Letter From Northern Iraq: Wartime Friendships

Near the front lines, Iraq’s feuding opposition groups meet to plot the future.

By Jeffrey Goldberg

The New Yorker, April 14, 2003

The American invasion of Iraq is a happy occasion for the country’s five million Kurds, mainly because it foreshadows the removal of Saddam Hussein, who committed acts of genocide against them. But it is also welcomed because it has been accompanied by an invasion of foreign journalists-a rare sight in northern Iraq for more than a decade. For Kurdish leaders, the arrival of the world’s press means that they will finally receive attention in proportion to their numbers. It has annoyed the Kurds that the dispute between the Palestinians and the Israelis, a conflict that encompasses roughly eleven million people, is a preoccupation of the media, while the Kurds, who number about twenty-five million (most Kurds live in Turkey and Iran), receive only occasional notice, usually when they are being starved or gassed. Now the Kurds have stumbled on their main chance, and are pleased to be able to share with the world their wish for equality within a democratic Iraq.

One night last week, in Sulaimaniya, the cultural capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, I was speaking with Kaveh Golestan, an Iranian photographer, about the rootedness of the Kurds. Golestan, an elfin, erudite man, was on assignment as a cameraman for the BBC. He had had decades of experience in Kurdistan, and was among the first photographers to enter the city of Halabja after it had been chemically bombarded by Saddam’s forces, in 1988. He once described the scene to a reporter, saying, “It was life frozen. Life had stopped, like watching a film and suddenly it hangs on one frame. It was a new kind of death to me.”

Golestan was an enthusiastic reader of Kurdish history. He pointed out that the Kurds are believed to be the region’s original inhabitants, and were there when the Islamic conquest swept across Mesopotamia, in the seventh century. The people of Kurdistan are mostly Sunni Muslim, but pre-Islamic religions still survive, syncretistic practices are not uncommon, and, under the surface of intellectual life here, one finds resentment of the early Arab propagators of Islam. In large part, this is because the Kurds-even the Kurdish Islamists-look upon Arabs as oppressors. Last week, I was exploring a series of caves near the Iranian border which had until recently belonged to the radical Muslim group Ansar al-Islam. In one cave, amid the rubble and filthy bedding and rotting food, I found a book of poetry by an important Kurdish Islamist (and a founder of Ansar), Mullah Krekar. The book is called “The Pain of Survival”; a poem called “The Lessons of History” was translated for me. The poem attempts to justify the Islamic invasion of Kurdistan: “The Arabs who came, it is true they were armed, but they worshipped God, and Islam was their purpose.” Golestan suggested that we plan a visit to a group of dervishes outside Sulaimaniya, whose approach to Islam was not doctrinaire or extreme, but we postponed the trip because the war was intruding.

The war was present despite a notable absence of American tank columns (the Turks had denied the United States an invasion route from the north). But the Iraqis were in retreat from the line that separated Kurdistan from government-controlled territory; soldiers intent on deserting, as well as the occasional lost Iraqi regular, were wandering into Kurdish territory. I was with a group of peshmerga, Kurdish guerrillas, when we came upon two such Iraqis on the front line. They were bedraggled, weak, and terribly thirsty; I’ve never seen men drink so much water so quickly. The Kurds gave them bread, and directed them to a peshmerga outpost, where they could surrender. The soldiers soon walked off, filled with bread and with, it seemed to me, relief that they were still alive.

Near Mosul, in northwestern Iraq, American Special Forces soldiers and American bombers fought the retreating Iraqis, and on the outskirts of Kirkuk, which was still in government hands late last week, the Iraqi Army was shelling the line that it had just abandoned. The shelling was especially random and furious around the town of Kifri; on Wednesday, an Iraqi shell killed three Kurds, including a baby. By then, the other front in Kurdistan-between the Kurds and the Ansar al-Islam group-was mostly quiet. An offensive by a combined force of United States Special Forces and peshmerga had more or less erased the Ansar enclave around the village of Beyara, near Iran; the peshmerga claimed that they had killed about two hundred and fifty of the Ansar men, arrested others, and forced most of the remainder onto the snowy mountain peaks that separate Iraq from Iran. The Americans who advised the six-thousand-man peshmerga assault force-and who called in cruise-missile strikes on Ansar targets-made a point of telling the press that the Kurds covered themselves in glory. Their flattery pleased the Kurdish leadership, and, emboldened by their success, the Kurdish officials I spoke to looked ahead with anticipation to what they thought would be a decisive week. They were eager to help liberate Kirkuk, which the Kurds consider their Jerusalem-or, even better, to conquer the city of Tikrit, about a hundred miles from Baghdad, the birthplace of Saddam and a key to the defeat of the regime. One Kurdish official told me, “The Americans are seeing our value.”

