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Karl Vick
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Confronting Iraq:
In the Field

With Karl Vick
Washington Post Foreign Service

Tuesday, March 25, 2003; 11 a.m. ET

Washington Post foreign correspondent Karl Vick was online live from Northern Iraq Tuesday, March 25 at 11 a.m. ET, to to discuss the unfolding events in that region, heavily populated by ethnic Kurds.

The transcript follows.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

Karl Vick: Good day from northern Iraq, and apologies for missing yesterday’s scheduled chat. A press briefing came up at the appointed hour, suddenly enough that I didn’t give the folks at .com a chance to explain. No undue worries. As I’m in the part of Iraq where that’s under the control of two Kurdish parties, and not likely to see any fighting, the only real security concern is these extremist galoots out in the Halabja Valley. They’re getting bombed a couple times a day by U.S. warplanes preparing for a ground assault later this week, and are taking out their sudden frustration with the conventional arena by stepping up their terror campaign. A more visible hazard is the windstorm that kicked up about an hour ago. Up here, in the foothills of the Zagros Range, they don’t call it a sandstorm. It’s the “black wind.” Got to like that.

Mt. Lebanon, Pa.: Once the Turks move in and start grazing in Northern Iraq, which of our "experts" thinks it going to be easy to herd them back across the border to their own pasture? They might like the feed, the water, and the view much better in Iraq. And how many U.S. divisions of "cowboys" is it going to take to ride herd and complete the cattle drive? My family's from Texas - loose cows are a nuisance and can cause a lot of mischief until you get 'em corraled again. Yee-Haw. Thanks much.

Karl Vick:
Well, Pilgrim, I don’t know about the horse, but I take your meaning. These are the very questions that so preoccupy the Pentagon and other operative branches of the US government. The fact, of course, is that Turkey has had a couple of thousand troops in northern Iraq since the early 90s. They came in the name of hot pursuit against some separatist elements from Turkey’s own sizeable Kurdish population – at least 12 million; in any event probably half the world’s Kurdcount – and never left. But the arrival of even a small number would be seen as a provocation. Probably the Kurds would play it cool, but there's just no telling -- a lot of them say they regard Turkey as a greater threat to Kurds than Saddam, whose forced killed about 100,000 of them just in two years of the 1980s. We could have a guerrilla war in the north that should be a reservoir of tranquility. So a huge amount of US diplomatic energy is being put into talking Ankara back from the brink. Of course they've got a lot of leverage after the vote against allowing U.S. access to the bases -- and then recalcitrance on overflight approval -- caused stress fractures in the 50-year alliance. Turkey needs the US. But it's also about the proudest nation on earth. Honestly. The Pew Trust poll a few months ago showed the only other country whose population had as much pride in its nation was...well, the United States. Of America.

Mogadishu, Somalia: Who is now controlling Basra?

Karl Vick: General Morgan.

Joking. Gales of high-pitched laughter from the Cedar-Riverside section of Minneapolis and they are clutching their sides in whole neighborhoods of Toronto. In fact, I gather the Government of Iraq still has Basra at the moment, though the British tankers want to change that and soon. The exile Shia opposition might also make a claim, but they’ve yet to appear on the world stage this time around. Mystery why.

Denver, Colo.: We heard you were in the area near the car-bombing incident. What happened?

washingtonpost.com: An Edgy Place, a Suicide Bombing and a Near-Miss, (Post, March 23)

Karl Vick: That's the story. The next question has the follow up.

washingtonpost.com: Karl, you encountered an awfully scary situation on Saturday with the carbombing that killed the journalist. What's happening where you are now? Is there thought that pockets of al Qaeda sympathizers will continue to target Western journalists more? And how are you and your fellow journalists handling that?

Karl Vick: A couple things are happening now.

1. A few hundred special operations troops have arrived over the last few nights here on C-130s, along with a few helicopter gunships. They're all going down to try to eliminate the haven, and all the Ansar fighters they can find. Of course the big fish have probably already beat feet over the border into Iran, which until the cruise missile strike on Ansar positions Saturday had made its services discreetly available, by all accounts.

2. Ansar, sensing the end is nigh, or maybe just really really upset about being bombed, have stepped up their, ah, asymmetrical operations. The car bomb was one. The Kurds say they have intelligence that they've got more, and are looking for western targets. The hundred or so journalists here are, as we saw entirely too clearly on Saturday, obvious and often conspicuous targets. To become a little less so, we are pealing the big, bright letters announcing "TV" from the 4x4s we tool around in. The lettering seemed a really good idea when everyone thought the hazard would be from US warplanes or other combatants on the southern side of the front line with Iraq. But since the northern front has been delayed we're still wandering around the Kurdish region, where Ansar is said to have some cells. Prudence rules.

Silver Spring, Md.: Are the extremists you're referring to fighting for Iraq? Or related to Al Qaeda (sp)? I read that there are Iraqi troops on a mountain ridge overlooking a Kurdish town that fire randomly into the town. Are U.S. troops doing anything about them?

