The Iraq Crisis

THE ENEMY TO THE NORTH

The Kurds are ready to help an invading American army,

SCOTT TAYLOR February 17 2003
The Iraq Crisis

THE ENEMY TO THE NORTH

The Kurds are ready to help an invading American army,

SCOTT TAYLOR February 17 2003

THE ENEMY TO THE NORTH

The Iraq Crisis

During his many trips into Iraq, Maclean’s correspondent Scott Taylor has become accustomed to dealing with the country’s nervous security forces. Last week, when he failed to get permission to travel into the Kurdish-controlled regions of the north, he simply struck out on his own with an interpreter. They managed to talk their way through a border checkpoint, and spent time with Kurdish militia units, but getting back into Iraq was more difficult. As Taylor started across the border, three Iraqi soldiers pointed their rifles at him. The chilling sound of bullets being chambered stopped him cold.

“They gave the order to shoot,” yelled his guide. After several tense minutes an Iraqi officer appeared. “SahafiKanadi [Canadian journalist]?” he asked. Taylor said he was, and after what seemed like an eternity the officer told him, “You have amused my troops. Plus my dinner is getting cold, so I will allow you passage.” Taylor later filed the following story:

THE SOLDIERS SCRAMBLED out oftheir cement bunker, and after hastily donning helmets, they loaded their Kalashnikov assault rifles and took up firing positions in a

The Kurds are ready to help an invading American army,

SCOTT TAYLOR

trench carved into the barren earth. A sergeant barked an order, and two of the young Iraqi paratroopers pulled a spiked vehicle barrier across the roadway. Four hundred metres away, across a four-lane bridge spanning a marshy flood plain, members of the Kurdish militia, many dressed in traditional baggy pantaloons and checkered head scarves, also rushed to secure the border. The drill is repeated at dusk every day when the boundary between Iraq and the Kurdishheld north is closed, 350 km northwest of Baghdad, on a lonely stretch of highway linking the cities of Mosul and Irbil.

With war in Iraq looming, the tension between Saddam Hussein’s forces and the Kurdish fighters is intensifying. If the U.S. invades, it is widely believed the Kurds will assist American forces advancing from the north. The Kurdistan parliament buildings are located in Irbil, 25 km from the border atop the rocky plateau known as the Saiahuddin Massif. This is the mountain stronghold of Masoud Barzani, the leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party. Barzani and his KDP fighters are the sole power in the Dahuk and Irbil provinces of northeast Iraq. And in anticipation of the looming invasion, the KDP has constructed a brand new public relations office at its headquarters in the nearby town of Saiahuddin. “We are anticipating a flood of Western journalists to arrive here in the coming weeks,” explained Maraan Mirkhan, the KDP’s official spokesman. “We provide access to the Internet, telephones, coffee—anything they like.”

As for the role the KDP will play in the event of war, Mirkhan told Maclean’s that no commitment has yet been made. “Our provision of assistance to the United States depends entirely upon the guarantees that we receive,” he said. “Barzani is willing to commit his forces to oust Saddam, but we have very bitter memories of U.S. betrayal. The Americans sold out the Kurds in the 1975 Algiers agreement [which ended an Iran-Iraq border dispute] and in 1991 they abandoned our uprising following the Gulf War as well.”

A major strategic consideration in the north for any post-Saddam Iraq is the issue of an independent Kurdistan. Barzani has complete autonomy in the provinces he controls, while rival Kurdish leader Jalal Talabani and his Patriotic Union of Kurdistan party control the province of Sulaimaniyah. “We fly our own flag and patrol our own borders at present, but ultimately we are still Iraqi citizens,” said Mirkhan. “We fight to someday unify Iraq, but under a form of federation which protects us from discrimination and oppression.”

While Barzani’s KDP is regarded as moderate, Talabani and his PUK are considered to be militant nationalists, openly advocating independence. Neighboring Syria, Iran and especially Tur key—a vital U.S. ally in this crisis—are concerned that an independent state for Iraq’s 3.5 million Kurds would only

increase the separatist movements among their own sizable Kurdish minorities. Already, pro-Kurdistan rebels in these neighbouring countries have begun to use the autonomous northern Iraqi provinces as support bases for their operations.

In newly constructed military barracks in Saiahuddin, large numbers of recruits in Barzani’s militia are undergoing basic training, many dressed in U.S. combat clothing. Although they possess few heavy weapons or armoured vehicles, they are equipped with new assault rifles and light machine guns. “Our army is not very powerful in the sense of weaponry, but we have skill and experience as guerrillas,” said Mirkhan. “If we do assist the Americans, it will not be only as guides and translators. We will fight to liberate the people of Iraq from Saddam Hussein.”

Prior to joining the Kurdish secret service, 24-year-old Gilman Haja fought as a soldier in the Iraqi army. “In 1991 during the Kurdish rebellion, I was a conscript in Saddam’s forces,” Haja said. “When we were sent into the lines my Kurdish comrades and I took the first opportunity to discard our uniforms and switch sides.” Asked to predict the possibility of a U.S.-led intervention into Iraq, Haja was surprised by the question. “It’s 100 per cent that the Americans will proceed— in March.”

