SEARCH:     Search Options
 News Home Page
 National Security
    Confronting Iraq
 Search the States
 Special Reports
 Photo Galleries
 Live Online
 Nation Index
 Real Estate
 Home & Garden
 Weekly Sections
 News Digest
 Print Edition
 Site Index

Karl Vick
• Recent Stories By Karl Vick
• War In Iraq Special Report
• War In Iraq Discussion Transcripts
• Talk: World Message Boards
• Live Online Transcripts

• NEW! Subscribe to the daily War In Iraq or weekly Live Online E-Mail Newsletters and receive highlights and breaking news event alerts in your mailbox.

War In Iraq:
In the Field

With Karl Vick
Washington Post Foreign Service

Wednesday, April 2, 2003; 11 a.m. ET

Washington Post foreign correspondent Karl Vick was online live from Northern Iraq Wednesday, April 2 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: Hello again. I'm still in Sulaimaniyah, the city in the autonomous Kurdish zone of northern Iraq ("free Iraq as the Kurds like to say). Two weeks into the war I expected, like all the other journalists in these parts, to be somewhere farther south. But it has not been to be. I'm sure the questions will go into why. And it's not like there's not things going on, some of them nasty enough. As I walked down the hall to this net cafe a colleague told me that a cameraman stepped on a landmine this afternoon, apparently fatally. Details just coming in, but another reminder that it's a war zone nonetheless.

Washington, D.C.: Karl, have you had a chance to get to the captured Al Ansar compound? If so, can you give us a first-hand account?

Karl Vick: I did visit their former turf, a couple of times actually. On Friday, the day they retreated from all their villages, I caravaned in with a few hundred pesh merga, as the Kurds call their militia, to Biyara, a sumptuously beautiful village that had been Ansar's headquarters. It was just full of triumphant Kurds and some kind of tired looking Special Forces guys who had basically organized the huge infantry charge -- 6,000 pesh, from four directions -- who had won the day.

Two days later I went into Sarget, another mountain village that Ansar had held. It was more a military training camp and military HQ, or rather it had been. Cruise missiles and bombing runs had made a hash of everything. But there was enough to see that they'd been up to some fairly nasty things there: munitions stacked everywhere -- including in bunkers the bombs had missed, some more like caves. Also TNT containers, gadgetry for suicide bombings, and a lot of literature that is only now being translated.

SF colonel in charge said they found documents and materials that lead them to believe Secretary of State Colin Powell's assertion that Ansar -- and its al Qaeda cousins -- had a poison factory on the site. I have no way of telling, and the colonel added that the material in question had been dispatched Stateside for analysis.

Both my stories should be in the Post's 14 day free archive, by the way. More detail there.

washingtonpost.com: Kurdish-U.S. Assault Takes Town, (Post, March 29)

New York: Do Kurds keep chemical weapons protective gear around? Are they worried about a possible use of these weapons against them again?

Karl Vick: They wish they had it. Very little in the way of chem protection gear in Kurdistan. What little is available in the downtown market -- in the military section of the central bazaar -- has been snapped up by visiting journalists. Not for themselves, in most cases, but rather for their translators and drivers. Almost all of the journalists arrive pretty well kitted out by their employers. But if there is a scare or attack, no one wants to be reaching for their gear with two local hires looking on, ah, helplessly.

For most Kurds, the only recourse is improvisation. The local administration has advised people to seal off an upstairs room in their homes, and to fashion gas masks out of diapers, salt and charcoal. Seriously. Lots of folks have done it.

A firm US promise to provide industrial/military grade suits and masks for at least a few thousand Kurds -- top officials, emergency workers, etc -- has not come through.

washingtonpost.com: Kurds Revel in Rout of Extremist Group, (Post, March 30)

Washington, D.C.: Okay, I'll bite... why not farther south two weeks into the war, Mr. Vick?

Karl Vick: Clamp on!

Because there's no northern front! The front lines between the Baghdad government and the Kurdish zone have moved back a bit, but it's been an organized retreat prompted, apparently, by two things: The US airstrikes called in by the few hundred Special Forces who are in the area. And the demonstrated strategy of Hussein's forces to defend not the countryside but rather urban areas.

Rockville, Md.: Good morning,

I've heard reports that the Iraqi Army in the north has amassed close to 80,000 soldiers and that they're waiting for the U.S. forces to gather so that they can surround them and then hit them hard. That's the reason why the Kurds do not want to advance any further and expect the U.S. to do the fighting for them. Any insights on this?

Karl Vick: 'Morning.

I'm hearing something closer to the opposite, actually. The fighting forces of Iraq -- the Republican Guards -- are said to be heading south toward Baghdad, where the main show is getting underway. If so, this indicates the Iraqis did not take the lean bait the Pentagon dangled here, namely the 173rd Airborne, which arrived about a week ago with just 2,000 troops in an effort to keep the RG on guard, as it were, in the north.

