March 28, 2003

The last word

I know I said I would stop posting to the blog, but I want one last word. Somehow to my more recent visitors I have become a symbol of the independent voice being stamped out by the corporate media. Ironically, I get many more visitors now that I’m shut down because of references all over the net to my “silencing.” A journalist never likes to become the story himself, and I feel that I’m being used against my will as an example of the nasty American media monolith. I’m happy to be an American and I’m happy to work for the mass media. And I was happy to have this blog, and I would be happy if a lot of people read it and enjoyed it for what it is rather than as a symbol of something bad. Thanks. Peace.

March 28, 2003 in Culture | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack

March 25, 2003

Goodbye for now

My editors have demanded that I stop posting to this site until the war ends. And they pay the bills, so what can I do. Thanks everyone for reading, and I hope to be back here soon. Peace, Josh.

March 25, 2003 in Culture | Permalink | Comments (33) | TrackBack



March 25, 2003 in Kurds | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

March 23, 2003

Why is the US bombing friendly Kurds?

In addition to all the targets the US and Britain are hitting in Baghdad, they also dropped a few bombs here in Kurdistan, near the territory that an Islamist group called Ansar al-Islam controls. Ansar has killed several top officials of the Kurdish governments and tried to kill many more. They blew up women’s hairdressers in the center of Erbil, so now if a woman wants to get her hair cut she has to go to the suburbs. They are probably connected to al-Qaeda, and George Bush (but very few others) thinks they are connected with Saddam Hussein. Most people were expecting them to get bombed once the US started attacking the rest of Iraq.

What’s strange and disturbing about this is that most of the damage done appears to be to another Islamist group, Komal, whose territory is adjacent to that of Ansar al-Islam. (Confused? Kurdistan is also home to Turkish army troops, radical Turkish leftist Kurd PKK guerillas and Shia militias backed by Iran, all of whom control bits of territory here.) I'm not in that area now but according to the BBC today, something like 50 Komal members were killed, many more than the Ansar al-Islam casualties. This is probably because Ansar expected to be attacked, while Komal didn’t. So Ansar went into hiding once the air campaign started, and Komal thought they were safe in their bases and homes. Not so.

I met the leader of Komal, Ali Bapir, and a journalist for the Komal newspaper, who was one of the nicest people I’ve met here. Komal are strict – Carolina had to cover her head before Ali Bapir would meet her – but nice. Both Ali Bapir and the journalist were good people, religious but not radicals. In Ansar territory people apparently live in Taliban-like conditions. Komal forswears this sort of coercion. They cooperated with the government and didn’t do anything to hurt anyone.

I went to their main town, Khurmal, and got the sense that the people there liked them. It’s a traditionally religious area and people want religious leaders. Even when the government accidentally killed four Komal members, including a leader, thinking they were Ansar, Komal didn’t retaliate. That move earned them the respect of even secular Kurds.

But they are Islamists, and the Kurdish government in that area, the PUK, doesn’t trust them. People in this part of Kurdistan are blaming PUK leader Jalal Talabani for their deaths. They suppose that he gave the Americans information that Komal was just as dangerous as Ansar and should be taken out too. This is just speculation, but now speculation matters. This war is as much for Iraqi public opinion as much as it is for territory. And this incident has upset people here. It will probably push some Komal people into the Ansar camp, and cause ordinary Kurds to trust the US a little less.

The reason I met Komal is because of a strange mistake by Colin Powell. In his address to the UN Security Council where he laid out his case against Hussein, he said that a facility used by Ansar al-Islam was used to make chemical weapons, and he showed a slide of the facility that was labeled “Khurmal.” That got Komal panicky, and they invited journalists to Khurmal to see that they were not producing chemical weapons. (The facility happened to be in the next town, Serget, which was controlled by Ansar, and Ansar also invited us over to see that they weren’t making chemical weapons, either.) All the journalists assured Komal that it was just a strange error, that the US would never bomb them. But whenever I try to imagine the logical, sensible thing in this war, I’m usually proven wrong.

Yesterday an Australian cameraman was killed by a car bomb in Khurmal, and all the suspicion is that it was Ansar. (Ansar territory is just over the hill from Khurmal and their long-bearded men easily mix with the long-bearded men of Komal.) This is the first non-Kurdish casualty in an Ansar attack. I am afraid the US may have rattled another hornet’s nest.

