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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


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Josh--I have really appreciated being able to read your personal accounts, those of someone whose reporting is caring and trustworthy. With the Turkish troop movement along the border with Kurdistan, there is some fear here that eventually there will be some sort of confrontation between US and Turkish troops. Perhaps this troop movement is to merely protect against an anticipated wave of refugees or perhaps it signals an attempt to occupy Kurdistan against the will of the US. Two questions: While either US or Turkish occupation threatens the possibility of Kurdish self-determination in the area for different reasons, which possibility is more feared by Kurds? And do you see the possibility of US-Turkish clashes as real or merely a threat to use as leverage in negotiations?

Thanks, and keep it up!


Posted by: Kirk Martin | Mar 24, 2003 7:51:22 PM

Dear Joshua
I suppose that I was the journalist you met in Islamic Group in Kurdistan/ Iraq (Komal)office, and who went with you and other correspondants and journalists to the place of the alleged chemical weapons factroy in Serget near Khurmal. My sentiment, thus, wasn't wrong. I felt that time that you are different from other journalists: honest. And now I know that you are independent. I've read much about the problems of American journalists with their editors and I asked those who came to Kurdistan: will your story be published or we will read another one written by the editor? I am sorry that I saw your page just now, that is when you said goodby. I hope you are back very soon. The west, espicially USA need such like you. I wonder when will your people know the truth in all what is published in the media of the west,one more time: especially in US. Just one fact for instance. You know that Islamic Group was different from Ansar al-Islam and it did not want to engage in war , yet it was bombed and the first missile hit its offices not Ansars and about 46 men were killed. Who gave the the wrong information? Why US army did not make it clear? Why don't they apologize? Now that nice man you met, sheik Ali Bapir, the leader of Islamic Group is caught yeasterday, 10 july 2003 by US troops when he was going to meet American
officers!! I told one journalist the day we went to Serget: US is successful in two things: Making heros and making enemies. The two are the same case.
I hope that we will have more than one Joshua for the sake of both the East and the West, for the thjird time I say, especially USA.
Fadhil Qaradaghi
Writer and Journalist
Islamic Group in Kurdistan/ Iraq

Posted by: Fadhil Qaradaghi | Jul 11, 2003 1:16:24 PM

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