Dancing in Kurdistan
The National Guard’s Strange Occupation of Northern Iraq
“They love us here,” Sgt. 1st Class Jose Alvarez Jr., 34, says. He smiles and waves at a truck full of pretty Kurdish girls in traditional dresses.
And why wouldn’t they—especially today, March 22, aka Newroz, the Kurdish new year, a celebration of the day more than 1,500 years ago when, they say, a Kurdish blacksmith defeated a tyrant whose shoulders sprouted Satanic baby-eating snakes.
Until liberation in 2003, Kurds in Saddam Hussein’s territory were prohibited from celebrating any national holidays. Now they’re making up for lost time—and they have soldiers like these 148th troopers to thank for it.
Elsewhere in Iraq, in cities like Baghdad, Baqubah, and Mosul, the armed insurgency against U.S. and Iraqi forces continues to claim scores of lives. But this is the other Iraq, the area in and around autonomous Kurdistan, where for more than a decade after the Gulf War, U.S. and British fighter jets kept Iraqi forces at bay so that the Kurds could live in relative peace and prosperity. Here, Americans have done right. Here, even Staff Sgt. John Murdoch, a 35-year-old math teacher, is a hero.
“As far as deployments go, this is a pretty good one,” Murdoch says. Atop the mountain, at a hilly, flower-sprinkled resort teeming with happy Kurds in traditional baggy suits and sequin dresses, Murdoch attempts a traditional Kurdish dance (left foot, right foot, shake your shoulders), jokes with teenagers who marvel at his 6-foot-plus height, and holds babies while their parents snap photos.
More often than not, the babies cry. Murdoch grimaces: “I’m a big scary American with a gun.”
He’s right on several levels. While the 148th takes pains to assume a passive stance in the company of its Kurdish allies, it’s still the U.S. Army, it’s still armed to the gills, and it’s still ready to kill. In fact, the 116th Regiment—the 148th’s parent unit—is one of the most fearsome units in the National Guard. Equipped with tanks and other armored vehicles and trained to a higher standard than most Guard units, the 116th is perfectly capable of backing up the implicit threat its presence represents.
But right now, the unit’s mission is a peaceful one.
Later, watching Murdoch amble down a hill holding hands with a little boy, one 148th soldier shakes his head. “That Murdoch loves kids.”
Of course he does—he’s got five back home, the latest, a boy, born just last month. Murdoch seems an unlikely soldier: a lumbering, smiling softie who joined the National Guard as a junior in high school, when he was just 17. This is his first deployment.
Murdoch and his fellow soldiers almost can’t believe their luck. They spend most days training the nascent Iraqi Army. Between training, they play ambassador to an adoring nation. They tour the countryside with Kurdish colonels and generals, eat kebabs in restaurants where the patrons smile and wave, and even visit a carnival built atop a former Iraqi Army outpost to shake hands and sip smoothies.
It may seem like a walk in the park—and sometimes it literally is—but there’s a serious military purpose here. After a decade of autonomy within Iraq’s borders, Kurdistan is strong and self-reliant, with its own armies, courts, and national assembly. And it’s only getting stronger. Kurds living abroad have begun to return home to set up new businesses. Construction is booming. Families forcibly evicted by Saddam’s armies are reclaiming their property. And Kurds in Kirkuk, which lies just outside Kurdistan’s de facto borders and commands 40 percent of Iraq’s oil, are demanding a greater share of oil revenues and more political power.
The Kurds are rising. And the Guard is here to make sure they rise only so far.
Buffer is a strange role for the 148th. Most soldiers here say they like the Kurds as much as the Kurds like them. At Camp Stone, in stark contrast to most bases in Iraq, there’s a real sense of kinship between occupiers and occupied. Many soldiers are learning Kurdish from the translators who live and work alongside them at this tiny outpost sandwiched between a foul-smelling chicken farm and the national headquarters of the peshmerga, Kurdistan’s fierce green-suited militia. Over omelets whipped up one morning by an Army cook in a brown T-shirt, 24-year-old medic Spc. Sean Peine recited the handful of phrases he’s learned from K.G., a U.S. Defense Department translator in his mid-20s:
“Choni bashi? How are you?
“Zor bash. Very good.”
Strolling around the rolling green slopes at the hilltop resort during Newroz, Peine talks about the dental missions he leads into isolated villages in these mountains. Despite Kurdistan’s relative prosperity, there are plenty of places with no dentists and lots of health problems. He says it breaks his heart to see these people suffer.