The Kurds are not advancing, it's true. But that's for political reasons mostly. If they appear to advance south in any aggressive way it may be used as an excuse for Turkey to rush in. Turkey being skittish about Kurdish ambitions, especially toward the city the Kurds would be moving toward, Kirkuk, rich in oil for one and all, and in cultural significance for the Kurds, who regard Kirkuk as "sacred."

So far they've just put very light forces into the vacuum left by retreating Iraqis, though.

washingtonpost.com: Karl, this morning you wrote that Kurds are ready to rise up against the Iraqi regime (Kurds Ready, Willing, Unable to Cross Line). Is there any concrete plan for the U.S. to help them achieve their goals?

Karl Vick: If there is, I'm as much in the dark about it as the Kurds claim to be.

All that's really clear is that whatever the Kurds do officially -- that is, with forces understood to be under the control of the two main players here, the PUK (Patriotic Union of Kurdistan) and the KDP (Kurdistan Democratic Party) -- will be with the consent and coordination of the Americans. They really do emphasize this. So much.

Portland, Ore.: You can make a pretty good case that we (the U.S.) sold the Kurds out in the last Gulf War, despite the no-fly zones we did enforce.

How skeptical are the Kurds of the U.S. involvement now? Are they hoping, but holding back? Or are they ready to throw in their lot completely with us?

Karl Vick: You don't hear much about it. Today was unusual. I was in a town called Kifri, watching Iraqi artillery thump into the residential sections, then a US jet thump the artillery sites. A pesh merga commander I was sharing binoculars with was giving me the history of the town. When the story got to 1991, he said, "and then, when the Americans betrayed us, we had to leave again."

I mention it, though, because it was unusual (a definition of news, the desk tells me). One of the really endearing, and of course historically tragic quality of the Kurds appears to be their trust. I see no signs they are holding back. But then the US committment to the war is pretty evident, even if Turkey does seem to have made it happen mostly in the south.

Piscataway, N.J.: Do you see any signs that al Qaeda has been operating in Iraq?

Karl Vick: Some senior Kurdish officials are using "al Qaeda" to describe fighters who have rushed to Baghdad from other Arab countries to fight the US. That seems a pretty broad definition of what used to describe a specific terrorist network. I am old enough, you know, to remember the days when it wasn't enough to take orders from Dr. Ayman to be technically al Qaeda; you had to have sworn bayat, or allegiance, to OBL. Times change, I guess.

Perhaps this war will succeed in entirely fogging the distinction (never shared by all) between terror in the name of resistance and terror in the name of whatever it is Osama wants (he could be clearer).

In the classic, old-fashioned sense, I suppose the best evidence of aQ activity in Iraq might be pursued in Ansar al Islam's camp. Its founder was an early denizen of the Peshawar salons circa 1980s, and these 100 or so non-Kurd guys who showed up from Afghanistan must be viewed with a certain presumption. The only one of them taken alive in the weekend's fighting, a Palestinian, reportedly has acknowledged being al Qaeda. He told a couple of my colleagues that he had gone to Ansar to train (there being no other camps extant). His stated ambition: "I want to go to American and kill Jews."

Washington, D.C.: What are you using to talk to the world and connect to the Internet? It is amazing that you can do this. Do the troops have similar connectivity?

Karl Vick: I'm in a rather nice net cafe in a new hotel in downtown Suli, as we call this increasingly modern and pleasant town. The Kurds have done a lot with their freedom and loot in recent years, especially since the UN started sliding 13 percent of Saddam's oil-for-food revenues their way.

Net links are one thing, though; and there are a lot of them here. Telephone service is something else. We have to rely on satphones for the most part. There's a cell network but it's very dodgy indeed.

Clifton, Va.: Karl, is there such a thing as an "average day" for you there? If so, can you give us a run-down?

Karl Vick: Today wasn't atypical. I got up around 7:30 in my hotel. Checked e-mail using the satphone, then went down to breakfast. Couldn't face it in my hotel -- a very homey place, but the lobby/breakfast area is dark gray marble -- so went a couple blocks down to the bigger, newer hotel where the food is about the same -- bread and cucumbers and tomatoes and yogurt -- but there's sunshine.

Chatted with other journalists about what's going on, who's making what plans for the day. The guy from the Guardian, Luke Harding, turned out to have the same idea I had: to go see Kifri, a frontline town I'd never seen. I had the hankering even before hearing there'd been airstrikes there the day before, an Iraqi retreat, then artillery fire on the city from the departing Iraqis.

It's a two or three hour drive south -- about half the way to Baghdad, actually. We arrived in time to watch the incoming artillery fire from a safe enough perch on the roof of an administration building. Then heard the distant roar of a jet. I asked a Kurdish official: "Where are the Americans now?" He pointed to a sloping rise where the forward air controllers were apparently directing the jet. We watched a half dozen black plumes rise from the Iraqi side, talked to some people in town, looked for lunch but found that the two restaurants were closed along with most other things, and headed back.

