Waiting for Mr. Bush

The kid had been following us for a while. I’d seen him out of the corner of my eye, but had taken little notice. I was too busy savoring the hot hustle of the only souq I’d been to in the Middle East that did not cater to tourists. There were no scorpions encased in a hard yellowish plastic to haggle over, no fake papyri with "ancient" symbols, not a single thin, flimsy overpriced kuffiya that any self-respecting Middle Eastern man would ever wrap around his head.

This souq -- the Kurds call it the bazaar -- in the northern Iraqi city of Arbil was purely for the people. The narrow streets were choked with endless shelves of Korean-faked Pantene shampoo, piles of purple plastic chairs and bars of Turkish Duru soap. Long strips of the gold-threaded Iranian cloth, which Kurdish women love so much, hung like great slabs of colorful beef as the sounds of the World Cup, which Kurdish men adore, reverberated through crowds of shoppers.

Finally, when we stopped at a crossroads to wait for our photographer colleague to take yet another shot, the boy got up his nerve. Cradling his shallow wooden box of homemade chewing gum in the crook of his arm, he tugged on the shirt of Abdel Salam, our slight Kurdish translator, and tilted his head upward.

"Are these Mr. Bush’s people?" he asked politely.

Abdel Salam looked at me and translated, the characteristic Kurdish warmth dancing at the corner of his eyes. God, I thought, are we that obvious? I looked at my friend squatting over her canvas camera bag in her pink Oxford-cloth shirt and Eddie Bauer khakis, her light hair pulled into a messy ponytail. I knew there was no use lying. I looked at him and sighed.
"Unfortunately, we are." Abdel Salam translated. The boy’s eyes lit up. He responded with what I guessed was the Kurdish equivalent of "cooool."

Waiting in Limbo

Across northern Iraq this summer, from the searing cities on the low plains to the cool refuge of rocky mountain villages, all talk was of possible war. It hung in the air like cigarette smoke in a Cairo club, slowly but surely permeating every conversation, interview and casual meeting.

Ten-year-olds were waiting for the arrival of Mr. Bush’s people, aware only of the hope of change they may bring. But adults, who understand the destructive potential of any U.S. president’s people, discussed how to support desperately desired political change in Iraq, while maintaining the safe autonomous position that they had come to enjoy in the past decade under the watchful eye of U.S. and British planes over the northern no-fly zone.

The Kurds are the largest ethnic group in the world without their own state and are the fourth largest ethnic group in the Middle East behind Arabs, Persians and Turks -- all of whom have oppressed the Kurds at one time or another. In addition, they have been squeezed -- to death -- over the past 30 years between ruthless U.S. pursuit of its own regional interests, and the Baath government’s murderous intent to bend all of its people to submission one way or another.

The past 10 years had been a respite for the Kurds from the Iraqi regime’s oppression. The central government pulled out all government presence from much of the Kurdish area in 1991, leaving them to govern themselves -- which is what they had been asking for all along.

Only in 1991, the Kurds were left to deal with the devastation of nearly 30 years of war and purposeful government neglect. More than 4,000 villages and towns had been destroyed -- flattened by bombs and bulldozers during the Iran-Iraq war, the Anfal genocide campaign and the uprising. The communication, water, sanitation, transportation and electrical infrastructure were in tatters. Hundreds of thousands of land mines dotted the Turkish and Iranian borders and an equal number of people were homeless and displaced.

With help from NGO friends like Save the Children, 4-R’s, Christian Aid and the UN (via the food-for-oil program after 1996) and a bit of clever smuggling, Kurdistan has pulled itself up from the ashes. More than 2,500 villages have been rebuilt along with hundreds of schools. Two new universities and several training institutes have been established. Internet cafés line repaved urban streets, satellite dishes grace rooftops, and sewage runs, mostly, in underground pipes. Notorious Iraqi military bases and security headquarters have been plowed under and turned into city parks and museums.

Kurds today (along with minority groups of Assyrian Christians and Turkomans) enjoy freedoms unheard of in Iraq and most of the Middle East. There is near total freedom of the press and association. Scores of political parties from communist to Islamist are registered, operate freely, run radio and television stations, and publish hundreds of newspapers and journals.

The Kurds, along with their Assyrian and Turkoman compatriots, fear losing this safe haven in the aftermath of a new U.S.-sponsored war. But at the same time, they look forward to losing it.

They have pushed the limits of their tenuous "statelet" about as far as they can, and know it’s time to move on. But where they will end up is quite uncertain.