The 148th’s Newroz celebrations are hosted by Iraqi Army Brig. Gen. Anwar Dolani, 47, an enormous bear of a man wearing a brown suit and clutching a bottle of Scotch in one hand and a cigarette in the other. He presses Peine and the other Americans into plastic seats and barks at his men to bring soft drinks, kebabs, and chai. Then he sits, drinks, smokes, and watches his liberators stuff themselves with rich native food.
Over the next couple of days, almost every one of Dolani’s American guests gets severe indigestion, as they knew they would. But you can’t say no to Dolani.
Fourteen years ago, Dolani was a renown peshmerga officer. In 1991, when the old Iraqi Army moved to crush Kurdish resistance in these mountains, Dolani and one of his lieutenants, Ahkmed Mohamed Kamal—now a colonel under Dolani in the new Iraqi Army—were there to stop them. On a mountain road near where the Newroz celebrations take place, the rusting hulk of a destroyed Iraqi tank marks the spot where Dolani and Kamal’s soldiers stopped the Iraqis cold. It was a heady moment in the decades-long Kurdish resistance, and sweet revenge for a defining atrocity that occurred only three years earlier.
On March 16, 1988, Iraqi fighter jets swooped low over the Kurdish town of Halabja, a pesh stronghold, dropping napalm and canisters of mustard gas. Thousands died instantly. Thousands more clawed their way to rivers and streams seeking relief from the burning only to die in the water. Kamal and his troops cautiously approached the town. When they sensed the gas, they turned and fled back into the mountains that had protected them for so many years.
The Halabja attack brought the conflict between Kurds and Saddam’s Ba’ath Party loyalists to a bloody head. In 2003, after the fall of Baghdad and the final liberation of Kurdistan, survivors of the Halabja attack built a memorial in the ruined town: a black wall inscribed with the names of all 5,000 victims. Outside, there’s a cemetery with rows of identical headstones under a sign that reads, “It’s not allowed for Ba’aths to enter.”
Col. Kamal, K.G. the interpreter, and this reporter stand among the headstones—Kamal alone with his thoughts, K.G. recalling when his family fled Kurdistan ahead of Hussein’s army.
It was the spring of 1991. Hussein’s defeat in Kuwait at the hands of the U.S.-led coalition had inspired both Shi’ahs in southern Iraq and Kurds in the north to revolt. The Iraqi army, battered though it was by Operation Desert Storm, swiftly crushed the Shi’ite revolt. But in mountainous Kurdistan—the area around Sulaymaniyah and north of the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, where half of Iraq’s estimated 4 million Kurds live—peshmerga guerrillas hardened by decades of insurgency stopped Hussein’s soldiers dead in their tracks.
But Kurdish victory came too late for K.G. and his family. K.G.’s father was a well-known pesh leader in an area crawling with Iraqi agents. Their village ravaged and his cover blown, the family fled north into Turkey in a column of refugees. K.G. recalls stealing bread from the houses of dead families and drinking from puddles swimming with frogs. Eventually, they reached the relative safety of Turkey. But in 1997, a brief civil war between Kurdish factions in Turkey claimed the life of K.G.’s father and put the family in flight again—this time to America, which since 1991 had become a sort of big brother to young Kurdistan. After the pesh victory, the U.S. Air Force flew daily air patrols over northern Iraq and airdropped food supplies to starving Kurdish villages.
Now, years later, Kurdistan is all grown up—and K.G. is, too. And like his father and grandfather before him, he’s a soldier in the Kurdish army. Sort of.
Actually, K.G. is working for the U.S. Army in Sulaymaniyah. But he carries a weapon, wears a uniform, speaks Kurdish most of the time, and is still technically an Iraqi national. And in order to protect himself from insurgents, he identifies himself only as “K.G.”—a practice entirely consistent with that of other Kurds, who typically use only one name.
K.G. says that he’s a Kurd and an American—and that he’s equally proud of both. In a land whose fortunes are irrevocably tied to those of the United States, K.G. is a living, breathing symbol of an unusual and, at times, uneasy alliance—one currently presided over by a bunch of young men from Idaho.
There are only about 70 soldiers of the 148th here at Camp Stone. Nestled inside a U.S. compound that itself is nestled inside a peshmerga compound, they’re pretty far from any other American unit—so far, in fact, that they get all their supplies from twice-weekly convoys from Kirkuk. And, in stark contrast to most U.S. soldiers, who eat in massive dining facilities managed by Halliburton subsidiary KBR, the troops at Stone have a kitchen and a cook. All three meals are served piping hot from metal pots. A typical breakfast includes sausage, cheese omelets, and thick, hearty grits. And there’s always milk, juice, soft drinks, and all the hot chai—sweet, syrupy Arab tea—that a caffeine addict could want.