March 23, 2003 in Kurds | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

March 21, 2003

You can't think about war all the time

One of the few things that’s been working the last few days is the Crystal Cinema just below my hotel, which plays C-grade Hollywood movies and pornography. I wonder if this is the only place in the Muslim world that has pornographic movie theaters. The Crystal is open only in the morning and early afternoon and is frequented by big groups of teenage boys. And when they don’t get enough pornography there, they can go to the internet café next door where every customer is either chatting or looking at porn.

This is a very traditional, male-dominated society. Women work and get college degrees and so on, but they can’t, for example, kiss a boy before they get married. Women don’t have to cover their heads like they do in Iran but you’ll never see a miniskirt on the streets of Erbil. (Guys here go on summer evenings to an amusement park in a nearby Christian village, even though the park here is better, because the girls there dress more skimpily.) Young men and women can’t even be friends, as it would cause an intolerable amount of gossip for the girl. In extreme cases, women are killed by their families if they have sex outside marriage.

Because of all the courtship rules this is also the land of tragic love stories. We come across them all the time – one girl who works at the hotel is an Arab, and is in love with a Kurdish guy whose parents don’t approve because she’s Arab. And so they forbade him from seeing her. My translator is in love with his cousin (who he calls, with his typically quaint English, “my beloved”). But his family thinks she’s not good for him because she’s illiterate and he has a college degree. So they steal kisses in private. And another translator we used once was in love with a Spanish woman who was working here (and who Carolina, by bizarre coincidence, knows) and both of their parents disapproved. Her parents went so far as to isolate her in some village in Spain and forbid calls from anyone connected to Kurdistan.

March 21, 2003 in Culture | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack


You may be seeing pictures of Baghdad burning and thinking “Oh God, Josh is in that?!” But nothing like that is happening in Kurdistan. The only action here has been one reported skirmish between Kurds and Iraqi soldiers that I’m not even sure happened. It’s really quiet here, I don’t know what percentage of the city has left but I think it’s about 60 to 70 percent. At night you can hear every car driving, even blocks away.

People here seem relieved that Iraq is sending its Scuds to Kuwait, since that suggests that the Kurds are not a target.

I have a little something on the TIME website, check it out here. Mine's at the bottom.

March 21, 2003 in Kurds | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

March 20, 2003

Kurds, Alone

The war has started and the Kurds are totally alone. Not only are there no American troops here, but their own leaders are AWOL, too. The two leaders of the Kurdish government, Massoud Barzani and Jalal Talabani, as well as their top deputies, are in Ankara negotiating with the US and Turkey over the increasingly irrelevant northern front. Iraqi National Congress leader Ahmed Chalabi and leaders of the Turkmen and Assyrian minorities are there as well. I suppose they didn’t expect the war would start so soon, but I wonder if their people will hold them accountable to the fact that they were less concerned about being with and protecting their people than with negotiating over Turkish troops (which, in my opinion is less about real fear of the Turks and more about not wanting to give up their share of the Iraqi pie).

In fact, over the last months the Kurdish governments here have done little to get people ready for war other than to organize protests against Turkey. They always complain that they don’t have money for gas masks and ask the UN or the US to provide them. But they haven’t tried to do anything, any low-cost measures that people can use to protect themselves. It seems they’re often too concerned with playing the victim card than with actually not being victims again.

A report I saw on FOX last night said that the US had spent millions to protect Israel against a possible Iraqi retaliation. And they were willing to give Turkey billions of dollars in aid and the right to put their troops in northern Iraq. And what have the Kurds gotten out of their cooperation with the US? No gas masks, no guarantees of protection, possibly a few guns for the peshmerga, but basically nothing. If I were a Kurd I would be livid with my leaders for being the second worst bargainers in the world, behind the Bush administration.

Anyway, it’s calm here this morning, almost no shops are open but a few people are out in the street and there doesn’t seem to be any panic.

And those of you who speak Spanish should check out Carolina’s blog, Ojo. A link is to the right. (And if you don’t speak Spanish, there’s also an automatic Google translation to English that at least gives you a flavor.) Last night she reminded us that Iraq is the land of 1001 Arabian nights; last night, Scheherazade ran out of stories.