Karl Vick: The Ansar extremists want to defeat the avowedly secular government that the Kurdish parties have built in Iraq's north since 1991, the year the US and Brits starting sending daily fighter packages to enforce the no-fly zone above the 36 parallel. Ansar al Islam translates roughly to "supporters of Islam." They want a government based on the very nearly strictest interpretation of Sharia, which is what they enforced on the few villages they've controlled for a couple of years. Women must be veiled. Men have to close their shops and hie on down to the mosque at every call to prayer. Soap packages showing women's faces are pealed off.

As for the mountain ridge, I believe that's Chamchamal, a town in a valley of the Kurdish section right up against the Iraqi front line, where the GOI has some guns on the ridge. They do from time to time plunk out a round or two, but mostly for show. They land in the dead zone between front lines. I've heard of none hitting the town in recent weeks.

A good thing, since assorted journalists have been sleeping there.

US warplanes hit those ridgetop positions yesterday morning, by the way.

Harrisburg, Pa.: Have you been able to interview many civilians? If so, what are their reactions to the war? In particular, what impressions are you getting from civilians from different ethnic groups, if you've had the opportunity to talk to people from different groups, i.e. Kurds, Turkmen, etc.?

Karl Vick: Civilians aplenty here in Sulaimaniya. But they're pretty much all Kurds. In fact, I spent an hour the other day with a kid, 19, who had never even met an Arab.

The Kurds are in the unusual and rather luxurious position of watching an Iraq war on television. Mostly al Jazeera. They seem to think it's not going well. Or not quickly enough. "I'm not worried, but people are," one official told me today. The Arab sat channels are tending to emphasize Saddam's defiance, the POW footage and other elements that reinforce the skeptical perspective.

But the Kurds also seem to have embraced rather more enthusiastically than other publics the Bush adm's extremely enthusiastic and confident predictions about a one or two week war. Suli, as the city I'm in is know for sure, has been on a roller coaster. It nearly emptied out the first day of bombing. On the second, as armored columns bounded toward Baghdad, the evening street scene was all smiles and gamboling. And the pickups piled with clothes and mattresses were coming back IN to town.

Mercurial is a word.

Washington, D.C.: My husband is overseas and naturally I'm scared to death. We aren't really going to have potentially 3,000 casualties in the next few days, are we? I keep hearing that on the news. I can't imagine that many people would lose their lives for a schmuck like Saddam. And there is an interesting editorial in today's Post about how Rumsfeld was so confident the Iraqis would crap out at the first sign of an American bomb that the country as a whole would surrender. Now the troops have no backup because Rumsfeld was so shortsighted. Do you know anything of this?

washingtonpost.com: Shock, Awe and Overconfidence, (Ralph Peters, Post, March 25)

Karl Vick: I'm afraid I don't know, but 3,000 in a few days sounds extraordinarily pessimistic. The war is a bit of a puzzler to many of us. I'm trying to keep my mind as wide open as my eyes but they did seem to have launched this thing on a certain assumption of political behavior that may yet be forthcoming -- that is, permission and welcome from the shackled Iraqi masses -- but doesn't seem very evident so far.

The other thing to remember, though, is the extraordinary political value every administration in recent memory has placed on the lives of on American soldier. Including yours.

Fargo, N.D.: If the Kurds enter the fray, what safeguards are in place to assure there won't be ethnic cleansing or payback for atrocities committed on the Kurd's by Saddam's regime? If Turkey enters the fray, will that cause an expansion of the war.

Karl Vick: A place that knows something about wind, Fargo.

There are no safeguards in place that I'm aware of beyond the huge and, from here, quite obvious investment the Kurdish ruling parties have made in their partnership with the US. They want to keep the US as happy as possible in order to improve the odds of getting a constitution to their liking on the other end of all this. One with a federal system that devolves from Baghdad much of the authority (read autonomy) they have enjoyed for the last 12 years under the no-fly zone.

And these parties -- the PUK and KDP, to go immediately to the shorthand -- are, though quite distinct, both essentially popular, grass-roots based liberation parties. They exercise considerable suasion over their people. Which doesn't mean hot blood won't rise and atrocities be avenged, Balkans-style. But the stakes are high for the parties, and they've done a lot of advance work to calm people down.

The other day I heard a guy who lost 3,000 acres outside Kirkuk when he was driven north by Iraqi troops in '91. An Iraqi general farms it now, absentee-style. He would love to taste the man's blood, I felt, but quoted the PUK's leader, Jalal Talabani, known universally here as Mam Jalal, saying, "Mam Jalal told us that for political reasons, we must not take vengeance. But he also said I can go back and push that Arab off my land."

Jacksonville, Fla.: How's the air? I mean, any news or rumors of oil wells being set on fire in Northern Iraq?

Karl Vick: Air: Dusty.

