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Karl Vick
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War in Iraq: Northern Iraq
With Karl Vick
Washington Post Foreign Service

Wednesday, April 9, 2003; 3 p.m. ET

As images of celebration emerge from Baghdad, where Iraqi citizens seem to be jubilantly celebrating the demise of Saddam Hussein, the Kurds in northern Iraq are also celebrating what seems to be the end of a regime of repression.

Washington Post foreign correspondent Karl Vick is observing the scene live from the city of Sulaymaniyah, and was online Wednesday, April 9, at 3 p.m. ET to share his perspective.

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 from a very happy place. The sound of cheers and honking horns has risen from the street below my hotel window for more than eight hours now. Sulaimaniyah, the city in Kurdish northern Iraq where I've basically lived for more than two months, is just about beside itself. Families promenade in their best clothes. Cars, trucks and every now and then a tractor parade an endless joyous circuit down the main drag and up again. The Kurds, they are whooping it up. Reminds me of Pristina after the Serbs vamoosed, only without the celebratory fire. A relative comfort to those of us on upper floors.

On with the show.

Wheaton, Md.: Is it now safe to assume that Kurdistan has been liberated from illegal Arab occupation and the Kurds will have their own state with UN membership?

Karl Vick: Absolutely. My best advice: Start shopping midtown Manhattan office space now, before the Timorese snap up the best views.

We jest of course. The Kurds insist they are committed to a free and unified Iraq. And even if they smile when they say it -- a free and independent Kurdistan being a concept that quickens the heartbeat of every Kurd -- they are acting as if they mean it. They haven't made a move without U.S. approval, and appear to be making good on their constant assurances that they will look for fulfillment in a democratic Iraq. One that protects the rights that the Baathists and other Baghdad governments have denied them.

No evidence they intend to do otherwise, but obviously everyone will be watching closely what happens in the days head, especially in Kirkuk, the government-held (still) city that means the most to the Kurds.

Joe Bestul, Atlanta, Ga.: Karl:

What are your impressions of the Free Iraqi Force? Do they appear competent and professional enough to serve as the basis for a defense force for a new Iraqi government?

P.S. Good to see an LHS grad make good!

Karl Vick: Joe! As I live and breathe…

The Free Iraqi Force is not what might be called an effective fighting force. Nor apparently does anyone pretend they are. A few hours ago I was in Dokan, the lakeside village in northern Iraq where the Iraqi National Congress assembled the several hundred who were flown to Iraq's south over the weekend. A former Iraqi brigadier whose own party had contributed 85 of the total allowed as how, "they have not been prepared from the military point of view."

But that's not what they're about. The whole point is to have a bunch of Iraqis -- Arab Iraqis, not just Kurds, though there are quite a few among them -- to put before cameras that have had only Marines and soldiers and British fusiliers to feast on. It's a question of political complexion.

That said, there's a US Special Forces contingent already teaching them the basics, in Dokan at least. Most have some basic military experience, having deserted Iraq's popular forces at one point or another. And the INC is calling for the US to keep its own forces in-country for two full years. That's about 100 percent longer than Washington usually says it has in mind. I find the difference interesting, if not instructive.

Alexandria, Va.: Any signs that the Kurds are planning to send a delegation to the capital?

Karl Vick: I just a couple of hours ago saw an official of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, the party that governs this eastern half of the autonomous Kurdish zone, who was going home to pack. I think it was mostly an abundance of readiness, but maybe things will move that quickly.

The "leadership" meeting of five opposition groups -- the two big Kurdish parties, Ayatollah Hakim's Shiite group based in Tehran, the ascendant INC and the Iraqi National Accord, I believe -- were due to meet in Iraq's south on Saturday. Maybe that'll move north a couple hundred miles.

Hershey, Pa.: Do people in the north have any reason to believe Saddam is dead? Or is the display of his impotence in Baghdad sufficient for celebration?

Karl Vick: The latter, I think. The Kurds seem him as gone one way or another. As one said today, "En shallah [God willing] he is dead or will be soon."

Williamsburg, Va.: You mentioned Kirkuk. How likely is it that the Kurds will advance on Kirkuk? Seems almost inevitable at this point, with increased Turkish presence in Iraq and commensurate fighting equally inevitable. Also, are there U.S. forces in Kirkuk and, if so, would they try to keep Kurdish forces out?

Karl Vick: No US forces in Kirkuk, which has been getting bombed quite steadily for the last couple weeks.

More importantly, no US forces in the vicinity sufficient to move on Kirkuk. The 173rd got here a week or so ago, but it's only 2,000 guys. The armor they'd need to move in on and hold a city only began arriving night before last. Centcom is scrambling to get a force sufficient to the task into the north in order to make good on the US promise to the Turks that American forces will take Kirkuk and Mosul, not the Kurds, who have been told explicitly (if in private) that they have to stay outside the city limits.

Oak Hill, Va.: After seeing the Iraqi people in Bagdad celebrating the fall of Saddam and realizing that the regime has fallen, are the Saddam loyalist fighters in the Northern Iraq surrendering or giving up their fight?

Karl Vick: Too early to tell.

I suspect the forces in the north may not have gotten the news out of Baghdad yet. There's not a lot of satellite TV on that side of the line, and if command and control is as whacked up there as it seems to have become in Baghdad, it may take a while for the guys in the foxhole to figure things out. Very dicey until they do. I'd expect Centcom to let things be for a day or so to let the word get around. There'd been some kind of offensive planned on the line for quite soon -- tonight even -- but under the circumstances I'd be surprised if it went forward. Best to let things settle, I'd think.