On Wednesday, I visited the resort town of Dukan, which is situated on a deep lake created by the damming of the Lesser Zab River. The lake is ringed by mountains, which were carpeted with spring grass. The leaders of the two main Kurdish parties, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, or P.U.K., and the Kurdistan Democratic Party, or K.D.P., were meeting there, and it was said that various American generals, Shiite opposition figures, and leaders of the Iraqi National Congress-the umbrella opposition group-would be visiting as well.

The P.U.K. and the K.D.P. are indispensable members of the opposition. They are the only anti-Saddam groups to control territory inside Iraq (this part of northern Iraq has been free of Baghdad’s control since 1991), and together they command some seventy thousand soldiers. But the two groups have had hostile relations over a long period, and many of the men attending such meetings have spent much of the past thirty years trying to murder each other. For the sake of Kurdish unity (and to impress their American patrons), the groups have tried to submerge their differences, although few doubt that these differences will burst forth in a post-Saddam Iraq.

The leaders of the two parties met privately for most of the morning at P.U.K. offices in Dukan, then arrived for lunch at the Ashur Hotel. The hotel, an ugly, low-slung building, was designed so that its spartan rooms afforded views of the lake; it was mostly empty before the summit meeting, and the windows were taped in anticipation of attack. The water in the pool was clouded and flecked with garbage. The Kurds arrived in a convoy of forty-some vehicles-late-model S.U.V.s, and pickup trucks carrying anti-aircraft weapons. About twenty of the senior Kurdish leadership emerged from the convoy, surrounded by what appeared to be a limitless number of bodyguards and gunmen. The K.D.P. men were easy to identify, since they wore tightly wrapped red-and-white headdresses. The men of the P.U.K, which originated as an urban alternative to the more tribal K.D.P., were dressed in business suits, and their guards were wearing baggy pants and vests.

The Kurds invited a few of the waiting journalists-including C. J. Chivers, of the New York Times, and Jeffrey Fleishman, of the Los Angeles Times-to join them for a meal by the pool. The Kurds do not stand on ceremony, and I was placed at the head of the table (it sat twenty-two), next to Massoud Barzani, the leader of the K.D.P., and Jalal Talabani, the chief of the P.U.K. They are particularly dissimilar men. Talabani is rotund and garrulous, a kind of Zorba the Kurd, who believes that there is no inappropriate time to crack jokes or to eat large quantities of barbecued meat. Barzani, who is the son of the legendary Kurdish mountain fighter Mustafa Barzani, is, despite his pedigree, a retiring man, small-boned, almost delicate, and difficult to draw into conversation. But he was nearly ebullient at lunch. He said that he was pleased, over all, with the war’s progress. When Fleishman and I mentioned that some commentators were comparing America’s experience in Iraq to its experience in Vietnam, he said, “It’s completely different. In Vietnam, you were supporting the dictatorship against the people. Here you’re supporting the people against the dictator.” He continued, “This is a very good time for us.” At one point, he motioned upward, where the faint contrails of B-52 bombers could be seen against the blue sky. “We like to have the presence of Americans here,” he said, patting my hand.

Waiters brought dishes that contained, among other things, two roasted turkeys and a lamb, its head still attached. Barzani took a small amount of rice onto his plate; Talabani placed a napkin over his tie, reached over to the turkey, and pulled away a large chunk of meat. Gunmen, many of them in shiny suits and carrying MP-5 submachine guns, surrounded us as we ate.

I asked Barzani, who wore dark glasses against the fierce sun, why the Americans were wary of urging the Kurds in Kirkuk and the Shiites in the south to rise up, as they did in 1991. “It’s a mistake,” he said. “The people are ready to help. But we don’t know everything about their tactics yet.”

I looked down the table, to Nawshirwan Mustafa Amin, a writer and one of the founders of the P.U.K. It has been said that Amin is a man who could ignite Kirkuk with a single telephone call. In 1991, Amin was the P.U.K. official who directed the group’s underground network in Sulaimaniya, and, within days of Saddam’s retreat from Kuwait, his spies and rebels had seized cities across Kurdistan. I had spoken to him a few days before, and he had said that he was discouraged that the Americans had not openly called for revolt. He went on, “Perhaps it is because they want to control the aftermath of the war without owing any group favors. But this is not a good strategy.”

