March 25, 2003



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 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

March 16, 2003


Remember the PKK? Before anyone had ever heard about the Iraqi Kurds, most western people’s knowledge of the Kurds was limited to Turkey, where the socialist Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK in Kurdish) fought a 15-year war for an independent Kurdistan. Something like 20,000 people died in the conflict. But in the last few years Turkey has succeeded in kicking most of the PKK out of Turkey, and they’re here in Iraq. Now I’m trying to visit them.

The goal was a village called Darawe, a village high in the mountains in a no man’s land between the forces of the ruling Kurdistan Democratic Party and the PKK. I was there with my girlfriend and fellow journalist Carolina trying to get permission to go even further up the mountain to a PKK stronghold to interview the current leaders of the PKK. In the end I didn’t get make it, they were in another place and I’ll have to try again. But I spent several hours in the home of Esad, a shepherd in Darawe, and it was interesting enough.

Darawe consists of just a few houses, and it had been raining softly and everything was mud. Cows were grazing around Esad’s house, five little chicks followed around their mother. A couple of men walked by carrying nets that I first thought were for fishing but which he told me were used to catch martinets. Esad showed me two of the birds that he had caught recently that he held in a handmade wooden cage. They eat them; apparently they’re more tender than chicken. He has a pink satellite dish, and when he’s not watching al Jazeera or movies on German TV he plays cards with the rest of the men in the village. The night before we came, he said, they’d been up until 3 am playing. His surroundings are modest, but I think he’s relatively well-off. His son made him promise that if he did well in school last year they could take a trip to Tehran. He did, and they did. Now the son is in high school, in a town an hour down the dirt track, and the father wants him to go to university.

They are not far from the Turkish border, and his and the surrounding villages were bombed several times by Turkish planes during the 90s in indiscriminate raids on the PKK. He, like everyone else in Kurdistan, hates Turkey. But he was an intelligent guy. We had stopped at his house the day before and said we wanted to talk with the PKK. He offered to take our business cards up to the PKK checkpoint and arrange something for the next day, which seemed pretty savvy. So he seemed to be the kind of man I could have a dialogue with, not just an interview, so I tried to argue with him a little. I told him I thought Kurds were overstating the Turkish threat (just as Turks were overstating the Kurdish threat). I said that even if the Turks come, everyone will be watching them and if they committed any atrocities, it would be all over the world media the next day. And the Turks know that and will be careful. “I may be a shepherd, but I’m not naïve,” he told me. “I have sources in the Iranian government and I’ve heard that Iran has promised Turkey more money than America to refuse to let the Americans use their bases, and that without the Americans here Iran and Turkey will cooperate in attacking Kurdistan.” This seemed farfetched to me, but I was still happy to hear a conspiracy theory when I thought the people here were too credulous and earnest to go in for that sort of thing.

Later, a couple of PKK soldiers showed up to tell us not to leave, that hopefully someone would be coming soon to arrange an interview for us. In the meantime, we talked to them about the PKK. But soon one of the soldiers, Agri, an Iranian Kurd, wanted to ask me some questions. I was game. A short excerpt:

Agri: How do you feel about America’s interventions, not just in Iraq but around the world.

Me (eyeing his Kalashnikov): Well, it depends on the situation.

Agri Does Bush represent the people of America?

Me: Yes, most of them.

Agri: I know that 85 percent of the people in America oppose George Bush. And how many people didn’t vote in the last election? 40 percent.

Me: More, I think.

Agri: Then what is democracy, what do you mean when you say democracy?

Fortunately here one of his comrades arrived and interrupted us and I didn’t have to answer the question. And so we left, bumping in our Land Cruiser down the road to try another day.

March 16, 2003 in Iraq, Kurds, Politics, Turkey | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

March 12, 2003

Kurds and the War

There was a debate yesterday on al-Jazeera between two Kurds, one pro-Saddam and one anti. Most of it went how you would expect, according to the account I read on Until this:

None of the participants called for a free and independent Kurdistan. The silence was broken when Adnan Kushah, a caller from London, told the programme, "I want to tell something to the whole world through this channel. Kurdistanis are not Iraqis and they don’t want to be Iraqis. Kurds are different from Iraqis. South Kurdistan is not Northern Iraq. Kurdistan has a population of around 40 millions and it has been occupied by Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria. Kurds are calling for an independent united Kurdistan."