Life at Stone’s pretty comfy. Besides hot, fresh meals, there’s internet access, hot running water for showers, and an atmosphere that can be described as “permissive.” No mortar attacks. No snipers taking potshots at passing helmets. No suicide bombers at the front gate. The biggest threat at Stone is the pungent chicken farm down the road.
But the camp’s peacefulness belies the violent history of this rugged region. Before the fall of Hussein’s regime in 2003, Kurds in this area had been in nearly continuous revolt against one government or another since the turn of the century. Reminders of recent conflict are rusting all over the countryside: Besides the derelict and destroyed tanks, expended shell casings litter the ground and red markers warn of minefields.
On Kurdish maps, the limit of Hussein’s former reach into northern Iraq is marked in green with a wobbly line running east to west just north of Kirkuk. The Green Line, they call it. Everything north of the line is Kurdistan. But officially, there is no Kurdistan—except to Kurds. And while it has its own army, police, courts, and even national assembly, Kurdistan is not recognized by any other state in any official capacity.
All of autonomous Kurdistan is contained within the borders of Iraq, and these days Iraq’s territorial integrity is a main priority of the U.S. government. Meanwhile, Kurdish regions in neighboring Iran and Turkey are anything but autonomous—oppressed is more like it—and while some Kurds dream of a pan-state Kurdistan that would unite all Kurds under one government, that’s unlikely as long as both Iran and Turkey have all those tanks and helicopters, and as long as the U.S. has any say. Only in Iraq, only in the unique conditions created by U.S. intervention in the region, could there be any Kurdistan at all, official or otherwise. The U.S. Air Force and British Royal Air Force maintained round-the-clock jet fighter patrols over northern Iraq from 1992 to 2003, keeping Saddam’s aircraft on the ground and hamstringing his forces enough to enable the lightly equipped pesh fighters to best the Iraqi army.
The pesh are the key to Kurdish autonomy and, inasmuch as Kurdistan has prospered, the key to its success—a fact not lost on the U.S. Army. There are very few U.S. forces deployed north of the Green Line, and those that are carry unloaded weapons and defer to Kurdish commanders.
There’s a healthy respect for the pesh among American soldiers here. But it’s a respect tempered by the danger the pesh pose to long-term U.S. intentions in Iraq. For America wants a stable, peaceful Iraq, a country where rival ethnic groups bury their differences and where the oil flows freely. But Kurds want at least their autonomy—many say their independence—and in the short term that would mean breaking Iraq into pieces and shuffling around its ethnic populations, a process that would be anything but peaceful. As for oil, 40 percent of Iraq’s reserves, 5 percent of the world’s, lie beneath Kirkuk, a city of almost a million people just south of the Green Line. But despite pumping nearly a million barrels of oil per day, Kirkuk suffers a gasoline shortage and still has neighborhoods that are “below Third World,” says Brig. Gen. Alan Gayhart, 55, commander of the 116th.
Since the Shi’ah-dominated Iraqi government in Baghdad has a monopoly on the state’s oil production and is using oil revenue to fund reconstruction, “nothing comes back into Kirkuk,” 116th Maj. Darren Blagburn, 36, says.
All that would change if Kurds had their way.
Kirkuk’s population is evenly split between Shi’ahs, Arab Sunnis, and Kurds, but the city is surrounded by areas that are almost entirely Kurdish, and many Kurds eye it as the heart of a future independent Kurdistan. “The PUK’s goal is to bring Kirkuk into Kurdistan as the capital,” Blagburn says.
The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), the major Kurdish group in the area, was led by Jalal Talabani, a former pesh and a friend of K.G.’s late grandfather, until Talabani took the reins of a coalition Kurdish party that won 75 of the new Iraqi National Assembly’s 275 seats. That’s more than 20 percent of the seats representing only 15 percent of Iraq’s population of 25 million. Now Talabani has been tapped as the country’s first president, and Kurds everywhere are talking about capitalizing on their growing political power to move the Green Line south past Kirkuk.
But any Kurd attempt at taking Kirkuk from Iraq could instigate large-scale violence due to what Blagburn calls the city’s “competing social demographics.”
“In order to keep a unified, peaceful Iraq,” Blagburn adds, “Talabani must keep the Kurds back.”
Gayhart’s assessment is more colorful: “A political science major would go nuts here.”
There are probably more than a few American political science majors in the area. Seemingly every other field is represented. Back home, these soldiers are cops, teachers, students, and construction workers. Here, Gayhart says, they put their civilian skills to work: “My soldiers are good as trainers. They work with the Iraqi police. They work with local bakers and farmers. My soldiers who are lawyers work with local judges.”