March 20, 2003 in Kurds | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

March 19, 2003


The last few days in Kurdistan the rumor mill has been running at full speed. Yesterday we heard that Taha Yassin Ramadan, vice president of Iraq, had been arrested because he sent his family to safety in Britain. But then last night he was on Iraqi TV, so who knows. (It could have been old film, apparently Saddam Hussein used that tactic during the Gulf War to make it seem like it was business as usual.) Today it’s been about Tariq Aziz. The rumor was that he tried to flee from Baghdad to Kurdistan but was stopped by a Republican Guard unit. He ordered the driver to run through the roadblock and the soldiers shot him. People here are really abuzz about it. Officials here denied it, as did US and Iraqi officials but MSNBC, Sky News, Kuwaiti TV, the Russian news agency Interfax and others did. And then later this afternoon Aziz had a press conference in Baghdad to disprove the rumors. I suppose it was part of a deliberate misinformation campaign by the US, Iraq, the Iraqi opposition, or who knows who. Or maybe just war hysteria. But that was what was going on today.

People continue to stream out of Erbil or get ready for war. Below is a photo of a guy with a photo developing lab, he is building a brick wall in front of it so that looters can’t steal the equipment inside.


March 19, 2003 in Kurds | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

March 18, 2003

The War Economy

I got up at 4 to watch George Bush, as did a lot of people here. I was mainly relieved that he didn’t declare war just then. But most people here believe it could start any moment.

The war economy is kicking into gear. Gasoline, which had been about 50 cents a gallon here in Kurdistan, is now $2 a gallon as people start hoarding it. Plastic sheeting, which people use to cover their windows to protect against chemical weapons, went from 25 cents a meter to 65 cents. Today I went to a town right on the border with Iraq proper, Kalak, and people there said they couldn’t afford the plastic to cover their windows.

On the main roads you can see cars and pickups loaded down with stuff. One family of 11 people was jammed into a single Opel Vectra (about the size of a Honda Accord). I saw pickups with five people in the front seat and six children in the back, on top of all the family’s possessions.

My translator is now alone in his house with his cousin, who is about the same age. My driver decided to keep his family here, because when he fled during the Gulf War his house was looted.

The exchange rate, which had been 8.5 dinars to the dollar, dropped to seven to the dollar today. Readers with a better knowledge of currency rates are welcomed to try to explain to me why.

March 18, 2003 in Kurds | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

March 17, 2003

War Panic in Erbil

Today is the first official day of war panic in Erbil. Yesterday everything looked much like it has since I got here. Today many shops are closed, there are fewer cars in the street and people tell me their neighbors are fleeing the city for towns further towards the Iranian border. My translator's family all left for their hometown of Koy Sanjak, which is closer to the Iraqi lines but which they feel is less of a target. Shopowners are emptying their stores, putting their stuff in more secure locations in case there is looting during the war.

Most people are afraid of chemical weapons. As you know, this area was attacked hundreds of times by chemical weapons during the Anfal campaign of the 1980s. The most notorious incident, in Halabja, was 15 years ago this weekend. Over 7,000 people died in that one attack. Now people here are afraid that it will happen again. But people aren’t preparing much. Very few people have gas masks – other than the foreigners, of course. There is a military market here in Erbil, and I went a couple of weeks ago to stock up. I bought four German-made masks (for me, Carolina, our driver and translator) for $150, a little out of the range of ordinary Iraqis. The dealer told me the only locals who bought the masks were the richest ones. “The poor people want to die,” he said. “The rich people want to live 200 years.” One political party today was giving out leaflets on how to make a homemade gas mask. You take flour, coal and salt, wrap it in a cloth and hold it over your mouth.

I personally think the chances of a chemical attack are slim verging on zero, otherwise I wouldn’t have come here. But I don’t blame people for panicking. I’m told that during the Gulf War in 1991 Iraqi planes dropped white powder on Erbil and people went hysterical, thinking it was another chemical attack. It was flour.

People seem to think the war will start immediately. One woman I spoke to today was afraid because her son was in school and she worried what would happen if Erbil were attacked while he was in school. I am skeptical. I think that even if George Bush gives up on diplomacy, as he seems likely to do today, it will be at least a couple of weeks before anything starts. Due to the confusion in Turkey, there are still no American troops here (except for a few CIA paramilitaries) and it seems foolish and counterproductive to start the war without some sort of northern front. But who knows, this whole war seems foolish and counterproductive so maybe I’ll be proven wrong.

March 17, 2003 in Kurds | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack