SULEIMANIYA, IRAQ — Iraq is a country with three armies and I’m-not-sure-how-many militias and death squads. The Iraqi Army is nominally the national army, but it’s still being trained, supplied, and augmented by the coalition forces, which is to say the Americans. It’s also not allowed to operate in the north. The third army is the Kurdish Peshmerga, the liberators and protectors of the only part of Iraq — the three northern governates — that may be salvaged from insurgency, terrorism, ethnic cleansing, and war. Do not confuse the Peshmerga with the ragtag ethnic and sectarian militias running rampant in Iraq’s center and south. The Kurdish armed forces are a real professional army and are recognized as such in Iraq’s constitution and by the so-called central government in Baghdad.
My colleague Patrick Lasswell and I spent a couple of days with officers and soldiers at the Ministry of Peshmerga in the northern city of Suleimaniya. I knew already that the Kurds bristled at charges that their Peshmerga was yet another of Iraq’s many militias, and I have to agree now that I’ve seen and interviewed them myself.
Colonel Mudhafer Hasan Rauf arranged our visit and hosted us in his office. He was, I believe, the only officer we met who did not wear a uniform.
The fact that the Peshmerga can dress nicely and have formal offices where journalists can meet them does not in and of itself make them an army and not a militia. Hezbollah has offices south of Beirut where journalists can go — if, unlike me, they haven’t been threatened and blacklisted. Unlike Hezbollah, though, the Peshmerga take their orders from the locally elected and centrally sanctioned civilian authorities.
“The word Peshmerga is a holy word among Kurds,” Colonel Mudhafer said. “It means those who face death. We are the outcome of the oppression and torture of the central government in the past. Peshmergas value their lives less than the liberation of their people. We are not a militia as some people in Iraq say. We are not a militia at all. The political leadership gives us orders, and we are an organized army.”
It may appear odd to Western readers that I refer to Colonel Mudhafer by his rank and first name, rather than by his rank and last name. This, though, is how the Kurds refer to themselves and to others. I am never Mr. Totten. Here I am always Mr. Michael. Jalal Talabani, Iraq’s Kurdish president, is never called Mr. Talabani or President Talabani. They call him Mam (which is a term of affection like “uncle”) Jalal. Uncle Jalal. The informality in this part of the world, even in the offices of the elite and in the military, is refreshing and agreeable to someone like me from the Pacific Northwest in United States were formality never really took hold.
The Kurdish armed forces don’t take their orders from civilian officials in Baghdad. They are treated by the central government as something like a regional or “national” guard. Only the civilian officials in the Kurdish northern governates are allowed to give them their orders, which makes official Iraqi Kurdistan’s status as de-facto independent or, if you prefer, a state within a state.
Patrick and I were served small cups of Turkish coffee and locally bottled water. The colonel and I traded cigarettes — he gave me a Marlboro, and I gave him a Sobranie Black Russian.
“You should know that Kurds are the main friends of the Americans in the Middle East,” he said. “In the past we had only God and the mountains as friends. But now we want Americans to support us in all matters, to be another mountain. Our Minister of Peshmerga has great relations with the American forces. We are in the same trench and we are fighting the terrorists just like Americans are. It will be in the future this way, also. Not one American person has been wounded in this area. We have a real alliance with America. We are proud of this relationship. We want the American nation to know we are real friends.”
The colonel supplied us with an escort who took us around to shake hands with apparently every important person in the ministry, and many who were not so important: officers, generals, clerks, computer operators, uniform tailors, accountants, cooks. You name ‘em, Patrick and I met ‘em.
“We will introduce you to everyone and show you everything,” he said. “You may write whatever you like. Whatever is your impression is your impression.”
The soldiers and officers wore clean and crisp uniforms. Those in the lower ranks sharply saluted their officers. When entering the office of a person of higher rank, lower ranking officers and soldiers raise up their right knees and loudly stomped the floor with their boots.
It did, indeed, look and feel like we were being introduced to the real army of an independent state. The contrast between the professional and accountable Peshmerga and the death squads and militias running amok in the south while wearing black ski masks was unmistakable.