Their safe haven has been a fragile non-entity, neither internationally recognized nor legally described. They are neither part of the Iraqi nation nor independent from it. They have been both dependent on the outside world for their safe existence and yet are in constant threat from it as well. They have struggled to carve out a place in a diplomatic, economic and social limbo surrounded by powerful enemies -- Turkey, Iran and the Iraqi government -- who all wish them ill.

This uncertainty, the lack of control of their own security, their own future, has fueled emigration despite economic prosperity compared to the rest of Iraq and created a culture of dependency on UN and NGO handouts. There is little private investment, farmers have no market (save the local one) for their bountiful fields of wheat and sunflowers, and the Kurdish governments have had to tiptoe through the minefield of constant Turkish, Iranian and Iraqi efforts to destabilize their enclave.

The Kurdish entity was created by forces outside their control and could just as easily be taken back. While they have little appetite for more war, it is this limbo, this netherland of existence, the Kurds hope a U.S. "regime change" will alter.

But, like all the Iraqi people, the Kurds, who constitute more than 20 percent of the Iraqi population, know they are small fry in the grand designs of U.S. war planners and have no control over US actions. They can only wait and hope to leverage their possible assistance in an attack to get a decent place at the new Iraqi table. They are pushing for federalism in hopes they can both control their own territory and participate in building a new, democratic country that will respect their rights and the rights of other groups like the Turkoman and the Shiites, who have long been under the minority thumb of the Sunni Arab Tikriti clan.

"We want a democratic federal Iraq in which the Kurds can live as first class citizens and be full partners with other Iraqis in the government of Iraq," says Barham Salih, the head of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) government. "That is an important precondition for any possible scenarios ahead of us. We are not interested in changing one dictator for another one."

Waiting For the Imperialist Powers

Kaka Hama also waits for Mr. Bush from the soaring heights of his mountain stronghold, even as he laughs at the irony of it all. Born Muhammad Haji Mahmoud, he joined the peshmerga (Kurdish guerrilla fighters; literally, "those who face death") when he was 15. He says he has participated in 600 battles and has written and published a four-volume autobiography detailing just that.
Kaka Hama now heads the Kurdistan Socialist Democratic Party (KSDP), which is part of an alliance with the PUK and three other smaller parties that govern half of Kurdistan from the city of Suleimaniya.

The KSDP controls 10 villages and 85 square kilometers in the stunningly stark and beautiful Suren Mountains along the Iranian border near Halabja. The villages were bombed with chemical weapons and completely depopulated during the Iraqi government’s Anfal campaign in the late 1980s.

The villages have been rebuilt; the people have returned. A visit to Kaka Hama and his 2,000 peshmerga fighters requires a hot, dusty, spine-jarring trip up a dirt mountain road they built themselves and a suspension of time-space continuum. Armed with a Thuraya satellite phone and surrounded by young men in baggy Kurdish trousers shouldering AK-47s and rocket-propelled grenade launchers, Kaka Hama provides a tour of his new pride and joy: an FM and shortwave radio station-in-the-making from which he will broadcast news and commentary into Iraq proper. With promises of U.S. money via the Iraqi National Congress (INC), and lots of sweat from his peshmerga, an 11-room cement block administrative building is complete, and the studios are well under way.

The idea is to build a station that the Iraqi people could hear from, but that the Iraqi government could not hit. The area lies south of the official no-fly zone and the PUK feared putting Suleimaniya’s 1.5 million residents in harms way by provoking Saddam with a propaganda station. So Kaka Hama agreed to base it in the middle of his remote mountain territory.

Like most Kurds, Kaka Hama is comfortable discussing everything from U.S. strategic interests in the Middle East to Saad Eddin Ibrahim’s retrial in Egypt. I always wonder how people in such an isolated place stay so well informed. But today is special for Kaka Hama. It’s his anniversary of joining the peshmerga, (June 26, 1976), and he’s in the mood to talk about the struggle.

The Kurdish "September revolution" had been defeated in 1974 when the Iraqi government suddenly cut a deal with the Iranians for access to the Shatt Al Arab waterway. In exchange, Iran and its patron, the U.S., withdrew support of the Kurds, who they saw as a means to keep the communist-leaning Iraqi regime occupied. Iran closed the border, and the revolution collapsed. This later prompted the famous Kurdish leader, Mullah Mustafa Barzani, to write to U.S. President Jimmy Carter, saying, "We were not defeated by our enemies; we were destroyed by our friends."

A couple of years later, the then-new Kurdish party, the PUK, started the "new revolution" and Kaka Hama, age 15 or so, was in the first group of seven peshmerga to strike at the Iraqi military.

