Report from Iraq: Another City Facing Siege
CHIMAN, northern Iraq -- Mohammed Nuri was 7 years old when Saddam Hussein drove his family out of Leylan, a town near the oil-rich city of Kirkuk in northern Iraq. Fifteen years later, Nuri says he is going home soon. Iraqi forces abandoned their positions and retreated more than 10 miles, nearly to Kirkuk itself, late last week following days of heavy coalition air strikes. It was the first such movement along the northern front.
A monument to Saddam Hussein was shot up, bulldozed and stoned to dust after Kurdish forces moved into lands abandoned by the Iraqi army near Kirkuk.
When the road opened the next day, Nuri and other Kurdish youth gathered in an abandoned military camp around a 20-foot high concrete monument to Saddam Hussein. Bullet holes already pocked the painted tile portrayal of a leering Saddam, which was later bulldozed to rubble. Still not satisfied, the young men picked up pieces of concrete and continued bashing the likeness of their former leader, and ended by stomping on the powdered remnants of his face.
"It's like a party here," Nuri said. "We hate him, so now we are happy. There is no more Saddam Hussein, no more Arabization."
Displaced by Saddam
The scene at the monument sounds like propaganda from the American war planners, but the Kurds have many reasons to hate the Iraqi leader. The Nuris and thousands of other Kurds were displaced by Hussein's campaign to solidify Arab control of lands surrounding Kirkuk, which was predominantly a Kurdish and Turcoman city containing Iraq's second largest oil deposits. The Kurdish-held territory now extends all the way to Chiman and beyond, where Kirkuk and smoking oil fields can be viewed in the distance.
The Iraqi forces left behind an array of items signaling a hasty retreat. The Kurdish forces had moved cautiously into the area, fearing a trap. But aside from more than 100 landmines and two dirt berms, the road from the former frontline city of Chamchamal toward Kirkuk was left undefended. Army helmets, ammunition, a blanket, and freshly dug dirt bunkers were abandoned.
Two commanders and one soldier defected, but the bodies of seven other Iraqi fighters executed by their own army were found in the bunkers pummeled by American air strikes. Their remains were brought to the Chamchamal mosque on the holy day of Friday for ceremonial washing before burial.
Military documents, gas masks, bloody bandages and used IVs were some of the other items left behind in the barren military hospital at Qarahanjir. The base, smelling of iodine and acrid smoke, was used by the 8th Battalion from Mathanab, in southern Iraq.
Common wisdom had it that this would be an easy war, and indeed, the Iraqi soldiers fell back to Kirkuk without a struggle. But what they left behind suggests that this war is only getting started, and it will be neither short nor simple.
Kurdish pesh merga soldiers say the American-led coalition can still expect a fierce fight for Kirkuk, but the Iraqi regime's sudden retreat from territory it controlled farther afield signals a change in strategy.
"The bombing was very heavy, and it wasn't expected that they could fight [along those positions]. There weren't any civilians to hide behind," said Adnan Mufti, a member of the Kurdish politburo that governs the east of semi-autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan. "They are changing their plan -- they will defend themselves inside Kirkuk."
A tour through Qarahanjir indicates that the cultish Ba'athist ideology, with its violent loyalty to Hussein as father-leader, is as formidable a weapon as tanks or artillery fire. Posters of the Iraqi leader with the words, "Yes, yes, yes to the leadership of Saddam Hussein," were still taped to the walls, albeit slashed with knives by the incoming Kurdish soldiers. Hand-painted slogans on the walls read, "Yes to Saddam, death to America and the Zionists," and "The sweat of training is like the blood of battle."
Kurdish boys from the neighboring city of Chamchamal scavenge for scrap metal and ammunition in the ruins of Iraqi bunkers pulverized by American air strikes last week.
A poster painted in watercolors depicted the Ba'athist and Iraqi colors with a picture of an Islamist icon with sword raised. Khalid Ibn al-Walid fought against defectors from the Prophet Mohammed's forces after Mohammed, the founder of Islam, died. "Prepare your utmost to fight against the enemy," the poster read, quoting the Quran. It was a reminder that even if Saddam Hussein was killed, the decades of Ba'athist indoctrination he engineered will live on.
"They will cry for Saddam Hussein when he is gone, just as any abused child cries for his father," as one Turkish human rights worker put it to this reporter recently.
No Tears For Saddam
At least four million Iraqis -- the Kurds living under semi-autonomy from Baghdad -- won't be crying over Saddam Hussein's departure, unless its tears of joy. But the Iraqi administration continues to dish out lies and obfuscation to the Iraqis still living under their control. The Iraqi Minister of Information denied the reports of an Iraqi retreat near Chamchamal, and said the Kurds supported Saddam Hussein. That sent Kurds in the northern Iraqi cities of Arbil and Suleimaniya -- centers of the Iraqi opposition for 30 years -- into hysterical laughter.
Curious Kurdish soldiers streamed toward the new front by any means available -- in taxis, on motorbikes, in military jeeps and standard pickups, even by foot. But there were no sign of American soldiers at first and no apparent Kurdish march toward Kirkuk. The Iraqis had fled unprompted, to the astonishment of the Chamchamal residents they had terrorized for years by shelling across the frontlines.
The Kurdish military forces could have rushed toward Kirkuk, but they appear to be honoring their promises forged under a newfound partnership with America. A Kurdish-American alliance of sorts emerged in the wake of Turkey's reluctance to join the war coalition, or to allow America to launch an attack from its lands.
Not long ago the Kurds were begging for recognition from America, but now President Bush's special envoy for the Iraqi opposition, Zalmay Khalilzad, is giving statements in the northern Iraqi city of Suleimaniya saying the Kurdish forces "could be the second largest contributor to the coalition." The statement was accompanied by assurances from Patriotic Union of Kurdistan leader Jalal Talabani that the Kurds would work under America's command and would not seize Kirkuk. "We don't want to make any trouble for our American friends or our Turkish brothers," Talabani said.
The Kurdish forces seem prepared to hang back instead of jockeying with Turkey and America for Kirkuk. But the retreat to Kirkuk was considered a victory for Kurds. "They have been attacking and killing us for 30 years," said legendary Kurdish commander Mam "Uncle" Rostan. "We wish that for this the Iraqi regime had gotten it even worse."
The concrete monument to Saddam Hussein is a pile of rubble, his military training camp abandoned. But at sunset on Friday Iraqi forces sent four 120mm artillery rounds whizzing into the Banimakan ridge, where they exploded harmlessly along the former frontline. The next day, another round landed within 60 feet of journalists assembled on the hill overlooking Kirkuk.
It was a reminder that while the Iraqi leader has retreated toward Kirkuk, he should not yet be forgotten.
Gretel C. Kovach is a freelance writer based in Cairo. She reports from Iraq for AlterNet and Pacific News Service.