I was slightly surprised to see some women around. But only slightly. The Peshmerga famously included women in their ranks during the fight against Saddam Hussein in the mountains of Kurdistan, which culminated into victory during the 1991 uprising.
Nearly every province in Iraq was liberated from Saddam’s rule after the first President Bush asked Iraqis to rise up and destroy him. The Kurds were protected by no-fly zones imposed by the United States and Great Britain while, for whatever reason, Saddam Hussein was allowed to smash the Shia Arabs who rose up in the South and reconsolidate his rule over most of Iraq.
The Kurds, though, earned their freedom and kept it. Civilians evacuated the cities of Erbil, Dohuk, and Suleimaniya and cleared the urban areas for the final epic battle in the north against Saddam’s genocidal army. The Peshmerga emerged from the mountains and fought the Baath to the death in the streets mano a mano.
The Kurds are serious fighters. I would not want to mess with them. For hundreds of years the Arabs and Persians and Ottomans have known them as good warriors. Fortunately for them and — especially — for the Arabs, the Kurds of Iraq are uncorrupted by terrorism. Not once during the fight against the Baath did the Peshmerga or any other Iraqi Kurdish guerilla force attack Arab civilians in Kurdistan or anywhere else.
Our escort showed us the parade grounds where Peshmerga soldiers train and, well, parade around in a square.
After the June War of 1967, Israeli General Moshe Dayan was asked how the Israeli Defense Forces beat three armies in six days. What was their secret? His answer: Fight Arabs. In other words, the Israelis aren’t necessarily that good at war. Arab armies in the modern Middle East don’t have a professional military culture, so they’re fairly easy to push over. Lebanon’s Hezbollah, which has been trained by the Persians, is a lot tougher. Nothing prevents Arabs as Arabs from being good fighters. It is, rather, a matter of their weak and unprofessional military culture which is changeable and possibly temporary.
The Kurds likewise fought well against Saddam’s mostly Arab army. Saddam’s regime was thoroughly totalitarian, and his soldiers were slaves who were forced to fight at the point of a gun. Their weapons were poor. They slept on the ground and drank water from ditches. Successful generals were purged from the army so they wouldn’t be able to mount a coup against the regime. The Kurds fought to free themselves from genocidal oppression, for their land, for their homes, and for the lives of their children. Once the Peshmerga became fairly well organized, it was no contest.
It’s hard to say, then, how well the Peshmerga would stack up against other professional militaries in the region, like those of the Turks or Israelis for instance. The Kurds will likely never fight the Israelis: they not-so-secretly view the Jewish state as a quiet ally against Arab Nationalism and jihadi terrorism. The Turks, though, are another story. The Peshmerga’s next war may be fought against a regional superpower with a large professional mechanized army that won’t be so easy to knock down or push out. That is what they are preparing for now: not to launch an invasion of Turkey, but to defend their homeland in case the generals in Ankara decide to invade Kurdish Iraq to secure the Kurdistan region in their own country which is still wracked with violence from the (Turkish, not Iraqi) Marxist-Leninist Kurdistan Worker’s Party, or PKK.
The Peshmerga Club is not what Patrick or I expected. I don’t remember what we expected, exactly, but I figured it might be something along the lines of a place where grizzled Kurdish officers smoked cigars, drank scotch, and swapped war stories with hardy bravado. It might be a cool place to hang out, I thought, and hear the gritty details of mountain guerilla warfare before the Peshmerga became the professional soldiers they are today.
So I was slightly surprised to see that the Peshmerga Club is Iraqi Kurdistan’s military equivalent of the YMCA — and without any gender segregation.
It’s a sports club, not a club club, and young men and women go there to play volleyball and basketball, run, lift weights, and exercise.
None of the young women wore hijabs (Islamic headscarves), and there didn’t appear to be any squeamishness whatsoever about the mixing of young good-looking women and men.
Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army doesn’t have anything like this down south, I thought. What’s often most striking about the Kurdistan region of Iraq is how blessedly normal it often is, not just compared with the rest of the Middle East (and especially the rest of Iraq), but with much of the modern world as well.