New York, N.Y.: Do you think the Kurds will want a disproportionately large share of the power in Iraq once the fighting stops? Is there a common goal that the Iraqi factions can unite behind?

Karl Vick: Two words the Iraqi opposition seems to agree on: Democracy. Federalism.

Don't know what disproportionate means, but one thought that does occur is that, after their 12 year "experiment in democracy" here, the Kurds will be in a position to claim some expertise or experience that their Arab brethren have not enjoyed.

Mauldin, S.C.: Here in the States there are reports Billy Graham's son in conjunction with the Southern Baptist Convention is poised in Turkey to flood Iraq with the Christian message to make converts.

What is your take on the sensibility of such a mission and how do you think it will be received there or understood in the Arab world?

Karl Vick: Three words this time:




Washington, D.C.: Have any guesses where Saddam is?

Karl Vick: I just heard Ahmad Chalabi tell Wolf Blitzer that the INC is hearing he and one of his boys is in Ba'qubah, a town northeast of Baghdad. It gets better: Chemical Ali is there, too, wounded but apparently getting around.

All unconfirmed, Mr.Chalabi quickly adds.

San Diego, Calif.: Where are the Kurds in relation to Mosul and Kirkuk?

Karl Vick: The Kurds are just north of both places, say about 20 miles. They are with US Special Forces, though, and moving only on their explicit instruction. And those instructions come from CentCom, be sure. Few things are watched more closely.

See Phil Pan's story out of Ankara today about how the Turks are charting their positions hourly.

washingtonpost.com: Pan's story: Turk General Faces Tough Choice in Iraq, (Post, April 9)

Washington, D.C.: Various reporters have spoken of intense Turkish watchfulness and of possibility that Turks would invade northern Iraq if Kurds manage to get too close to northern oilfields. I understand the ethnic tensions at play there, but don't understand why the U.S. simply hasn't made it clear to Turkey that U.S. will not permit Turks to invade. Why doesn't or hasn't the U.S. warned the Turks off?

Karl Vick: As I understand things, the US has done just that, in the strongest terms it can muster to a close ally (even one that kind of let Poppa down on this one).

The point is the Turks are extremely proud, especially its General Staff, and refuse to be bossed on a question that they see going to the very core of the Turkish notion of the nation state.

Tokyo, Japan: Do you share the belief that, with Saddam gone, the true justice can only be done by undoing his crimes against Kurds and others, starting with returning displaced Kurds to Kirkuk and their land?


Karl Vick: This question of being able to return to their land and homes in Kirkuk and other government-held areas is, to Kurds, fundamental indeed. But it also holds the possibility of chaos, vengeance-taking, all kinds of messes (including provoking Turkey, see above).

The Kurdish leaders acknowledge all of this, and lately have been talking more and more openly not only about "reversing ethnic cleansing" -- their term for undoing the "Arabization" of Kirkuk and environs. They're also talking about doing it in an orderly, even judicial way, with maximum attention paid to things like land deeds and other documentation. There are several proposals kicking around, including having a statesman of international stature oversee the process.

Williamsburg, Va.: Most of the news Web sites I have looked at today feature, in a predominant way, the image of Saddam Hussein's statue falling at the hands of jubilant Iraqi citizens.

That image, however, does not seem to be featured on Al jazeera's Web page. Instead, they have chosen a far less extraordinary picture of a U.S. tank and small group of onlooking Iraqis.

How do you think the Arab press will respond to today's events? They seem, generally, to put a negative spin on the U.S. intervention. Do you think that will soften now that we see the residents of Baghdad embracing U.S. soldiers?

Karl Vick: I have the same impression. When BBC World -- the all news channel -- was showing the people in the streets of Saddam City at midday, I flipped over to al Jazeera to see if they had more. Turned out they weren't even covering it. They were still deep into coverage of the air strike on their Baghdad office the day before and the death of their journalist there.

The U.S. bombed their Kabul office, too, you might recall. I don't wonder that they wonder.

Washington, D.C.: What kind of training did you have to be a foreign correspondent and learning all about the geography, religions, different sects in Iraq. I've been following this whole thing very closely, yet I'm constantly confused about where things are, who is who, etc. Are you still learning new things every day or do you pretty much have all of this down pat? You're doing a great job, by the way.

Karl Vick: You are kind. Most of us learn it on the fly (and if it doesn't show, thank a copy editor).

After two months I've got the basics down, probably. Still learning all the time, of course. The hazard is in knowing so much you lose the forest for the trees. That's one reason I like these online chats so much: Lets you know immediately what readers know and don't know, never learned, need to hear again, and whatever happened to Dan Bestul's kid brother.

Washington, D.C.: I was pleased to see the TV images of the Iraqis celebrating in the streets of Baghdad. But one thing bothered me. The Iraqis I saw were all men and boys.

Where are all the women and girls?

Karl Vick: I haven't been to Baghdad, but you don't see women and girls all that much on the street in Muslim countries even in peaceful times. When there's been fighting very recently, probably even less, I'd suppose.

Washington, D.C.: Don't you think the Iraqi Informational Minister would be great on Saturday Night Live. Is he available for interviews? I love that guy.

Karl Vick: I just said the exact same thing at dinner! He would be brilliant. Put Jon Lovitz right out of business.

On that cheery note -- the horns are still honking outside -- I've got to scoot off to a midnight interview. Apologies for cutting it short. We'll get together soon again I hope.


© 2003 The Washington Post Company