But never underestimate the utility of good old-fashioned military discipline. If anyone here seems conscious of the serious role underlying all the fun the 148th is having, it’s Sgt. Alvarez. He’s the point man on these little jaunts to the countryside or to the carnival, and he approaches each mission with the same seriousness he would any armed raid on an enemy stronghold.
“Fucking turn your fucking radio fucking on!” Alvarez yells out the window of the truck he’s driving at a soldier in another vehicle who hasn’t been responding to his repeated pleas.
No wonder Alvarez sits at Dolani’s right hand at the Newroz celebration. The two men have a lot in common: the young warrior and the old warrior.
Old pesh are a rare breed, because most of them are dead. For over 100 years, they’ve fought for Kurdish independence, first on horseback with sabers and breech-loading rifles, later with AK-47s and Soviet-built tanks captured from the Iraqi army. But even with tanks, they were always hopelessly outgunned by their enemies. The pesh relied on stealth, darkness, and a little savagery to gain the upper hand during the bloody 1980s and early ’90s. K.G. remembers when pesh would slip into towns at night, gun down collaborators in their homes or in the streets, and then slip away. That yesterday’s pesh used the same tactics as today’s insurgents is not lost on him. Old-school pesh were terrorists.
But these old pesh are now in their 40s and 50s. They’ve graduated from gaunt terrorists to potbellied officers and politicians. Their goals are the same, but their means have evolved.
Dolani was a pesh fighter, and one of the best. After the liberation in 2003, Dolani surrendered his PUK membership in order to accept a general’s commission in the new Iraqi Army. His men came with him.
Today, Dolani is one of the most powerful men in Kurdistan, commanding an entire brigade of 2,000 former pesh wearing Iraqi Army uniforms and overseeing security for all of Sulaymaniyah and its environs. He wears the uniform of his former enemy—and not with irony. Dolani says his people are becoming the real Iraq, and that they want the rest of the country to “stop falling behind.”
He’s got a point. Kurdistan is the most prosperous region of the country—so prosperous that it steals jobs from other areas. “We’re seeing a lot of businesses move to Kirkuk from Baghdad because it’s safer,” Blagburn says.
Kurdistan’s a refuge, too. Local security forces—overwhelmingly pesh and former pesh—are entirely capable of independent operations, and even deploy to other parts of Iraq for emergencies. On election day, Kurdish patrols appeared unannounced in the Sunni town of Baqubah and began clearing roadside bombs from polling sites. Kurdish forces are so strong that the U.S. Army plans to turn over Kirkuk within weeks, making it the first city outside of Kurdistan proper to fully transition from foreign to local protection.
“Because of the safety and security [of Kurdistan], Arabs come here to forget about the problems in their own towns,” Kamal says as K.G. translates. “Kurds have a good habit of respecting them.”
During a visit to the shrine to the 5,000 victims of Hussein’s 1988 chemical attack on Halabja (a former pesh stronghold), a badly scarred Arab gentleman in his 50s approaches this reporter, introduces himself as a doctor, and says in British-accented English that the world must be shown the evils of terrorism. “I’ve tasted it,” he says.
Two years ago, he continues, he was working for the United Nations in the Baghdad Green Zone. On Aug. 19, 2003, an insurgent rocket attack blew off half his face. Only the quick work of U.S. Army surgeons saved him. After months of treatment abroad, he returned to Iraq. But word was out on him; death threats piled up. So he fled to Kurdistan—the only place in Iraq, he says, where he feels safe.
“We’re Kurds, but we’re never against anyone,” Dolani explains, with K.G. translating. “Our goal is every human on Earth considering every other human equal.”
That’s Dolani the pesh-turned-politician talking. But even Dolani the politician betrays his nationalistic priorities: “[Kurds and Arabs] are all the same, but [Kurds’] true leader is Talabani.”
That’s just Talabani. Not Talabani’s coalition. Not the Iraqi government. Just Talabani.
Col. Kamal, in a moment of candor after the emotional visit to the Halabja shrine, is more direct. “Arabs were troublemakers from the beginning,” he says. “This is our land, but no one will call it our land. It’s the 21st century, and we don’t even have a country.”
And the U.S. government hopes it stays that way. In the meantime, American diplomats tread a fine line between their tacit recognition of and open respect for Kurdish accomplishments and their demand for a unified Iraq. And they wait as Talabani and his landless people plan their next move.
While they do, the National Guard will be here, dancing, eating kebabs, and sharing tables with overweight Kurdish generals. And watching.
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