"The Kurds were pounded with chemical weapons, buried alive, Halabja, Anfal and all that, and nobody wanted to hear it," he says, discussing U.S. lack of interest in the Kurdish problem until recently. "Only when Iraq took Kuwait did they change their view and know what the Baath was all about. Thirty-three nations went against him [Saddam] and still they can’t do anything to him, so imagine what we went through? We were the first group of peshmerga; with seven people and five guns we took on Baghdad -- this big state that today everyone knows how powerful it is."

The Kurds have long realized they could not take on Baghdad by themselves, which is why they have sometimes allied themselves with larger, often dubious, powers, like the U.S., Iran or even Israel. Says one long-time Kurdish politician, "A beggar does not look to see who puts money in his cup."

Today, if the U.S. attacks, the Kurds could play a supporting role -- they have maybe 60,000 men under arms. But that role is limited. Kaka Hama says they don’t have the weaponry that will allow them to march into Baghdad. "For this, we are sitting here on this mountain waiting for the imperialist powers to rescue us!"

The socialist laughs uproariously at the irony, but sobers quickly. "For years we suffered torture, oppression and successive catastrophes. There has to be a change in the way the central government deals with its people. All we want is the Kurdish people to receive their rights within a united Iraq."

Waiting For a House

About the only people not waiting for Mr. Bush are those still suffering from the first Mr. Bush’s war. They are too busy struggling to survive to take much notice. A full 23 percent of the population of the Kurdish enclave is displaced.

More than a million Kurds were forced to flee when Saddam Hussein’s Republican Guards brutally put down the uprising following the Gulf war. They remember well that the elder Bush encouraged the Iraqi people to "take matters into their own hands" and then sat by and allowed Iraqi helicopter gun ships into the no-fly zones to crush the uprisings in the Shiite south and Kurdish north. Only after enormous international pressure, led mostly by the UK, did the U.S. agree to establish a "safe haven" so Kurds --and Turkoman and Assyrians -- could return from the freezing mountains of Iran and Turkey. The Shiites were just killed.

But thousands of Kurds were unable to return to the city of Kirkuk, which remained under central government control after a cease-fire line was established in 1991. Kirkuk has long been a predominately Kurdish city and is located unfortunately close to wealthy oil fields. Kirkuk and the many surrounding villages and towns have been subject, since the 1960s, to an ethnic cleansing campaign policy instituted by the Baath government to rid the area of Kurds and other suspect minority groups. As many as a million were forced out before the uprising, tens of thousands during the uprising, and as many as 200,000 since 1991. This campaign has increased lately and today officials in the area report as many as 30 people a day cross the demarcation line between Kurdistan and government-controlled Iraq.

Those forced out must leave their homes and businesses behind -- they are not allowed to sell property first -- and are replaced by Arab settlers, usually members of the Baath party, enticed with free houses, jobs, weapons and a bit of cash.

Sultana was one of those unable to return to Kirkuk after the uprising. She tells her tale in the sweltering heat of her small darkened room. An old neighbor woman spins wool into thread by hand as Sultana’s oldest daughter quietly prepares tea on a small gas burner, and children and neighbors crowd into the room and doorway to check out the visitors.

Sultana and her family fled to the Iranian mountains, leaving behind two houses in central Kirkuk. Seven months later they returned, but to Suleimaniya, a city halfway between Iran and Kirkuk, in the Kurdish-controlled area. They first "camped" in the hills outside Suleimaniya but then bought this room in a dormitory of an old Islamic Institute. She shares the small room with her husband and eight children, and shares the dormitory building with 67 other families who share four bathrooms.

"There was nothing," Sultana says of conditions when they first came to Suleimaniya. No jobs, no houses, no water and no fuel (the central government had cut off all heating oil from the Kurdish area). "It was so cold," she says.
It is better now, she says in the sweltering summer of 2002, especially after the oil-for-food program brought money into the city. They couldn’t afford to send their oldest daughter to school a few years ago, but the younger girls now go. Electricity was installed and the men found jobs. Her husband works in the Ministry of Agriculture. One son works in a bakery and the other in a coffee shop. With three working and no rent to pay, they are still short every month.
What does she need most? "We are waiting for a house," she says quietly.

Would she like go back to Kirkuk? "No, we cannot." Would she go back if Saddam were removed from power? Her eyes brighten. "Of course. Kirkuk is our homeland."

Maggy Zanger teaches journalism at the American University in Cairo, Egypt.


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