The Kurds don’t merely have the outward appearance of normalcy and modernity. General Baram Sadi of the Peshmerga’s military police wanted to make sure we understood their political ethics and values also mesh well with those of the West.
“After the 1991 uprising we had elections,” General Baram Sadi said. “We built a parliament. The Kurdistan government in this region created the Ministry of Peshmerga, and the minister is part of the government. We follow the ministry council. We are not involved in any other political things. We do not belong to any political party, but to the Kurdistan Regional Government. We obey the orders of the government and the Ministry of Peshmerga. We do not belong to any other side or special party.”
General Baram joined us as we were shown the chow hall and the barracks.
“It is very tidy, yes?” said our escort as he showed us the barracks. He said it with a noticeable uncertainty in his voice, as though he wasn’t sure the standards of the Kurdish military were what Americans would expect or accept. I wasn’t inspecting the barracks, but I felt slightly like that’s what they wanted me and Patrick to do. I am not now and have never been a military person. Inspecting a barracks isn’t my job.
“Yes, it’s very tidy,” Patrick said, which hopefully put them at ease. He, unlike me, is a military person, a Navy reservist to be specific.
“It’s a lot more tidy than my room,” I said, which was the truth. I’m not a slob, but Spartan is not the word I would use to describe where I live.
General Baram showed us to his office and asked us to sit. Coffee and bananas were served in little cups with dainty spoon and on small plates.
“Do you accept recruits from all of Kurdistan?” Patrick said.
“Yes, of course,” said General Baram. “If they meet all the conditions, such as age, health, and education.”
“What about religion and ethnicity?” I said.
“We have Catholics, Christians, Muslims, Yezidis, Sunnis,” he said. “It doesn’t matter.” The Yezidis are fire-worshipping pagans. They adhere to the original religion of the Kurds, and are the remnants of this ethnic group who refused to convert to Islam when the Arabs conquered them long ago. The Kurdistan flag displays a yellow sun at its center in honor of the Kurds’ Yezidi heritage.
“If Arabs who move here from the South want to join the Peshmerga,” I said, “are they allowed?”
“Before the uprising in 1991, many Arabs joined us,” the general said. “They were interested, they wanted to join. And now because of the safety of Kurdistan, so many families want to come here. You know, it is so safe here. Some Arab people do join, here, now. Those friends who want to join us, we welcome them. Arab, Shia, we don’t care. We are secular.”
“What do you think about the British sailors captured by the Iranians?” Patrick said.
“I think Iran took them as hostages to trade for the five Iranians taken from the consul in Erbil,” General Baram said. “Kurdish people have been suffering from Iranian terrorism for a long time. Now you are seeing with your own eyes how they treat their neighbors.”
“What does Iran do here?” I said.
“They do everything,” the general said. “Terrorism. They do everything that is bad. They had a terrorist base for Ansar Al Islam in Iraqi Kurdistan in the mountains near Halabja, in Biara and Tawela, before the Americans drove them out. Terrorists did terrible things to the Kurdish people, not just to Americans on September 11.”
Ansar Al Islam attacked an Iraqi Kurdistan checkpoint north of Suleimaniya a week before. No one was killed, but at least three people were hurt. The border area is reasonably safe around here, but not completely.
“After we attacked them they went back into Iran,” said General Baram. “They reorganized themselves and try to come from the other border in the southern Iraq. Iran supports them directly. Everyone knows. And it’s not just in Iraq. In Lebanon, too. They killed Rafik Hariri. They support Hezbollah. You know what is happening in Lebanon right now? Beirut used to be a very nice city. Even in Afghanistan they support terrorists. As Kurdish people we want Americans to stay in our region, to protect us, and to deepen the relationship between us.”
Our tour of the ministry and attached military base continued. Three years ago nothing there was nothing at this location. Now there is a vast complex of buildings, offices, barracks, and camps.
Most Kurds say equally nice things about the Democratic and Republican parties. They make little or no distinction between them. George W. Bush gets credit for liberating them from Saddam, but the Democrats — as Americans — get de facto credit as well.
One of the officers we met had nice things to say about Hillary Clinton. Apparently she said something recently about American troops remaining in Kurdistan no matter what happens in the rest of Iraq, but no one here had the exact quote for me.
General Karam is less sanguine and a little more partisan. He didn’t single out the Democrats by name, but he clearly isn’t happy with what they are up to right now.
“As a military person, I am disturbed by what is going on in America now,” he said and jabbed his finger in the air. “They want to withdraw their troops.” He banged his fist on his desk. “We want the Americans to stay. Why are people thinking like this?”
“America is divided,” I said. “We argue amongst ourselves about this.”
“Some of the politicians in Congress believe it will get them elected,” Patrick said, “if they say they’re going to withdraw from Iraq. But many of them know that the resolution that just passed…President Bush will kill it dead.”
“Yes,” General Karam said. “President Bush insisted.”
“The resolution is vetoed on arrival,” Patrick said.
“I want you, as a reporter, as a journalist,” the general said to me, “to get our Kurdish voice to the American people so they know about Kurdish suffering in Iraq. We don’t want the American army to leave this area. The terrorists are excited about what is going on in the Congress.”
“They are playing to cable television in the U.S.” Patrick said.
“That’s why we want you to pass this on to the American people,” said the general.
“Of course,” I said. “It is my job.”
The general angrily answered his phone, yelled into it, and hung up.
“American people don’t know what’s going on in Kurdistan,” he said. “The public doesn’t even know what’s going on.”
“What do the Kurdish people think of George W. Bush?” Patrick said.
“He is a friend,” said General Karam. “He has done everything for the Kurdish people, for our rights. He is a friend. And he is not going to leave us.”
“What do you think will happen,” I said, “if the United States withdraws from Iraq next year?”
“It will be easier for terrorists to attack us,” the general said. “We are surrounded by enemies. They will attack Kurdistan from everywhere. We believe, as Kurds, it is not honorable for Americans to withdraw. It will be bad for Americans, too. They will be killing themselves. If Americans leave us we expect terrorists will reach the American country very soon.”
“If the three northern provinces of Iraqi Kurdistan are safe even without American troops here,” I said, “why will you be in more danger if American troops leave Baghdad? You are already taking good care of yourselves.”
“As Kurdish forces, we can’t compare our power to Americans,” he said. “We are a small power. We cannot defend ourselves from Turkey and Iran.”
“Who are you more worried about if the Americans leave next year?” I said. “Are you more worried about the Arab terrorists in the South, or Turkey and Iran?”
“All of them equally,” he said. “You know there are Kurdish cities in Turkey, Iran, and Syria. We are worried about all of them. Arab terrorism is the worst right now because they are inside Iraq. They are part of the government.”
I wasn’t completely satisfied with the answer General Karam gave me about Kurdish security in the wake of an American withdrawal. It was a little too vague. Yes, the Kurds are surrounded by enemies. But that’s true if the Americans stay or if the Americans go. American forces aren’t protecting Kurdistan now, at least not directly. So what, exactly, would change if the Americans left? I didn’t have a chance to drill down into the answer because the general had to get back to work. We were taken to see Colonel Mudhafer again, though, and he had a more detailed answer for us.
We joined the colonel and some of his aids in his office for lunch. They served us the same military meal the soldiers and officers ate: rice, lamb on the bone, tomato-squash soup, some bread, and locally bottled mineral water. The food wasn’t great, but it was acceptable.
“We Peshmerga eat fast,” Colonel Mudhafer said. “We learned that in the mountains. But you take your time.”
I ripped off a hunk of bread with my hands and rolled lamb into it which I had picked off the bone with my fork.
“What will happen to the security of Iraqi Kurdistan if the Americans leave?” I said. “Most Americans who know something about Kurdistan — many Americans don’t know anything about it — they know it is safe and that there are almost no American troops here at all. So why does it matter if American troops leave Baghdad if you are already taking care of your own security by yourselves? Americans aren’t here anyway. Terrorists already can’t physically get here.”
“Ok,” Colonel Mudhafer said. “Every single person in Kurdistan dreams about an independent Kurdistan. We want to make our state.”
“The problem is our neighbors,” he continued. “They are making trouble for us because they don’t want a Kurdish state. The neighbors help terrorists come across the border, from Iran, from Syria, from Iraq, from everywhere. They are trying to demolish all we have done here. They hate us. They don’t like the friendship between us and America. It’s like what Hitler did to the Jewish people. We are in the same situation. They treat us like we are Jews.”
“There is some talk in the United States of moving American troops out of Baghdad and the surrounding areas into Kurdistan instead,” I said. “What would you think if that’s what happens next year instead of withdrawing American troops to the United States?”
“The main strategy for us is to bring American troops to Kurdistan,” he said. “That what we want in the future.”
He opened the refrigerator next to his desk and pulled out a box of sweets that are specialties in Suleimaniya province. In the center is hard sap scraped off tree branches that was left there some kind of insect. Wrapped around the sap center is white nougat made hard and brittle from freezing. The hard-as-rock candy is then rolled in powdered sugar. It takes sharp teeth and serious jaw strength to bite into.
“What do you think will happen in Baghdad if American troops leave?” I said.
“We believe if the Americans withdraw from this country there will be many more problems,” he said. “The Sunni and Shia want total control of Iraq. We are going to get involved in that. Iran is going to be involved in that. Turkey is going to be involved in that. Syria is going to be involved in that. The Sunni and Shia fighting in Baghdad will pull us in. We are going to be involved. Turkey and Iran will make problems for us. It is not going to be safe. All the American martyrs will have died for nothing, and there will be more problems in the future. Americans should build big bases here.”
“In the American experience, when we surrender or give up the fighting stops,” Patrick said. “What is your experience as Kurds? What happens to you when you surrender or give up?”
“All the problems will start,” the colonel said. “We don’t want to be involved in that fighting between Sunni and Shia. But we’re going to get involved if the Americans leave. We are going to be pulled into that. It’s not going to be like the Arabs and Al Jazeera say. They say when the Americans leave, all the problems will be solved. No. It is not going to be like that.”
He seemed despondent now, as if his best friends in the world were about to throw him under the bus.
“There are two kinds of love,” he said. “The kind between a man and a woman. And the kind between people and nations. Americans are beheaded in Baghdad. But they are welcome in Kurdistan.”
The colonel drove Patrick and I back to our hotel in a white “Monica” (the Kurdish nickname for a Toyota Land Cruiser) under heavily armed guard.
“If you come back in ten years you won’t recognize Suleimaniya,” he said as we drove through the city. His optimism seemed to be back. “We are building so many things. Suli will be amazing. It has always been the capital of our national culture. So many writers and intellectuals and poets live here.”
We drove past a massive concrete construction site the size of a sports stadium.
“What’s this building?” Patrick said.
“This will be our National Theater,” the colonel said.
He dropped us off at our hotel, stepped out of the vehicle, and dramatically kissed us both on our cheeks. Perhaps he was just being nice. He might have been sucking up for good press. Something else occurred to Patrick and me, as well, however. It’s possible — who can say? — that he was showing anyone who might be spying on us that we have powerful friends with guns who are not to be messed with.
Sometimes I don’t know how I’m supposed to feel about this place and these people. They are wondeful, to be sure, and they are doing good work. But if feels precarious sometimes, as though they are building a nation on the rim of a volcano.
Near the entrance to downtown is a series of posters glued to bomb blast walls surrounding the Suli Palace Hotel.
Inside the outline of the country of Iraq — including both the Kurdish and Arabic regions — are more than one hundred small and large lights. “The Light of Iraq Will Not Go Out,” the poster says.
I am not sure about that.
Post-script: See also Patrick Lasswell’s blog Moderate Risk for more coverage from Northern Iraq. And don’t forget to hit my Pay Pal button. My consulting work here is finished, and I’m paying expenses out of my own pocket to stay longer so I can give you these reports. I would do this for free if I could, but I can’t, so please help me pay for hotels and translators. This place is expensive.
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