No oil fires being reported to my knowledge. There was one on fire for weeks; you'd see cars coming from the Kirkuk side of the front line covered in goo. But it was an industrial accident, we're told. Nothing like that since. Even the Kurds say they can't confirm the rumors of rigs being wired to blow.

Boston, Mass.: What exactly are all you reporters doing out there? The front is hundreds of miles away. the local Special Ops operate in secret. The Kurdish leaders seem mostly out of the loop. Nice hotels? Good food? Or just waiting for the collapse of Saddam?

Karl Vick: We are smoking fat ceegars and pinching waitresses. Come on over, Mr. Bean.

Oxford, Ohio: Mr. Vick, Thanks for having this forum. I imagine there are lots of questions out there. However, there's only one thing that really puzzles me about the Kurdish region. What interest does the Turkish government have in wanting to invade and occupy a region where the people have thoroughly made it clear they hate the Turks? The Kurds within their own country really want independence from Turkey, why would they want more kurds under their government? Wouldn't that just create a larger oppositional force?

Karl Vick: Good, logical question. I can only answer that it's power politics. I'm usually based in Istanbul, so kind of appreciate the peculiarity of the Turkish outlook. The country has perhaps the fiercest vision of nation-state going. The nation's founder, who is worshipped -- worshipped -- more than half a century after his death, decided that "Turkishness," being proud of being a Turk, would be the quality that made a nation from the shambles of the Ottoman Empire after WWI.

Kurds, however, kind of didn't go entirely for that. They already had an identity. Ataturk, the founder, referred to them as "mountain Turks." And the military he designated as guardians of his vision to this day pushes down the notion of Kurdish identity, which it sees as treasonous.

At the same time Turkey was being formed, in the early 20s, Kurds were told by the League of Nations that they'd get a country of their own: Kurdistan. It would involve about a third of what is now Turkey.

Sorry to go on, but these are the tensions that played into the Kurdish separatist movement that sparked a civil war that claimed 30,000 lives in the 1990s. And that has Turkey threatening to send troops into Northern Iraq to, ah, discourage any notion of Iraq's Kurds seeing or using the current war as an opportunity to break Iraq's north off from the rest and finally having a Kurdish republic. Which likely would encourage Turkey's separatists, dormant since '99.

Capitol Hill, Washington, D.C.: Why hasn't the US moved against Ansar before? Their strongholds are not controlled by Saddam, but are more or less U.S.-friendly, and their existence and links to al Qaeda are well known. Couldn't the U.S. have bombed them anytime after Sept. 11, 2001?

Karl Vick: I don't think they were really on anyone's radar until late last year.

In fact, Ansar itself only formed in September 2001, forming out of the splintering of some more moderate Islamic groups long active around Halabja, partly because Iran is nearby and encourages these movements even though Iran is Shia and some of the movements almost radically Sunni.

Has to do with regional politics again: Iran has Kurds, too. And likely doesn't want the PUK and KDP to be too very successful examples to its own Kurdish population.

McLean, Va.: Mr. Vick,

How hard is it for you and your fellow journalist's to move around the area your in? Also,Where did you cross the border from Turkey and what's the situation with journalists coming over at this time?


Karl Vick: Turkey hasn't been letting journalists over the border, with one large exception in advance of last month's opposition conference in Arbil.

Most of us got here thru Iran, which is stingy with visas. There'd probably be hundreds more of us here otherwise.

Once we're here it's not hard at all to move around. It's really a very good working environment once, you know, you get past the car bombs.

Woodbridge, Va.: Karl,

We've been hearing about a buildup of forces in Northern Iraq being airlifted in. But, this buildup seems too little too late to have any involvement in an assault on Baghdad, or any other major enemy position for that matter. Exactly what is the mission and objective of any force assembling in Northern Iraq?

Karl Vick: The guys coming in are all special ops. I don't think anyone expects Kurdistan to be a platform for any kind of substantial invasion force, at least not since Turkey shut the door.

Besides the guys gunning for Ansar, the other special forces probably are here to work their way toward the two cities that will be the major objectives of a Northern Front: Kirkuk and Mosul.

The expectation here -- fed mostly by leaks from Pentagon and briefings elsewhere -- is that those cities will be taken by airborne assault. Maybe SF will take a runway on the government side near those cities, or otherwise prepare the way for the helicopters or parachutes or other means of descent.

State College, Pa.: Any word on what's going on out in western Iraq? I know there's lots of folks busy out there, but no embedded journalists.

Karl Vick: No recent word, though the Special Forces guys took those two airfields no code-named Exxon and Shell in the first days of the war. They also did their Scud-hunting, looking for the mobile launchers that might threaten Israel and complicate everything.

A Kurd who was at the airfield the first night the C-130s came in said they came from the south, for what that's worth. Presumably Jordan but who knows?

Karl Vick: That'll have to do it for now. Got to hop to an interview. Thanks for the grounding, and hope to chat again before too long.


© 2003 The Washington Post Company