The Kurds’ Party

SULAYMANIYAH, Kurdistan—In the middle of the slough of despond on the northern front—the dull, storyless, waiting game—I went for a pedicure. There was nothing better to do. I had just had fresh red polish applied to the toes of my right foot when a blare of music and car horns came from the street outside.

“I think it’s a wedding party,” said my translator, and he went to look outside. “No,” he called back. “It’s Baghdad. It’s fallen!”

I pulled on socks over a sticky, half-done pedicure and rushed outside.

All of Sulaymaniyah poured onto the streets. In a festive traffic jam, people were dancing, jiggedy Kurdish line-dancing. Families wore shiny, tinselly costumes. A small boy beat a hand drum. Horns sounded. Green and yellow ribbons, bits of rag and flag—the colors of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan—flew from car aerials and were wrapped around foreheads. People held up pictures of Jalal Talabani, the PUK leader; they waved Kurdish flags: red, white, and green, with a rising sun. Boys were also waving homemade American flags. They came up to me and said, “Thank you! Thank you! Thank you George Bush and Tony Blair!”

A crowd of kids wore conical paper hats with the stars and stripes and the message “Well Come USA!” Hordes of people, families, and teenage boys stood in the backs of pickup trucks, and along the slippery spine of an oil tanker. The shopkeepers came out of their shops and stood on the streets; peddlers sold cold bottles of Pepsi from big polystyrene boxes. Music played on boom boxes. PUK TV showed the scenes of looting in Baghdad intercut with triumphal Kurdish folk songs.

Happy day. Noises of joy came, like something burst open; there was overwhelming relief. Sun after shadow, but stronger. Freedom after prison. Suddenly, the whole overwhelming embargoed shut-in trap that Kurdistan has lived in for the past 12 years and the memories of terror that were unrevenged and held in a kind of limbo were gone. I talked to an old man who stood watching the crowd with an almost unbelieving expression of stupefaction.

“You look very serious,” I told him, but he said no.

“I am very happy. My son was martyred in 1988, but still, I don’t think it is possible to feel happier than this.”

Sitting in the tea shop in the middle of town—apart from the throngs outside—dominoes still clattered. I spoke to a man named Mohammed. “I was in prison for three years,” he told me. “1987 until 1990. I was 16. They arrested me because I hit the amin [the Interior Ministry secretary] who came to question me after my brother went abroad.”

I asked the usual questions and the answers were: yes, every night between midnight and 2 a.m. They had beat him with electrical cables and hung him from the ceiling with his arms behind his back. They kept him in a solitary cell 6 by 9 feet. He found a smuggled needle and ink and inked his own tattoo. The tattoo was a chain, like a handcuff, around his wrist. It bore the words, in Kurdish, “Goodbye, life.”

“I thought I was going to be executed,” Mohammed admitted.

I headed outside and found some friends. There were gunshots in the air, but not too many. Mostly there was a great big happy crowd. We packed up the car with 150 liters of gas, 100 liters of water, and 10 liters of whiskey—enough for a decent ride, and drove to Chamchamal, the erstwhile frontline.

In contrast to the party in Sulaimania we found a mass of grim faced peshmerga milling around.

“We are waiting,” said Mam Rostum, their commander, after a senior commanders’ meeting. And we asked him what he was waiting for, he said he couldn’t tell us.

“Will you go to Kirkuk?” I asked. Mam Rostum was born in Kirkuk; he is the Kurdish parliamentarian for Kirkuk; he has fought the Iraqi regime since 1967, before Saddam even came to power. He looked back at us, mindful that the Turks—if any were around—would we sensitive to the idea of the Kurds taking over the oil cities of Kirkuk and Mosul.

“We are from Kirkuk. Everywhere here in Kurdistan, there are thousands of families from Kirkuk. We cannot stop them going home.”

“But will you go?”

“We will go, even if we have to go as civilians.”

The Iraqi troops opposing the Kurds along the Northern From have been pulling back for days. American Special Forces have been calling in airstrikes, and the Iraqis shell intermittently, defensive and scared. Soldiers are said to be leaking away; it is difficult to tell. The peshmerga have forayed as far as two or three miles from Kirkuk, digging up mines laid by the Iraqis as they go, but they remain uncommitted to a serious front line. The Americans have been flying light armor into the airstrips in Sulaimania and Erbil, but it hardly represents a concerted effort. Perhaps in twenty-four hours it will be all moot.

“Kirkuk tomorrow?” I asked Mam Rostum, and he allowed a smile. We couldn’t figure out if the peshmerga were looking grim because they weren’t going to be allowed to go, or because they were worried about fighting.

“Insh’allah,” he said.