Al-Jazeera has been accused in the past by Kurds of broadcasting wrong and false information about Kurds in south Kurdistan. Like many other television stations, Al-Jazeera regards south Kurdistan as Northern Iraq.

And who doesn’t refer to it as northern Iraq, I wonder? (By the way, in the language of the nationalist Kurds “South Kurdistan” is what we refer to as “Iraqi Kurdistan.”) It makes me wonder what sort of nationalism is fomenting among the Kurds of Europe.

The anti-Saddam Kurd was for the war, of course, just like his leaders are. Kurdistan is the wrong place to be reporting from if you’re against the war. I can argue with the people here about the immorality and dangerous precedent of an unprovoked war. Or about how attacking Iraq will be be a terrorist recruitment campaign than any Osama bin Laden could dream up. Or about George Bush’s naivete or his advisors’ shady intentions. But people here don’t care. They tell you about all the chemical weapons attacks on their people, about how 4,500 Kurdish villages were destroyed during the Anfal campaign of the 1980s. They still feel afraid of him, and many people here are afraid he may use chemical weapons again against the Kurds once America attacks.

I went to one village recently, Shekh Sherwan, which was destroyed during the Anfal campaign and is being partially rebuilt. They are just on the border with Iraq proper and so are the most vulnerable if Iraq retaliates against the Kurds. But every single person I interviewed wanted the war. Badly. One guy, Omar Kadir, told me “No one has suffered from Saddam Hussein more than the Kurds … Everyone who is a Kurd will support this war, and there are Kurds who have suffered more than me and they will want the war even more.” And I asked one of his neighbors, a fat, jolly guy named Mohammed Mustafa Ahmed about people in the west who oppose the war. “I’ve seen them demonstrating in America, Germany and France, but they haven’t seen the situation of the Iraqi people. If they’d seen what has happened here they would be demonstrating for the war, not against it,” he said.

Most of the journalists here are pretty moved by the stories of the Kurds. One guy I spoke with, an Italian communist, said he was against all war but that when he came here he started to support attacking Iraq. It is now time to trot out the quote that everyone uses about the Kurds, from Henry Kissinger: “Covert action should not be confused with missionary work.” He said this after backing out of a deal to support the Kurds against Baghdad in 1975.

Ironically, Kissinger’s argument is the same one that liberals in the west are now using to oppose the war. No one disagrees that Iraq would be better off without Saddam Hussein, and I suspect that if a fair referendum were held within Iraq a good majority of people would accept the humanitarian consequences of a war in exchange of getting rid of Hussein. But moderately liberal people in the west – myself among them – argue that this is not the point, that the geopolitical risks outweigh the humanitarian benefits. (People further to the left believe that the US will massacre thousands of people and oppose the war simply on humanitarian grounds. I think they are a little naïve about this. Though one thing that troubles me is that a UN report from Baghdad predicted that up to a million children could die in a war if the civilian infrastructure collapsed. I think this must be a worst-case estimate, but if it turns out to be true all those people who support this war on liberal grounds will regret it.)

In any case, there is something that troubles me about people’s rush to war here. For the last 12 years, while Kurdistan has been basically independent, Iraq has basically ignored Kurdistan. The Kurds’ life here is not bad, or at least it’s not going to improve that dramatically if Saddam Hussein is gone. Now recall what I said in a previous entry about the people’s opinions here deriving directly from their leaders’.

I happened to be in the luxury hotel suite of Ahmed Chalabi, head of the CIA-created Iraqi National Congress, the night that Colin Powell gave his big presentation on Iraq to the UN Security Council. With him were Barham Salih, prime minister of the PUK, which controls the eastern part of Kurdistan, and Kanan Makiya, a Chalabi advisor who is the most prominent Iraqi intellectual in the US, author of “Cruelty and Silence” and “Republic of Fear.” These men were positively gloating, and their only regret was that the INC and PUK were not properly credited with supplying the intelligence to the US. I have spoken to Makiya on a couple of occasions and believe him to be a good man who loves Iraq and who is uncomfortable about relying on the US so much but feels he has no choice. But Chalabi and the Kurdish leadership here are almost naked in their desire for power. Chalabi is already negotiating with oil companies, one top Kurdish official told me he’s aiming for an ambassadorship in Europe. And these are the people who are convincing the Kurds that the US-led war is a good idea.