Got back to my hotel about 6. Checked e-mail again, sending one to the desk to say what I'd seen. Started writing my story. Suddenly remembered I had an online chat. Ran over here, hearing on the way that another journalist had been killed stepping on a mine in Kifri, where I'd just been.

It had been a good day up to then.

Columbia, Md.: I have heard they are landing planes nightly at the seized air base. Have they sent in any additional troops to help out the 173rd? Are they going to send troops from the 4th Infantry now that they are in Kuwait?

Karl Vick: Yes, lots of planes coming into Harir nightly, I gather, though from what our embed with the 173rd, Steve Vogel, writes, that force is at strength with just 2,000.

Not sure where the 4th Infantry is heading, though the reports have all indicated they're coming to reinforce the siege of Baghdad.

Cumberland, Md.: Do you think there will be a true Northern Front?

Karl Vick: Personal opinion: Not much of one, or maybe not much more of one than we're seeing so far. I'm perfectly willing to be surprised -- would love it, in fact; things have gotten a little static here lately. But my sense is that the Pentagon is not looking for fresh risks after the surprise of Iraqi resistance in the south, and all the rest. They don't have a large enough force in place in the Kurdish zone to mount a serious assault on Kirkuk and Mosul -- or to hold them afterward, I should probably say -- and I don't see any signs of one being on the way. Not that I would if it were a surprise, but...

Minneapolis, Minn.: Poor Geraldo Rivera (har) was asked to leave Iraq after disclosing tactical info. How much tactical censoring are you subject to?

Karl Vick: I'm not with U.S. forces, so there's no "guidance'' or security review for my copy to undergo before it's transmitted to the Post. I suppose the SF guys could come to my room and register a complain but it's really not their way. And besides, the only thing I know about what the US is doing militarily is what I can see with my own eyes; and if I can, anyone else can too. Cuts down on the exclusives.

Manchester, N.H.: Have you seen any landmine fields? Have you had any training to detect the various types and how to avoid them?

Karl Vick: You know, it's not the ones you *see* is it?

Kurdistan, as this region calls itself, has lots of minefields, many of them made safe by MAG, a British aid group that employs hundreds if not thousands here. On the road south to Kifri today, in fact, I passed several fields plainly marked by bright red metal signs. So that's a known danger; in the dozen years the Kurds have had their autonomy here, they've done a lot of good work identifying and removing mines.

The danger now, of course, is mines the Iraqis have planted as they retreated. The guy who reportedly stepped on one today was filming on their old position at Kifri, a place called The Castle, where other journalists were saying they'd been walking themselves just hours earlier.

Gullsgate, Minn.: As a sidebar with little significance, but -- where have all the flowers gone? When you speak of a beautiful village, is the Oleander in bloom?

Karl Vick: Gullsgate. Is that near Nisswa? Paul McEnroe greets you, I'm sure. He's the guy (Mpls Star Tribune, one of my old papers, or halfway so anyway) who just gave me the news on the mine accident.

I don't know about the Oleander, but the wildflowers are outstanding. There are whole fields of little yellow fellas in the Halabja Valley; the Ansar battlefield has to be one of the more gorgeous fields of fire in the annals of war. And stopping on the road south today I picked a brilliant red something or other. Kind of like an impatiens, however it's spelled. This is a beautiful, beautiful part of the planet.

Mt. Lebanon, Pa.: Hey, Karl. Did those U.S. "cowboys" ever rope them Turkish cows and herd them back into their own pasture? I understand Sec Def Powell is over there now at Rancho Ankara working a deal to get better fencing along the border. Have you seen any of them wayward cows over your way? It's tense enough up there without dumb livestock wandering into the fire fight between coalition troops and Iraqi forces and their proxies. Keep your head down. Happy Trails. Thanks much, Pard.

Karl Vick: They all appear to be corralled, for now anyway.


Silver Spring, Md.: How far is Tikrit, Saddam's ancestral home, from Kurdish-controlled territory? If the Northern front collapses entirely, would the Kurds move that far and vent their hatred on this place? How far south would they want to claim?

Karl Vick: I don't have a map in front of me, but Tikrit is the next obvious stop south of Kirkuk. When I said up top that I expected to be south my now, the assumption was that two weeks into the festivities the whole press pack would be in Kirkuk watching for ethnic warfare, or have moved south to Tikrit, where the fighting would be intense. It's the Hussein Homestead, after all, and presumably he'd want to fight for it.

Instead, here we all are, happily ever online.

It can't last.

washingtonpost.com: That's all the time we have for today. Thanks for joining the discussion.

© 2003 The Washington Post Company