Between Irbil and the Iraqi-controlled border, Kurdish workers are hastily widening the highway to four lanes “so the Americans can move quickly into Iraq,” Haja explained. Although officially the KDP maintains there are no U.S. soldiers on Kurdishcontrolled land, Mirkhan confirmed their presence. But, he said, “I am to sit here and tell you that, officially, this is not true.”

Despite the imminence of war—and the bitter memories of Kurds being gassed

during a rebellion in 1988—the Kurdish population remains unafraid of Iraqi reprisals, largely because they live within the no-fly zone which covers the northern reaches of Iraq.“Saddam’s troops are too respectful of American air power to risk attacking us,” said Mir khan. “The only thing we fear is that Saddam would unleash a chemical attack on us in a final doomsday scenario.”

In anticipation of a joint American-Kurdish offensive from the north, Saddam’s forces have already deployed into front-line trenches. At a camouflaged bunker outside of Mosul, 38-year-old paratrooper Anmar Ibrahim manned a twin 23-mm machine cannon. Proud of his maroon beret and 22 years of loyal service to Saddam, Ibrahim explained with a gap-toothed smile that he is still a private because of his fondness for arak, a strong alcoholic drink. Then, patting the barrels of his cannon, Ibrahim said, “These are useless against American warplanes. But if the Kurds attack us on the ground, we will slaughter them with these guns.” Stretching back several kilometres from

the Kurdish boundary line, Iraqi artillery pieces are dug in, along with some of the few remaining tanks and armoured vehicles left in Saddam’s arsenal. These defences—including batteries of air defence missiles— are centred on the strategic roads to Kirkuk. Outside this ancient city is the crown jewel of the region: the Baba Gurgur oil fields, the oldest and richest deposits in northern Iraq. They would mean economic independence for whatever faction gained control of them. With no oil reserves inside their present territory, both Barzani and Talabani are eager to wrest control of Kirkuk from Saddam’s forces.

Added to this equation are the aspirations of the local Turkmen population, living along Iraq’s western border with Syria. Estimated to number nearly two million, these descendants of ancient Turkey are second only to the Kurds as a minority in Iraq. Split between Kurdish-controlled Irbil and Sad-

dam-held Kirkuk, the loyalty of the Turkmen will be a major factor in the event of a U.S. attack. “Under both the Kurds and the Baghdad regime, the Turkmen presently have no civil rights,” explained Mazen Ziya, a member of the Turkmen Front, a political party with a hardline nationalist platform. Originally from Kirkuk, Ziya fled to Irbil after the Kurdish rebellion of 1991. “I thought that things would be better under the Kurds. But nothing changed.”

Independent of Barzani’s KDP, the Turkmen Front is working in conjunction with the U.S. to assist in the war effort. This group has already supplied nearly 400 volunteers to the CIA-sponsored Iraqi opposition army that is currently undergoing military training at a NATO base in Hungary. “I wanted to volunteer to fight, but I did not have any prior service in the army,” said Ziya. “If we help the Americans by fighting Saddam, the Turkmen will be rewarded with increased autonomy—and some of Kirkuk’s oil riches.” Another faction to be considered in a potential conflict are the Yazidi, numbering

‘WE HAVE EXPERIENCE-WE WILL FIGHT TO LIBERATE THE PEOPLE OF IRAQ’

as many as one million. Following a religion that predates Christianity, the Yazidi have existed in the remote foothills of northern Iraq for centuries. Most Iraqis believe the Yazidi are satanic. But the Yazidi bristle at the term “devil worshippers,” a connotation they say is used by their Muslim and Christian countrymen to mock their religion. “We only worship one God—our creator,” explained Khalid, the Yazidi temple servant in the village of Bachiqa.

Members of this ancient, reclusive sect have proven in the past to be fiercely loyal to Saddam. Yazidi recruits proudly went to serve in the ranks of the Iraqi army during the war with Iran, and again in the Gulf War. At the height of that conflict, when the Americans jammed and monitored all communications, the Iraqi army relied upon its Yazidi signallers to transmit sensitive messages. “In 1991, when the Kurds began their uprising, we fought them right here in Bachiqa,” said V’Day Jalal Hassan, a 24year-old Yazidi medical student and local leader of Saddam’s Baath party. “When the Iraqi army withdrew in the face of Barzani’s forces, the Yazidi stayed and defended their own homes.”

Yazidi loyalty has not gone unrewarded by Saddam. “We are proud to include Yazidi as senior commanders in the army, including one general,” Hassan said. “And our people hold many top offices within the Baath party. Under the rule of Saddam, we are free to practise our religion and customs—without fear of oppression.”

With U.S. special forces already believed to be on the ground near Bachiqa in the Kurdish-controlled north, the Yazidi are determined to resist all attacks. “We are not afraid,” Hassan declared. “We look forward to U.S. troops trying to occupy our homes. The Americans will learn the same lesson we taught the Kurds: the Yazidi will fight.” Others hope that it will not come to war, especially members of Bachiqa’s Christian and Sunni Muslim minorities. “We have lived in harmony as neighbours to the Yazidi all of our lives,” said Mariam Wadir, a 36-year-old Catholic. “They talk bravely about defending their land, but for the sake of my three children, I only pray that the war will not happen.” With both sides digging in for battle, it is unlikely that Wadir’s prayers will be answered. ful

Scott Taylor Is publisher of Ottawa-based Esprit de Corps magazine