At the Ashur Hotel, I asked Talabani, who had moved on to the kabob course, if specific plans to encourage a revolt would emerge from the day’s meetings. “I should tell you?” he asked. A waiter approached and, in his eagerness to please, spilled water on the fastidious Barzani. The waiter was mortified, but Barzani dismissed him gently. “I bet he’s glad you’re not Saddam,” I said. Barzani, uncharacteristically talkative, told a story: “You know, one day Saddam had all his ministers in for a meeting, and the Justice Minister made the mistake of looking at his watch. Saddam saw this and he said, ‘Do you have someplace you would rather be?’ At the end of this meeting, he forced the Justice Minister to sit in the same chair for twenty-four hours.”

The lunch broke up, and the two Kurdish leaders moved to a conference room. The reporters waited outside. Suddenly, a group of angry-looking men-some in American camouflage, others wearing khaki pants and leg holsters, in the Special Forces manner-rushed upstairs. The men, however, were Iraqis, and in the scrum of guards we could see the imperial figure of Ahmad Chalabi, the leader of the Iraqi National Congress. Chalabi, a former banker with a controversial past, is the choice of some in the Pentagon to lead a post-Saddam Iraq. He is not much liked in State Department or C.I.A. circles (which have traditionally been opposed to removing Saddam), and, perhaps more surprisingly, among the Kurdish groups who are constituent members of the I.N.C. Kurdish officials mistrust Chalabi, a Shiite, and hope that his stock will diminish. But the Kurds’ strategic decision to subsume their desires to the American war effort leaves open doors-and possibilities.

A Kurdish official, watching the spectacle of Chalabi’s entrance, made sure I understood that the I.N.C. leader had not been invited to the lunch. I asked him if he thought Chalabi had a future in the post-Saddam Iraq. “Never count out Ahmad,” this official said, wearily. Chalabi has been cryptic about his plans, but earlier in the week he told me, adamantly, that Iraqis, and not Americans, will run postwar Iraq. Of the role that he and the I.N.C. will play in Iraq, he said, “We’ll be in Baghdad.” (At the end of last week, reports were circulating in Washington that gave Chalabi a role in the interim government to be set up shortly in American-controlled southern Iraq.)

The lobby outside the Ashur Hotel’s conference room was now filled with gunslingers, many of them armed with Kalashnikovs and sniper rifles, stone-faced veterans of violent, covert episodes. They were all drinking tea, using dainty spoons to stir in sugar. They soon had more visitors: the men who guard Abdulaziz al-Hakim, an important figure in the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, or sciri. Hakim-he is the brother of Ayatollah Muhammad Bakr al-Hakim, the exiled head of sciri-is a leader of the Shiite resistance; he swept in to the hotel wearing the robes of a mullah and an expression of beatific calm. His bodyguards, who are thought to have been trained by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, were bearded and tieless. The Kurdish peshmerga eyed them mistrustfully.

While the purpose of the morning meeting was to solidify a united front of Kurdish military forces under American command, I later learned that the afternoon was devoted to persuading these Shiites to join this newly unified opposition, even though it meant a temporary alliance with the Americans. (Although the Shiites are Iraqi, they were opposed to the war, and were resisting the idea of an alliance.) Nawshirwan Mustafa Amin, the Kurdish guerrilla leader, later told me how he had tried to convince the Shiites. “In 1919, we Kurds made a mistake,” he said. “The British Army came to Kurdistan, and we fought them until 1931. The Shiites in the south also had a war with the British. At the same time, the Arabs-the Sunni Arabs in the middle of the country-became powerful in the central government. So we told the Shiites, ‘Don’t make the same mistake twice. Don’t leave yourself out. You should participate in the reshaping of the Iraqi state.’ ” The Shiites told the Kurds that they would consider the message. (Baghdad had apparently received the message as well. A few hours after the meeting, a purported spokesman for Saddam warned Talabani not to side with the Americans, declaring, “I am bound by principle, morality, and the constitution to warn you of the danger of this game.”)

The meeting broke up at 5 p.m. Chalabi said nothing to the reporters still at the hotel, but one of his deputies, Madhur Shawkat, said, “The coming days should bring pleasant news from the south.” Talabani was more straightforward, although not specific. “You will see a united opposition operating on behalf of the Iraqi people,” he said.

One of Talabani’s aides, assiduous about keeping the press safe and content, asked me if I needed a ride back to Sulaimaniya. Talabani himself had stepped away for a moment. He stood at the edge of the pool, speaking on his satellite phone. He appeared to be in distress. “No,” he said. “No. I told them not to go there.” He ended the call, and told us that Kaveh Golestan, a friend of the Kurds, had been killed by a land mine at Kifri. He was fifty-two years old.