Iraqi Kurds Brace For War

Sulimaniyah, Iraqi Kurdistan. --The lights of the city sparkled in the hard night of cold winter, thankfully signaling the end of a long journey. This was my third trip in two years and as I approached the city I have become so fond of, I thought back to the first time I arrived in the sweat of a searing summer in 2001, new to the ways of Kurdish culture and its tortured history.

Back then, the Kurds were plugging away like Sisyphus with his rock, pushing upward--against all odds--with their vision of a society that respects human rights, values the rule of law, and simply takes care of its people. Under the protection of U.S. and British warplanes since 1991, the Kurds were governing themselves for the first time in their history. With no experience in democratic processes, they were intent on carving out a little piece of freedom in a part of the world hostile to them as a large independent-minded ethnic minority, and hostile to anything that might expose the regional lie that a police state is the only viable government in a militarized Middle East.

Today, the rock seems to have reached inertia and threatens to roll back over them and down the mountain to an uncertain destiny.

Powerful players plan war in Iraq for their own strategic interests but the purported goal of a U.S. war against Iraq also intersects with the goal of the Iraqi people: to get rid of Saddam Hussein. Few Iraqis would argue against the need, indeed the desperate desire, for regime change.

But a war to force that change can, in a few weeks, sweep away all the Kurds have managed to achieve in the past decade. They can only hope it will make their current isolated enclave superfluous and move them forward to take their rightful place in a new Iraq that includes equal rights for all of its people: Sunni and Shiite Arabs, Kurds, Turkoman and Assyrian Christians.

"War is horrible. No one wants war," says one Kurdish minister. "But still, it is better than the domination of this regime." And Kurds would know on both accounts. They have been at war with the Ba'th regime for more than 30 years.

War Jitters
On the surface, all seems the same in Sulimaniyah, a city I appreciate for both its fierce nationalism and its love of music, poetry and a general good time. On a sunny day after Friday prayers, the streets fill with people shopping, visiting neighbors, dining in local kebab shops, or enjoying fresh-squeezed fruit juice. Internet cafes are packed, as is McDonalds, whose uniformed workers serve up pizza, burgers and Pepsi under golden arches.

Groups of teenage girls in platform shoes and blue jeans walk hand-in-hand, their long thick hair pulled back neatly in barrettes. Groups of older women carry bundles of food from the bazaar on their heads, their long black capes flowing behind them to reveal colorful house dresses underneath. Farmers and their families from nearby villages wait at the bus stop on Salim Street for the small blue and white buses to move them about the sprawling city of 800,000 people.

But beneath the facade of normalcy lurks the palpable sense that war is near to hand and generates excited optimism as much as fear by both locals and the scruffy pack of more than 75 international journalists who have filtered in like vultures with confident knowledge that a feeding fest is near. Last June, I ran into two reporters in four weeks. Mobile phones buzz as government officials scramble to facilitate interview requests, drivers find they have wheels of gold, and anyone who speaks any English is suddenly a richly paid translator.

But most Kurds have few opportunities to cash in on the war and can only sit and wait to see what happens. Sultana, whose 10-member family has lived in a single room in an abandoned dormitory since the last war, is looking forward to the next one. Her family abandoned two houses and a business and fled Kirkuk when Iraqi troops brutally retook the city after the uprising failed in 1991. After months on the Iranian border, they came to Sulimaniyah because Kirkuk remained under Iraqi government control, and as Kurds they were banned from return.

I first met her last summer when I visited the dormitory filled with internally displaced families and wanted to give her a copy of a story I had written that included her photo. We settle on the floor of her bare but spotlessly clean room. After inquiries into her family, talk turns to war.

"Saddam is a Kafir (infidel)," she says. "We will never be safe with him. If there is war, we can go home"

But Sultana is afraid that the death throes of the Iraqi regime will cough up one last spasm of violence against the Kurds. I ask what she would do. "My husband and I decided. We will stay right here. If we survive, fine. If we die, it's better than fleeing again."

Sultana and others stockpile as many bags of rice and flour and jerry cans of fuel oil as they can afford; others hoard dinars, the local currency; and still others try to construct gas-proof rooms in their homes. Victims of scores of chemical attacks during the notorious Anfal genocide campaign against them in the late 1980s, the Kurds share a deep-seated fear of another round. Despite George W. Bush's speechifying about liberating the Iraqi people from a chemical-wielding dictator, the only people in the region the U.S. hasn't outfitted with gas masks are the ones who have actually experienced chemical attacks.

Residents with more resources are busy making plans to flee to their old villages in the mountains or have rented rooms in northern cities near the Iranian border.

Kurdish government offices, in conjunction with international NGOs, scramble to prepare camps for Kurds who will run for mountain heights, and for people who will flee U.S. bombing south of the Kurdish area. The irony of Kurds preparing to assist Arabs from central Iraq is overpowering, and belies the oft-repeated wisdom of the pundits that there will be massive ethnic strife in the aftermath of war.

The plethora of United Nations organizations that implement the food-for-oil program in northern Iraq has refused to cooperate with this effort to respond to a humanitarian crisis, and in fact seem to have abandoned ship and have began to evacuate "non-essential" and some "essential" personnel from their bloated ranks of foreign employees.

Supporters of Islam

Even as northern Iraq braces for a U.S. attack, the buzz here is that this will be preceded by an massive attack on a local threat that has blown into an international one.

Sulimaniyah residents and international journalists alike watched U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell's recent UN speech on CNN via satellite. His targeting al Ansar al-Islam (Supporters of Islam) as the crucial link between al-Qa'ida and the Iraqi government was of particular interest. Ansar's camp lies perhaps 50 miles from Suilmaniyah in the rugged mountains near Halabja, bordering Iran.

The city's residents are all too familiar with al Ansar al-Islam. Over the past year they have attended dozens of funerals of their fathers, sons and brothers who have been killed in skirmishes with the Islamic group. Many of those fathers, sons and brothers had their throats slit and bodies mutilated, a brutality that has never been a characteristic of Kurdish fighters but is a common characteristic of radical Islamic groups around the world. Ansar prisoners detained by the PUK claim there are many Afghan Arabs and some al-Qa'ida operatives in the camp, and one prisoner claims to be a Iraqi government agent sent to infiltrate.

A nervous pack of journalists were invited to Ansar's mountain hideout, for the first time, to see for themselves that the building Powell showed in the fuzzy green satellite image was not a "poisons" factory but rather, a media center. It has been evacuated, Ansar officials say, because they fear a U.S. attack since the speech. The fact that the media center was surrounded by barbed wire and warning signs with the skull-and-crossbones left journalists nearly as unsure of Ansar's claims as they were of Powell's. What they are sure of is that the Ansar fighters are a damn scary bunch of men.

The day after the journalist junket, a PUK military leader was assassinated by Ansar as he sat in a house negotiating with them. The woman of the house and her children were also gunned down as were several bodyguards. In all, six people were killed and seven injured. Once more, Sulimaniyans trudged to funerals.

While the war chatter of U.S. and UK officials swells with claims of imminent al-Qa'ida attacks in the West and presentations of intelligence on their connections to Iraq, the people of northern Iraq wait to see if the Sisyphus rock will run them over or lead them to a future free of genocide, clouds of chemicals and too-frequent funerals.

What they know for certain at this point is that they stand on the precipice of historic change.

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

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