate. The offices were all empty and blown with papers; there were no computers on any desks, only metal file cabinets and thousands of sheaves of paper, handwritten forms, scattered across corridors with curious meticulousness. A special forces guy was poking around the rooms with the barrel of his gun.

“What are you looking for?” I asked.

“Anything of intelligence value,” he said. “But I guess it’s all taken.”

Elsewhere, milling about in a wood-paneled office with shiny white-upholstered furniture, the PUK commanders were giving interviews to journalists. I heard Omar Fatteh temporize on the subject of whether the peshmerga had been given the green light by Americans to occupy Kirkuk, whether they would be staying, whether they or the Americans were in control here.

“The Americans are in Kirkuk, and we are helping them,” he said. “We have gone everywhere! Yes, the American forces have controlled the oil fields since this morning. The city was in uprising, we could see, so we came to help. Yes, we entered the city with the Americans. If the Americans want our help, we’ll stay.”

The night sky came up deep navy blue and shone with starlight and red flares. I had been here all day. The peshmerga patrolled the streets, rumors flew about, gunfights near the oil fields flared up, and a strange sulfur smell filled the air. Two people had been killed by the jubilant firing into the sky, the bodies of three Baathist officials had been found, and the road from Erbil was clogged with deported Kirkukis desperate to return.