March 12, 2003 in Kurds | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

March 10, 2003

The Turks

Today in Erbil 300 schoolchildren protested against Turkey. As anyone who follows Kurdistan knows, the biggest news here for the past couple of weeks has been the possibility that Turkish troops may come into Kurdistan. Nothing is decided, but the Turks are apparently asking the US, in return for letting American troops base on Turkish soil, to allow them to come into Kurdistan. This has caused widespread indignation. Besides the children’s protest there have been women’s protests, student protests and something that was supposed to be a naked protest, though I’m pretty sure that was a translation error, on the main border crossing between Kurdistan and Turkey.

This sentiment appears to be genuine, people really don’t like the Turks here. But it’s also heavily encouraged by the government.

You may have read articles about this – now that there are hundreds of foreign journalists waiting for the war, we’re desperately trying to find news. But there’s one thing to remember: The Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), which is now bellyaching so much about the Turks, invited Turkish troops during the civil war to help fight the rival Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). And after the war a Turkish-led Peace Monitoring Force kept the two sides from fighting. And all of this happened without the Turks doing anything untoward. Now the KDP doesn’t want them here and it’s getting everyone agitated.

This brings up the remarkable phenomenon of Kurdish public opinion. You only have to interview one man on the street to find out what every Kurdish person thinks. There is very little independent thought here. Any KDP official, from the president to the lowest local party hack, has the phrase “democratic, federal Iraq” on the tip of his tongue. But I didn’t realize the full extent of this unanimity until I interviewed a 12-year-old boy in the border village of Kalak. I asked what he thought about the war, and he said it was a good thing because it would result in a democratic, federal Iraq. I found the similar phenomenon in the Balkans, it’s at least in part because they have faced an external threat for so long that they have surrendered their power of dissent to their leaders. (This could be happening in America too, alas.) The few people I’ve met here who are marginally independent thinkers tell me that if the KDP didn’t want people to be angry about the Turks, they wouldn’t be. And now the schoolchildren of Erbil are being indoctrinated, as well.

All that is not to say that the Turks’ intentions are honorable. They apparently have no interest in fighting Saddam’s forces, just in coming to northern Iraq and camping out, which is not really being part of the team. There are more than a thousand Turkish troops already here, who came to fight the PKK during the mid-1990s and who the Kurds don’t want but can’t make leave. The Peace Monitoring Force’s mandate expired in 1998 and they won’t leave, either.

Anyway, the Turks’ main reasons for wanting to put troops in Kurdistan seem to be: 1. they fear the Kurds will declare independence and they want to stop that, fearing that it may encourage their Kurds to do the same 2. they fear that the Turkomans (an ethnic minority, who are basically Turks and number about three million in Iraq) will be attacked by Kurds or 3. they fear that Kurds may rush to Kirkuk, which Turks claim is historically Turkish/Turkoman, and seize the significant oilfields there.

The first is fairly unreasonable, as no one in the world would recognize an independent Kurdistan and it would likely be attacked by Turkey and Iran. Kurds, when they’re being honest, will tell you that they dream of an independent Kurdistan but that now is not the time.

The second and the third seemed unlikely before this brouhaha started, but perversely the threat of Turkish invasion has increased the chances that either Turkomans (Turkomen?) will be attacked or that Kurds will seize Kirkuk, precisely because Kurds now trust the Turks less than ever. In this atmosphere of suspicion a small incident could escalate quickly. People suspect that Turkomans, in particular their biggest political coalition, the Turkoman Front, are agents of the Turkish government trying to destabilize Kurdistan. And in the chaos of war, it’s possible that a Turkoman threat may be imagined and that people would retaliate. And also, if a rumor starts that the Turkish army is moving towards Kirkuk, Kurds may do the same en masse, which would in turn prompt the Turks to really move to Kirkuk, and then it would get messy.

In the end I don’t expect any of this to pass. If there is a significant American presence here that will dampen anyone’s plans to cause trouble. And even if there isn’t, I don’t imagine that Turkey would be so stupid as to muck up their biggest ally’s war. But keep an eye on this area anyway.

March 10, 2003 in Kurds, Politics, Turkey | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack