April 30, 2007

The View from the North

My colleague Patrick Lasswell and I interviewed on camera Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga Colonel Salahdin Ahmad Ameen in his office in Suleimaniya, Kurdistan, Northern Iraq.

Colonel Salahdin spoke to us about his experience as an anti-Baathist guerilla fighter during Saddam Hussein’s genocidal Anfal Campaign – when 200,000 people were killed and more than 5,000 villages were destroyed. In one fight he recounts for us, 300 Peshmerga beat an entire Iraqi brigade of slave soldiers in battle and suffered only one casualty.

He also told us about the notorious Abu Ghraib prison – where he was beaten and tortured by the agents of Saddam’s regime – about the Peshmerga’s doctrine of human rights during war time, Henry Kissinger’s betrayal in 1974, why the Kurds have not yet declared independence from Baghdad, and what may happen if the United States withdraws its armed forces from his country.

If you enjoy the interview, and if you learn something today, please consider a donation through Pay Pal. Help make it possible for me to bring you more material like this in the future. My travel expenses are ongoing. Donations need to be ongoing, too.

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Michael Totten
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Many thanks in advance.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 12:24 AM

April 28, 2007

Sandmonkey Shut Down

My Egyptian friend, the blogger who is known in public as the Sandmonkey, will no longer be able to write on his own Web site.

One of the chief reasons is the fact that there has been too much heat around me lately. I no longer believe that my anonymity is kept, especially with State Secuirty agents lurking around my street and asking questions about me since that day. I ignore that, the same way I ignored all the clicking noises that my phones started to exhibit all of a sudden, or the law suit filed by Judge Mourad on my friends, and instead grew bolder and more reckless at a time where everybody else started being more cautious. It took me a while to take note of the fear that has been gripping our little blogsphere and comprehend what it really means. The prospects for improvment, to put it slightly, look pretty grim. I was the model of caution, and believing in my invincipility by managing not to get arrested for the past 2 and a half years, I've grown reckless.
Hosni Mubarak's Egyptian police state is supposedly “moderate,” and allegedly an American ally.

It is neither.

Sandmonkey, you will be missed.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 2:58 PM

April 25, 2007

Meet the Iraqi Police in Kirkuk

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This is the second in a two part article. Read Part One, Where Kurdistan Meets the Red Zone, here. Scroll down for video.

KIRKUK, IRAQ – Kirkuk, like Baghdad, is one of the most dangerous places in the world. Car bombs, suicide attacks, shootings, and massacres erupt somewhere in the city every day. It is ethnically divided between Arabs, Kurds, and Turkmens, and is a lightning rod for foreign powers (namely Turkey at this time) that interfere in the city’s politics in the hopes of staving off an ethnic unraveling of their own.

The city’s terrorists are mostly Baathists, not Islamists, and their racist ideology casts Kurds and Turkmens as enemies. They’re boxed in on all sides, though, and have a hard time operating outside their own neighborhoods. In their impotent rage they murder fellow Arabs by the dozens and hundreds. They have, in effect, strapped suicide belts around their entire community while the Kurds and Turkmens shudder and fight to keep the Baath in its box.

Kurdish and Turkmen neighborhoods are safer than the Arab quarter, but the city is out of control. Car bombs can and do explode anywhere at any time.

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Kirkuk, Iraq

I spent the day with Peshmerga General “Mam” (Uncle) Rostam and Kirkuk’s Chief of Police Major Sherzad at a house Mam Rostam uses a base in an old Arab neighborhood that now belongs to the Kurds. Just after lunch Major Sherzad’s walkie-talkie began urgently squawking.

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Kirkuk Police Chief Major Sherzad answers a call from the station

“There has been a shooting,” he said. “Two men on a motorcycle rode down the street and fired a gun at people walking on the sidewalk. One of the men was apprehended. They are bringing him here.”

For some reason I assumed when the chief said “here” he meant the police station. He did not. He meant Mam Rostam’s.

“They will be here in two minutes,” the chief said.

“Here?” I said. “They’re bringing him here? To the house?”

“They will bring him here before taking him down to the station,” he said. “I’ll interrogate him here. I’m not going to feel good until I slap him.”

An Iraqi Police truck pulled up in front of the house and slammed on the brakes.

“Here he is,” the chief said.

I grabbed my video camera, flipped the switch to on, and ran out the door.

Both Major Sherzad and Mam Rostam slapped the suspect around, rifled through his personal items, and discovered the astonishingly stupid excuse he and his friend had for shooting at people – an even dumber excuse than if they had been political terrorists.

It was a strange and surprising interruption in the middle of a relaxed interview – basically an episode of Cops in Iraq.

Watch the video. Don’t continue reading until after you’ve watched the video.

The suspect was taken down to the station. Chief Sherzad went down there to interrogate the shooter – assuming the shooter actually turned himself in. Mam Rostam, my colleague Patrick Lasswell, our translator Hamid Shkak, and I returned to the porch and sat again in our plastic chairs.

“Where were we?” Mam Rostam said, as though nothing important had happened and we could return to our interview now. What else was there to talk about, though, aside from what had just happened? I still wasn’t sure who this guy was and why he and his friend were shooting at people.

“Those guys are not terrorists,” Mam Rostam said. “But they are troublemakers, young people messing around in the town. But we have to seize them and investigate them to find out why they are doing this. People think there are terrorists and that we are not taking care of it.”

“Well, what happened exactly?” I said. I obviously did not yet have an English-language transcript of the video. Our translator Hamid couldn’t hear everything that was said during the interrogation. “What makes you say he is not a terrorist? He was shooting at people.”

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Peshmerga General “Mam” Rostam

“This guy’s identification card in his clothes, in his luggage, shows that he belongs to the Kurdistan Democratic Party,” Mam Rostam said. “That doesn’t necessarily mean he’s not a terrorist, but he’s not a stranger, he’s from the city, he’s known by people who work with the Peshmerga [the Iraqi Kurdish army]. But there are still some questions to be answered as soon as we capture the other guy.”

“You hit him very exactly, it seemed,” Patrick said. “You knew exactly how hard to hit him. His face wasn’t damaged. I would have broken his nose.”

Mam Rostam laughed. “He still seems like a teenager,” he said. “We have to fight them a little bit, to teach them not to do dangerous things, just to stop them where they are. They need to be adjusted more than they need to be punished. So we’re trying this stage with them first. If it doesn’t work, then there is another issue.”

“His teeth were still intact,” Patrick said.

Mam Rostam laughed again. “Those slaps were advice,” he said. “Because the city is unstable, we have to be a little bit violent with people to stop them. Otherwise they won’t be afraid to do many other evil actions. We have to be a little bit severe.”

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Everything in Kirkuk is severe.

“What do you think is going to happen in Kirkuk if the United States withdraws from Iraq next year?” I said, wondering if the city would become much severe very quickly.

“It will not be good,” Mam Rostam said. “Not for Iraq and especially not for Kirkuk. At a minimum there will be trouble with the neighbors, with Turkey and Iran. They will interfere.”

“They will interfere in Kirkuk in particular?” I said.

“Especially in Kirkuk,” Mam Rostam said. “Turkey is always interfering. But I believe the U.S. won’t leave Iraq until 2025. That’s my guess.”

“Even in 2025,” Patrick said, “you will ask us to stay longer for tea.”

Really. It’s hard to extract yourself from any kind of social event in the Middle East without being ordered to drink yet another tea.

“If America pulls out of Iraq, they will fail in Afghanistan,” Mam Rostam said.

Hardly anyone in Congress seems to consider that the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan might become much more severe if similar tactics are proven effective in Iraq.

“And they will fail with Iran,” he continued. “They will fail everywhere with all Eastern countries. The war between America and the terrorists will move from Iraq and Afghanistan to America itself. Do you think America will do that? The terrorists gather their agents in Afghanistan and Iraq and fight the Americans here. If you pull back, the terrorists will follow you there. They will try, at least. Then Iran will be the power in the Middle East. Iran is the biggest supporter of terrorism. They support Hezbollah, Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and Ansar Al Islam. You know what Iran will do with those elements if America goes away.”

I seriously doubt Iran would actually nuke Israel, as many fear, if the regime acquires nuclear weapons – although I’ll admit I’m a bit less certain of that than I am of, say, Britain and France not nuking Israel. The Iranian regime, most likely, wants an insurance policy against invasion and regime change. The ayatollahs will then be able to ramp up their imperial projects in Lebanon, Iraq, and the Gulf with impunity.

“Is Iran doing anything here with the Shia Arabs in Kirkuk?” I said. When Saddam Hussein ethnically cleansed Kurds from portions of Kirkuk he replaced many of them with Shia Arabs from Najaf and Karbala that he wished to be rid of. “And what about Moqtada al Sadr? Does he have a presence here?”

“Officially and obviously, no,” Mam Rostam said. “Neither the Iranians or Moqtada al Sadr exist here at all as far as we know. They might be here secretly. They probably are. But there is nothing official or apparent.”

Our encounter with the young punk of a Kurd notwithstanding, most of the violent troublemakers in Kirkuk are Arabs. Most of the victims of violence are Arabs, as well. While sitting a kilometer or so from Kirkuk’s Arab quarter I felt physically repulsed from the area. Going there without serious weapons and armor would be suicidal. What about average Arabs, though, in Kirkuk? They can’t all support the Baathists and Islamists.

“What do the Arabs who live here think of you?” I said to Mam Rostam. “And I mean the civilians, not the terrorist groups.”

General Rostam is well-known in Iraq as a formidable military leader and a genuine bad ass. His body is covered with battle scars, but he’s damn near invincible. He’s the last guy you want on your case if you work with Al Qaeda or the Baath.

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Major Sherzad (left), local tribal leader (center), Mam Rostam (right).

“I have good relations with them,” Mam Rostam said. “They come over to the house. Last time some of the Arab tribal leaders came over I took them to our headquarters in Suleimaniya. We enjoy our relations with them. We have no difficulties with them and no differences in our opinions.”

Don’t be surprised by his statement. Obviously he’s exaggerating to an extent. Somebody in that quarter doesn’t agree with his opinions or there wouldn’t be car bombs. But it’s only logical that a typical Arab in Kirkuk wishes to see an end to the insurgency and the terror campaign. Why wouldn’t they? Most of the bombs explode in their neighborhoods. Some of them kill hundreds of people. If the Kurds of Kirkuk live in fear of the bombs, imagine how most of the more-endangered Arabs must feel.


It was the end of the day and time for Patrick, our translator Hamid, and I to head back to the sanctity of the Kurdish autonomous region. There are no hotels in Kirkuk, and it would have been madness to spend the night in one if there were. Last year a reporter and a photographer from National Geographic were issued death threats by cell phone mere hours after they arrived in the city.

The three of us said our goodbyes to Mam Rostam after we finished our last glasses of tea. He told me to visit him again if I find myself in Kirkuk in the future while embedding with the American military.

“Do you know a safe way out of the city?” I said to Hamid, who was designated as permanent driver. “This is not the kind of place where we want to make a wrong turn and end up in the wrong neighborhood.”

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Hamid Shkak, driver and translator

We had nothing to worry about. Mam Rostam sent some of his men to guide us out of town in a convoy.

I kept snapping pictures on the way out. Kirkuk is unspeakably ugly. I felt gloomy and depressed just driving through in a car. It’s hard to believe people live in places like this and have to put up with its problems. The northern Kurdish cities of Dohuk, Erbil, and Suleimaniya are ramshackle and haywire compared with American cities, but they look like lovely Italian hill towns compared with Kirkuk. Perhaps it’s no surprise that some half-baked and immature individuals take to shooting at people on thrill rides to relieve the pressure.

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A typical view of Kirkuk, Iraq, in the central government region

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A typical view of Dohuk, Iraq, in the Kurdish autonomous region.

“If the Los Angeles chief of police were caught slapping a suspect on video,” I said to Hamid as he drove, “he would likely be fired.”

Hamid bristled with annoyance. “Do you think American police officers could handle a city like Kirkuk?”

Actually, yes. I thought of that famous line in Casablanca when the German Major Strasser asked Rick, Humphrey Bogart’s character, if he could imagine Nazi troops in New York. “There are certain sections of New York, Major, that I wouldn’t advise you to try to invade.”

But that’s not the real reason. The real reason is that no American officers would join the Baath or Al Qaeda. Far too many officers do in Iraq, which makes a secure environment nearly impossible.

“I don’t mean it as a value judgment,” I said to Hamid. “That’s just how it is. Americans don’t tolerate police violence, even against someone who might deserve it. And yes, I think American police could handle a place like Kirkuk. At least we can be certain the police won’t defect and side with the terrorists, as they often do there.”

We arrived in Erbil, the capital of safe and autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan, in less than an hour. Central government territory is just a few minutes drive south of the city. It’s surreal that Erbil suffers no terrorism while Kirkuk explodes every day. There is no formal border between them, and you could ride a bicycle from one to the other in just a few hours.

There might as well be a border between them. I visited Iraqi Kurdistan four times in fourteen months. But I never felt like I’ve been to Iraq until I went to Kirkuk.

Iraq isn’t a country. It is a geographic abstraction.

Post-script: Patrick Lasswell also wrote about the police smackdown in Kirkuk, and he spent more time on that subject than I did.

Post-script: If you like what I write, don’t forget to pay me. Travel in Iraq is expensive, and I am not able to do this job without your financial assistance. If you haven’t donated before, please consider donating now. If you have donated before (and a thousand thanks for doing that), please remember that my expenses are ongoing and my donations need to be ongoing too.

(Email address for Pay Pal is michaeltotten001 at gmail dot com)

If you would like to donate money for travel and equipment expenses and you don't want to use Pay Pal, please consider sending a check or money order to:

Michael Totten
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Many thanks in advance.

All photos and video copyright Michael J. Totten

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 2:11 AM

April 23, 2007

Doesn't Look Lost to Me

Part II of Where Kurdistan Meets the Red Zone is in the works. I needed a few days off, but I'm back to work now. Keep watching this space.

In the meantime, JD Johannes has been hanging out in Anbar Province and says the war doesn't look lost to him. He makes a good case that the war is already over in much of that most-troubled province. Go read.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 5:00 PM

April 18, 2007

Where Kurdistan Meets the Red Zone

“If Turkey allows itself to interfere in the matter of Kirkuk, we will do the same…in Turkey.” – Kurdistan Regional Government President Massoud Barzani.

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KIRKUK, IRAQ – Just south of the Kurdish autonomous region in Iraq’s northernmost provinces lies the violence-stricken city of Kirkuk, the bleeding edge of Iraq’s “greater” Kurdistan, and the upper-most limit of the asymmetric battleground known as the Red Zone. Kirkuk is claimed and counterclaimed by Iraq’s warring factions and is a lightning rod for foreign powers – namely Turkey — that fear a violent ethnic unraveling of their own that could be triggered by any change in Kirkuk’s convulsive status quo.

I spent a day there with Member of Parliament and Peshmerga General “Mam” Rostam, Kirkuk’s Chief of Police Major Sherzad, my colleague Patrick Lasswell, and our driver Hamid Shkak. You could stay a month in Kirkuk hunkered down in a compound or a house and not see or hear signs of war. But violence erupts somewhere in Kirkuk several times every day. If you go there with a Kurdish army general, as we did, and spend your day with the city’s chief of police, as we also did, you will see violence or at least the aftermath of some violence. This isn’t a maybe. So I brought my video camera as well as my Nikon along.

From the safety of the Kurdish city of Suleimaniya – where the war is already over – Kirkuk looks like the mouth of Hell. It’s outside the safe fortress of the Kurdistan mountains and down in the hot and violent plains. The city doesn’t look much better up close, and you can feel the tension rise with the temperature in the car on the way down there.

Patrick and I woke Mam (“Uncle”) Rostam first thing in the morning at his house in Suleimaniya. He told us we could follow him to Kirkuk, where he works every day, so we hired a world class driver to do the job.

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World class driver Hamid Shkak

Hamid Shkak spent years driving foreigners around war zones in south and central Iraq. He has more experience than anyone I know steering clear of IEDs, barreling through ambush sites at 120 miles an hour, and veering around spontaneously exploding firefights. He was perfect for the job, and we had little choice but to trust him and Mam Rostam with our lives.

Hamid told us more than I really wanted to know about the limits of armored cars in a war zone. (Our car did not even have any armor.) “B7 and B8 cars are armored in the factory,” he said. “They put armor on top and below for IEDs. It provides a cage around the passengers. The whole car could explode, but you’ll be safe inside the cage. The only problem is the cage might get locked and sealed from the heat. Also, if four bullets strike the same place, the fourth will go through the armor. The companies will not tell you this.”

We followed Mam Rostam’s car through a Kurdish police checkpoint on our way outside the city of Suleimaniya. He got big smiles and waves all around from the police as they recognized the famous general and member of parliament on his way to work in the morning

Mam Rostam is a genuine bad ass, and he’s either famous or infamous depending on who you ask.

“He’s a nutter!” said an academic friend of mine in Washington who knows him well.

“He’s a show-off,” said another friend in Erbil. “He took some journalists to see the oil fields in Kirkuk and purposely drove down a street where he knew they would be shot at with mortars. The journalists screamed and cowered in the back while Mam Rostam laughed in the front seat. Tell him to roll up his pants and show you the scars on his leg.”

A few nights earlier Patrick and I had dinner at Judge Rizgar Mohammad Ameen’s house. Rizgar was the first of many judges in the trial of Saddam Hussein.

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Judge Rizgar, the first judge in the trial of Saddam Hussein

He told us that when he flew with Mam Rostam in a plane from Suleimaniya to Baghdad they were forced by the airport control tower to fly in circles for an hour and twenty minutes before they received permission to land. “They knew Mam Rostam was on the plane,” the judge joked. “They did not want him landing in their city.”

Thirty minutes or so outside the city of Suleimaniya the mountains began to get smaller. Jagged snow-capped peaks were replaced with surreal rugged hills.

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We were on our way out of Kurdistan, I could see it. Hamid hurtled us down the road at 90 miles an hour. The temperature climbed, along with the tension in the car, as the air became hazy and dusty. Cows mooed and lumbered along the side of the road.

“Up ahead is a ridge,” Hamid said, “above Cham Chamal. Saddam’s Iraqi Army was perched on that ridge over the city until 2003 when the Americans came. Near there was the last Iraqi Army checkpoint before the first [Kurdish] Peshmerga checkpoint.”

You could have fooled me. Nothing indicated the area was recently a line of death imposed by the Baath. I saw only hills, trees, and fields of flowers where children ran and played. I hadn’t yet seen the hell of Kirkuk, but I knew that what lay ahead beyond the control of the Kurdistan Regional Government would not look like this.

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The low ridge overlooking the city of Cham Chamal, the northernmost limit of Saddam’s Iraqi Army before its destruction

“In between that ridge and the city was a no-man’s land,” Hamid continued. “Cham Chamal belonged to Kirkuk Province before 2003. But it’s entirely Kurdish, so it was added to Suleimaniya Province after the war.”

When we entered territory that was recently controlled by Saddam Hussein, I felt we had crossed an invisible barrier or through a ripple in the dimension. Everything looked and felt heavier and much more unstable. Kurdistan was behind us. We were surrounded by eerie rolling plains, vanishingly empty of people. The horizon was swallowed up by the hills. I could no longer see the mountains of Kurdistan.

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A Kurdish friend in Erbil emailed me that day: “[Kirkuk] lacks major services and is extremely ugly,” he wrote. “The reason for that is that Saddam Hussein never considered it part of his country. He knew one day it will be taken from him. I will not go to Kirkuk, especially not to the Arab parts at night. It is full of terrorists.”

There is no formal boundary, no road sign that says Welcome to War. There is no line, visible or otherwise, where you’re safe on one side and in peril on the other. Rather, each mile on the hour-long drive from Suleimaniya to Kirkuk is incrementally more dangerous than the last. When you reach the Arab parts of Kirkuk – if you make it that far – you’ll be in extreme and immediate danger if you’re a Westerner.

War-blasted rubble lined the side of the road.

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Which wave of destruction wiped out this village, I couldn’t say. It could have been Saddam’s genocidal Anfal Campaign in the late 1980s, or any number of other violent convulsions since then.

Black smoke rose in a plume on the horizon. I’ve seen smoke plenty of times in the northern Kurdistan governates, and I never assume it’s anything other than a smoke stack from a cement factory, a pile of burning trash, or burn-off from a newly discovered oil well. This new plume of smoke was in the Red Zone, and it could be anything.


The road into Kirkuk was nice and smooth even at 90 miles an hour. My ears popped from the increase in pressure as we finished our descent from the snowy peaks of Kurdistan toward the vast muddy plains of Mesopotamia.

The city appeared on the horizon. We had left the fortress of the Kurdish autonomous region and entered the war.

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Kirkuk, Iraq

“Kirkuk is the richest city in the world,” Hamid said, “and also the poorest.”

Indeed. Kirkuk, with all its resources, if properly managed, should be as prosperous as Kuwait and Dubai. Glittering bejeweled skyscrapers should make up the city center. Instead it is a sprawling catastrophe of a place ground down by decades of fascism and war.

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We drove to, and through, the Kurdish side of the city, which is considerably less dangerous than the Arab side of the city. But the Iraqi police at the checkpoints wore body armor, something I never once saw in the Kurdistan Regional Government territory where there is no insurgency and there hasn’t been a single suicide bomb for two years.

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The only public art of any kind I saw in Kirkuk

Kirkuk’s cars are old and beat up. Its buildings are shabby. The streets are utterly bereft of beauty and grace. Residents live behind walls. There are no trees to walk underneath, no social places to hang out in, no sights worth sighing at, and nothing to take pictures of. It induces agoraphobia and a powerful urge to get inside and hunker down somewhere safe.

Here is a short video I shot from the car.

Nothing exploded anywhere near us as we drove through town. I just kept snapping pictures and video of this most broken of cities.

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A few people told me I’m brave because I went to Kirkuk. I appreciate what is meant as a compliment, but I am not brave. The Kurdish side of the city is only moderately dangerous, and besides…women live there.

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Children live there.

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They go about their lives as best they can in their shattered environment. Somehow they manage.

Are Iraq’s children brave?


Kirkuk is divided between Kurds, Turkmens (who are related to Turks in Anatolia, not Central Asia), and Arabs. The Arab quarter is extraordinarily violent. The Turkmen and Kurdish areas aren’t so much, although random acts of terrorism and mass murder can and do erupt anywhere at any time.

People in areas where the Baath Arabs live help terrorists plant bombs, Hamid explained as he drove. The Baathists have no support whatsoever in Kurdish and Turkmen neighborhoods. Terrorists have a much harder time operating in those places, so they don’t bother much. The available methods of killing are limited without local logistic support. Everyone knows everyone else. Strangers are instantly suspected, often searched, and apprehended if necessary.

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The Kurdistan flag painted on a wall, Kurdish quarter, Kirkuk, Iraq

Kirkuk’s terrorists are, my Kurdish hosts explained, mostly Baathists, not Islamists. Their racist ideology casts Kurds and Turkmens as the enemy. They’re boxed in on all sides, though, and in their impotent rage murder fellow Arabs by the dozens and hundreds. They have, in effect, strapped suicide belts around their entire community while their more peaceful Kurdish and Turkmen neighbors shudder and fight to keep the Baath in its box.

American readers may be uncomfortable by the explicitly racial nature of this description, but that’s just how it is in Kirkuk and I cannot apologize for it. Iraqis kill each other over race and religion and power. If you go there yourself you had better pay attention to who lives in which neighborhood and what they think of others. Otherwise you will not survive. I'm a bit awkwardly self-conscious about it, but race blindness is punished in Iraq with the death penalty.

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Kurdish neighborhood, Kirkuk

Not every Arab in Iraq is a terrorist, obviously. Most of the victims of terrorism in Iraq are Arabs, after all. And there is nothing at all about Arabs as Arabs that makes them dangerous or hostile to me as an American. I lived in a Sunni Arab neighborhood in West Beirut for six months. All my neighbors were lovely. Not a single one was a terrorist. Lebanese politics is unstable and at times deranged, but it’s nevertheless orders of magnitude more civilized and mature than politics in Iraq, poisoned as it has been by (as Fouad Ajami put it) Saddam’s legacy of iron and fire and bigotry.


Mam Rostam is a gruff man with a thin moustache and a thick forest of chest hair who does not wear a uniform. He has two official jobs; member of parliament and general in the Iraqi Kurdish army, the Peshmerga. Unofficially, he describes his job in Kirkuk as “the wild card.” He’s a jack-of-all-trades, a Mr. Fix It. He’s the guy you call when your forces are overwhelmed, when you don’t know what to do, and when somebody needs a swift kick in the ass.

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Mam Rostam

Patrick, Hamid, and I met up with him at a house on the Kurdish side of the city that he keeps as a base. He sat in the sun in a plastic chair on the porch, chain smoking, slamming cups of Arabic coffee, and constantly answering his phone while Patrick and I interviewed him.

“This place, where we are now,” he said, “was emptied of people, of residents. The government of Iraq brought Arab people to settle here. Those houses,” he said as gestured across the street, “were built for them. The majority are Kurds now. Many of the Arabs sold their houses and Kurds bought them.”

Kirkuk is historically a Kurdish and Turkmen city, but Saddam Hussein tried to Arabize it. He forced out as many Kurds and Turkmens as he could and resettled the neighborhoods with Arabs from the South. He hoped to use the Arabization campaign to solve two of his ethnic and sectarian problems at once. Most of the Arabs he placed in Kirkuk were undesirable Shias from Karbala and Najaf he wished to be rid of. The city is now torn, then, along racial and sectarian lines. The legacy of Stalinist politics will take a long time to die.

“Can you explain the main reasons why Saddam Hussein changed the makeup of this city?” I said. “Was it for the resources, because of the Baath ideology, or both?”

I heard a loud thump somewhere off in the distance and wrote “possible explosion” in my notebook. No one else seemed to notice it, though.

“It was for ethnic reasons,” Mam Rostam said. “The proof of this is that not only Kirkuk was involved. Suleimaniya and Erbil were also involved. They wanted to remove all the Kurds from everywhere in Iraq. They just destroyed whole villages and provinces and moved people into collective towns and concentration camps. Some of the Turkmen villages around here were demolished for the same reason. The point was to make it an Arab area, and no other. Saddam Hussein intended to be the leader of the Arab nation, the whole Arab world. He didn’t want anyone other than Arabs to exist around him. That was his policy.”

Saddam Hussein wasn’t content merely to force Kurds and Turkmens out of their homes so he could move Arabs in. He also smashed their villages and neighborhoods with air strikes, artillery, chemical weapons, and napalm.

Below are satellite images of a Kurdish neighborhood in Kirkuk in 1997 and 1998 before and after an ethnic cleansing bombardment.

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Kurdish neighborhood in Kirkuk before ethnic cleansing

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Kurdish neighborhood in Kirkuk after ethnic cleansing

“The Arabs use Islam as a cover for their aims,” Mam Rostam said. I hear this time and again from Kurds in Iraq who are just as Islamic – but much more liberal and democratic – as the residents of Fallujah.

“The Ottomans didn’t do this,” Patrick said. “They didn’t try to make everyone Turks.”

“Even when people gave birth here it was forbidden to give them Kurdish names,” Mam Rostam said. “They were only allowed to give their children Arabic names. If a Kurd wanted to purchase real estate he had to have it purchased in an Arab’s name. Otherwise he could not have it. During the Anfal operations they took young women and used them as sex slaves. Even when the Mongols invaded they didn’t do this. They just don’t like people who are not Arabs. Whoever is not an Arab is an enemy, and they use religion as an excuse for their evil goals.”

“What exactly are the people who bomb the Arab parts of the city trying to do?” I said. “Why are Arabs bombing other Arabs?”

“Most, if not all, the terrorists are the old Baath Party members,” Mam Rostam said. “They changed their names and became an Islamist party. But they are the same guys. They have unified with some Sunnis around the Southwest of Kirkuk because they are living in this area. They are making these attacks to make this democratic experiment after Saddam fail.”

Behind Walls Kirkuk.jpg
A child watches passing traffic from the roof of a house

I had heard much the same from members of the Kurdistan Regional Government in Suleimaniya. What frustrates them most about the U.S. military strategy is the American prioritization of Al Qaeda. The vast majority of the violence, according to my Kurdish sources, is committed by Baathists and old Baathists under new names. Failure to identify Iraq’s principal terrorist organizations and treat them accordingly is the number one reason why Iraq is such a catastrophe. At least this is what I have been told. Kurdish officials I’ve met who try to explain this to the Americans are dismissed out of hand and ignored utterly.

“So their goals are not local to Kirkuk,” I said. “They are for the whole of Iraq.”

“They want all of Iraq to fail,” Mam Rostam said. “They want the Americans to feel that they are not able to succeed in this area. They want to force the Americans to negotiate with the Baath Party.”

“So they aren’t necessarily targeting you or us,” I said.

“They are targeting anyone just to achieve instability,” Mam Rostam said.

“So there’s no plan other than violence,” Patrick said.

Blown Car Kirkuk.jpg

“There is no plan,” Mam Rostam said. “It doesn’t matter where. It’s just random violence. Sometimes they bomb a kindergarten in their own neighborhood. Or a university. Or the civil office. Or a municipality. Or wherever. In these offices there are people of every nationality and religion. There is no way to say there are only Sunnis or whatever in these places. This is a multicultural country. Everyone is everywhere.”

Most Americans have soured on the war and want out. I was once optimistic myself, but I no longer am. I can’t help but notice, though, that those I’ve spoken to who actually live in Iraq are more confident and less fatalistic.

“The central government intends to send an army here, about 6,000 soldiers,” Mam Rostam said. “They have been chosen by them. They are not anyone from anywhere in particular. They are very clean. Those 6,000 soldiers will be working in Kirkuk to achieve stability in this city. We’re expecting after this, which is going to happen in a very short time, for the terrorism to be reduced 80 or 90 percent.”

“This is what you hope or expect?” I said.

“This is what we expect,” Mam Rostam said.

American military vehicles rumbled past the front of the house with their guns up.

“This is a big city,” he continued. “The police can’t control it by themselves. The police are not so many in number and they’re not that good in quality. We have our main central police departments which have been working by themselves and have chosen the elements to work in these locations. They are perfectly controlling their neighborhoods. But the others belong to the central government and other directorates. There are people from various places who work for them, so they’re not that trustworthy. There are some people who work with the terrorists who then apply to work with the police. So they go to the police stations, and instead of faithfully working with the police and the government they just transfer information – especially the sensitive information – to the terrorists. The problem is, the right person is not in the right place. Nobody is managing this in some places. On the Kurdish side, we have taken care of it and we’re stressing they do the same.”

“If we go outside this city,” I said, “are there more Arabs in the countryside in this province? Or are most of them in the city?”

“Around 100 years ago there were no Arabs around Kirkuk,” he said. “There are a few villages southeast of Kirkuk where there are Arabs, but the majority inside and outside the city are Kurds. If you take a ride around outside the city of Kirkuk you will notice that the names of all the places are Kurdish. It has been a Kurdish area for a long time, from the beginning. Even Kirkuk is a Kurdish name. The name of the place where they found oil for the first name came from a kid who was accompanying his father in the area. He noticed something was coming out of the ground. He tried to figure out what it was and found fire. He said Daddy, Daddy, fire, fire. And that became its name. But the governments and regimes that came from the beginning time until now wanted to change the city and the names. Sometimes for sheep, sometimes for salt, but always because the area is important and they wanted to remove the Kurds from here.”

“If there was a wise leader in this country,” he continued, “it would be the greatest country in the world. Because of our natural fortunes, not only the oil but also the other things. But the government has spent all the fortune on weapons and bombs. I know some countries that don’t have any resources at all, but when you go to the cities they look like crystals. You see now what Kirkuk looks like.”

Ugliness Kirkuk.jpg
Physical beauty does not exist in Kirkuk

I asked about Kurdish and Turkmen relations.

“As Kurds we don’t have any problem with the Turkmens,” Mam Rostam said. “If you come back I will show you some villages where the Turkmens live and you will see how much they like us.”

As if on cue, two Turkmens came to the house and joined us on the front porch. They enthusiastically shook hands with Patrick and me, as if they were meeting rock stars. This kind of treatment always embarrasses me, but – believe it or not – that’s how it goes in parts of Iraq if you’re an American. Mam Rostam kissed both of them on their cheeks.

Turks Kirkuk.jpg
Iraqi Turkmens in Kirkuk

After exchanging pleasantries with his Turkish guests, Mam Rostam steered back to the subject. Neither objected to what he said next.

“The Turkish government created a party here that makes problems for us and the Turkmens,” he said. “The Turkmens got their rights as soon as we started managing the area here, more than before when they were under the Baath Party authority. Now they have much more rights than before. If Turkey is honest and is actually helping the Turkmens, why didn’t they defend the Turkmens when the Baath Party demolished their villages? They are not interested in the Turkmens here. They are afraid of the Kurds living in Turkey. We have about 400,000 or 500,000 Turkmens here in Iraq. There are millions in Iran. Why doesn’t Turkey defend them?”

“What does Turkey do here to cause problems?” I said.

“In general the Turkmens are on our side,” Mam Rostam said. The two Turkmens who sat on the porch nodded in agreement. “The problem with this Turkish party is that they demonstrate against everything we ask for. They bring in Turkmens who are loyal to them and who don’t agree with the Turkmens here.”

The Iraqi Turkmens backed by Turkey insist Kirkuk is not a Kurdish-majority city and that it should not be formally attached to Iraqi Kurdistan and administered by the Kurdistan Regional Government. The residents of the city – Kurdish, Turkmen, and Arab – will all be asked later this year in a referendum whether or not Kirkuk should be administered from Kurdistan’s capital of Erbil or from Baghdad.

Muddy Road Kirkuk.jpg
Kirkuk, Iraq – one of the nastiest places I’ve ever seen

“They don’t want people here to be able to vote on letting Kirkuk be managed by the Kurdish authorities,” Mam Rostam said. “They are working against that. 85 percent of them want to join Kurdistan.” And why shouldn’t they? The Kurdistan Regional Government is the only authority in Iraq that has proven its ability to defeat terrorism, rise above racism and sectarianism, and govern effectively. “Only a small percentage of them are against this idea.”

“Why would any Turkmens rather be with Baghdad than Erbil?” I said, addressing no one in particular. The visiting Turkmens were invited to answer as much as Mam Rostam.

“It’s not about who manages Kirkuk,” Mam Rostam said. “It’s about Turkey. Turkey has got a problem with the Kurds. It’s not a problem for them if Kirkuk belongs to the central government of Iraq. They would still have problems with the Kurds in Erbil, though. They are against the existence of the Kurds.”

What Turkey really fears is that Kirkuk, which sits on top of as much of half the oil in Iraq, will be added to an independent and wealthy Kurdish state that will embolden the Kurds in Turkey to break from Ankara and attach themselves to Erbil and Kirkuk.

“In Hamburg, Germany, there was a restaurant opposite the Turkish Embassy,” Mam Rostam said. “That restaurant was named Kurdistan, and they flew the Kurdistan flag. The Turkish government sent a notification to the German government that said If you don’t remove that sign and that flag and that name from that restaurant, we are going to pull our embassy out of Germany. And they did it. The Germans removed it. If the Turkish government was smart they would know Kurdish rights is a good thing for them. They have to know this can be useful and beneficial for them. But they aren’t wise enough. They aren’t smart enough to understand this.”

“They’re afraid of losing the Kurdish portion of Turkey,” I said.

“When I was a member of the Kurdistan Parliament a guest from Turkey came,” Mam Rostam said. “He said they don’t have problems with the Arab nations, that only the Kurds are their enemies. I said to him, frankly, You’re an idiot. If we become a country, what harm are we going to cause you? All the Turkmens here are going to get good jobs. For sure. And they’re going to get most of their rights, if not all. Okay? And the other thing, we’re going to manage ourselves and sell our oil to Turkey. And they can set up some refineries that will be useful for them and for us. The Turkish government promised not to understand. They don’t understand today, and they won’t understand in the future.”

Just then Kirkuk’s chief of police arrived and introduced himself as Major Sherzad. He wore traditional Kurdish men’s clothes and carried a walkie-talkie that constantly squawked. I asked if I could take his picture.

“Yes, take my picture,” he said. “I am not afraid of terrorists.”

Police Chief Kirkuk.jpg
Kirkuk’s Chief of Police Major Sherzad

Mam Rostam invited all of us, including the major and the visiting Turkmens, into the house for lunch. We ate chicken, rice, cucumbers, tomatoes, and soup. Liquid yogurt was served in tall drinking glasses.

“I am sorry for the quality of food for my guests,” Mam Rostam said. “This is what we had in the house.”

A portrait of a younger, less grizzled, Mam Rostam hung on the wall over the table.

Mam Rostam Picture on Wall.jpg

“The American troops based here refuse to eat outside their compounds,” said Major Sherzad. “Unless they are invited to Mam Rostam’s. Here they will eat.”

Patrick and I were in good hands, then. Mam Rostam may be a high value target for the Baathists and other troublemakers, but they have an exceptionally difficult time hitting their target.

After lunch we moved into the living room and sprawled on the couches. Piping hot tea with sugar was served.

Tea Glass Kurdistan.jpg

Mam Rostam upended his glass, poured the tea into the saucer, blew on it for two seconds, and downed it all in one gulp. Showoff. My glass was still too hot to even pick up.

Everyone but Patrick and me spoke to each other in Kurdish. I did not interrupt or ask for translation. Kirkuk’s security elite should not revolve around me. Instead I watched the TV. The channel was turned to Kurdsat, a highly professional Kurdish satellite station out of Suleimaniya.

The news was on, and I saw pictures of the war in Iraq. It felt so strange to watch the war in Iraq on TV from inside Iraq. It felt the same as when I watch the war in Iraq on TV in my house in the U.S. The violence and mayhem on the screen had nothing to do with me. I was in Iraq’s Red Zone. But sunlight slanted in through the windows. The grass outside was green. Flowers bloomed in the yard. Birds chirped. The neighborhood was at peace, at least at that moment.

Iraq is a big place. It is more or less the size of California. If a car bomb were to go off in San Diego, it wouldn’t disturb people who live in San Francisco. They would watch the aftermath from safety on TV just as I watched scenes of carnage from safety at Mam Rostam’s in Kirkuk. The war was far away…or at least around a couple of corners. Iraq looks scarier from far away than it does up close and in person…even when you’re in the Red Zone. How much danger you’re in depends on where you are in Iraq. The Red Zone is not one shade of crimson. The war, for the most part, is concentrated mostly in very specific areas. On any given day you might see something violent, but you probably won’t. This fact is completely lost in the breathless media coverage of the carnage, the mayhem, and the bang-bang.

But I was lounging around with the chief of police. Any illusion that Kirkuk might have been safe couldn’t last long with him in the room. My feelings of detached security were but a passing moment. The chief’s walkie-talkie urgently squawked and he had to answer. The room was silent as he listened grimly.

“There has been a shooting,” he said. “Two men on a motorcycle rode down the street and fired a gun at people walking on the sidewalk. One of the men was apprehended. They are bringing him here.”

For some reason I assumed when the chief said “here” he meant the police station. He did not. He meant Mam Rostam’s.

“They will be here in two minutes,” he said.

“Here?” I said. “They’re bringing him here? To the house?”

“They will bring him here before taking him down to the station,” the chief said. “I’ll interrogate him here. I’m not going to feel good until I slap him.”

An Iraqi Police truck pulled up in front of the house and slammed on the brakes.

“Here he is,” the chief said.

I grabbed my video camera, flipped the switch to on, and ran out the door.

To be continued…

Post-script: If you like what I write, don’t forget to pay me. Travel in Iraq is expensive, and I am not able to do this job without your financial assistance. If you haven’t donated before, please consider donating now. If you have donated before (and a thousand thanks for doing that), please remember that my expenses are ongoing and my donations need to be ongoing too.

(Email address for Pay Pal is michaeltotten001 at gmail dot com)

If you would like to donate money for travel and equipment expenses and you don't want to use Pay Pal, please consider sending a check or money order to:

Michael Totten
P.O. Box 312
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Many thanks in advance.

Also, don’t forget to visit Patrick Lasswell’s blog Moderate Risk. He, too, wrote about our trip to Kirkuk.

All photos and video except “Before” and “After” satellite pictures copyright Michael J. Totten

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 11:38 PM

April 16, 2007

Moderate Risk Video

I'm working on a long two-part essay from the terror-wracked city of Kirkuk in Iraq's Red Zone outside the Kurdistan safe area. While you're waiting in the meantime, head on over to Moderate Risk where my colleague Patrick Lasswell has some truly original video from Iraq that you have never seen before and that will never be featured in the mainstream media. Don't miss it.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 1:46 PM

April 12, 2007

Blogger of the Year

The Week magazine announced its annual Blogger of the Year award and I won it, along with cartoonist Josh Fruhlinger of Wonkette. There must be some glitch in the universe because somehow I beat Michael Yon who also was nominated. If I were a judge I would have picked Yon over myself, but this is not a complaint, nor is it false modesty.

Many sincere thanks to the panel of judges in my category— Glenn Reynolds, Jeff Jarvis, Nick Gillespie, and Alex Pareene.

Thanks also to my wife, family, and friends for putting up with my long absences. And thanks especially to you, my readers, for donating expense money through Pay Pal. Without you I would not be able to do this.

I'll have more dispatches from Northern Iraq shortly. Then I'm off to Kuwait and Baghdad with the United States military.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 1:12 AM

April 10, 2007

Video Coming Soonish

I have a fair amount of video from Iraqi Kurdistan shot with my new HD (high definition) camera, but I can't edit or publish it until I get home and have access to a more powerful computer.

In the meantime, my colleague Patrick Lasswell shot some video using a less high-tech camera, and he is able to post that from here. Talk a walk with him through the souk in Suleimaniya.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 8:26 AM

April 6, 2007

Published in the Jerusalem Post

Don't miss my feature article in the Jerusalem Post's weekend magazine: Welcome to Hezbollahland.

(A different version of this material appeared on the blog a few months ago, but if you didn't read it then you can read it now in the magazine.)

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 8:31 AM

April 5, 2007

An Army, Not a Militia


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.

Colonel Mudhafer Hasan Rauf

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.

Military wall art in the Ministry of Peshmerga

“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.

Two of the countless Peshmerga officers Patrick and I met during our visits

“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.

Yet another Peshmerga officer I met for a couple of seconds and shook hands with

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.

One of the officers Patrick and I briefly met

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.”

Military Police General Baram Sadi

General Baram joined us as we were shown the chow hall and the barracks.

A Peshmerga chow hall

Inside a Peshmerga 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.

General Karzan Mahmoud Ahmed sits in front of a map of Iraqi Kurdistan

“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.”

An aid to General Baram Sadi points at the village of Biara in the region occupied by the Iranian-backed terrorist group Ansar Al Islam before the Peshmerga and American Special Forces drove them out at the same time they toppled Saddam Hussein’s government in 2003

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.

A Red Crescent (the Muslim branch of the Red Cross) tent

There is no mosque on the ministry grounds, but there is a small outdoor area where the devout can wash themselves before praying on a small carpet

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.

General Karam

“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.

Our Peshmerga military meal

“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.

(Email address for Pay Pal is michaeltotten001 at gmail dot com)

If you would like to donate money for travel and equipment expenses and you don't want to use Pay Pal, please consider sending a check or money order to:

Michael Totten
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Many thanks in advance.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 7:07 AM

April 1, 2007

Hope Over Hate: A Lebanon Diary

My American friend Noah Pollak visited Beirut and South Lebanon with me on my last trip.

He flew to Beirut from Jerusalem (via Amman.)

His long-awaiting essay has now been published in Azure Magazine. Here is an except:
From Israel, Lebanon has a way of appearing as a monolith. Its entire southern border is a Hezbollah stronghold, from which the organization, since Israel’s withdrawal in 2000, has been building a sophisticated battlefield infrastructure, stockpiling weapons, and planning the abduction and killing of Jews. It is thus easy to view Lebanon as a country in which the masses have gladly assented to the establishment of an Iranian forward operating base within its borders. Hezbollah is particularly good at using its territory to attempt to provoke and demoralize Israel; it put up a billboard on the border, facing into Israel, which shows the severed head of an IDF soldier, captioned: Sharon, don’t forget. Your soldiers are still in Lebanon. If you tell an Israeli that you have visited Lebanon, you will typically be met with a guileless stare of worry and astonishment.

But there is a Lebanon that exists in the distance, too far away to see from Israel’s northern border, and too difficult to discern through the opaque and fevered people camped in the South. It is the Lebanon of the Christians, the moderate Sunnis, and the Druze, the Lebanon that earned Beirut the moniker of the Paris of the Middle East. This Lebanon looks West for inspiration and support, not East, and sustains a loathing for Hezbollah (and the Palestinians) that rivals Israel’s. This is the Lebanon of East and West Beirut, of outstanding restaurants, nightlife, beaches, tourism, and Mediterranean joie de vivre. These Lebanese share two vital things with Israel: An aspiration to live in a liberal, democratic society, and a fervent wish to rid their nation of the Islamic extremists who are the perpetual cause of bloodshed, instability, and warfare. Israel and Lebanon, in this regard, are more similar to each other than either of them is to any other nation in the region. In the 1980s, a Lebanese Christian leader declared that “the Western world should either defend us, or change its name.” Israel is a member in high standing of the Western world, and should not exempt itself from sympathizing with such pleas.

Read the whole thing.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 11:16 AM