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

Wednesday, April 16, 2003; 10 a.m. ET

For several weeks Washington Post foreign correspondent Karl Vick has been in northern Iraq, chronicling the affect of the war on the Kurds.

Vick was online Wednesday, April 16, at 10 a.m. ET live from the city of Sulaymaniyah to share his perspective as U.S.-military operations wind-down and the task of nation-building begins, which could have serious implications for the Kurdish population.

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: Greetings once again. I have just this morning left Kirkuk, the city in northern Iraq that fell the day after Baghdad, but pretty much without a shot fired in anger. There are some ethnic tensions in Kirkuk, which has been called Iraq’s Jerusalem. I’ve never been to the original, but the comparison may hold inasmuch as people who’ve been living somewhere else can work up quite a head of steam over the place. Exile politics threatened to run amuck there in the days immediately after liberation. When I left this morning, though, the city had headed the advice I once read on a seafood truck: Remain Clam.

Welcome to our show.

washingtonpost.com: Karl, thank you for joining us again today. You've been in northern Iraq since before the start of the war. Now that major military operations seem to be winding down and a U.S.-organized meeting is taking place to determine a new Iraqi government, how are the Kurds reacting? Will they be represented at the meeting and do they feel as if this war not only toppled the Hussein regime, but benefited their population?

Karl Vick:

From my perspective – in, well, Kirkuk – the Kurds have had their hands full in the north, where the liberation of Kirkuk has thrilled those displaced from it over the years, but the coverage of the bad behavior – organized looting and pillaging by armed Kurds, and attempts to force other ethnicities, Arabs and Turkmen from their homes – has given the Kurdish leaders a public relations problem. They seem to be seeing to that problem, but it’s definitely tarnished their glow a bit.

Obviously there’s a huge amount of politicking and positioning by all the parties that are looking for a role in the transitional authority, and you want to look for the Kurds to be pushing early and often to affect the form of the permanent government that comes out of the other end of the sausage machine. The Kurds want a federal system. One that devolves authority from Baghdad to the regions, and allows them to keep much the level of autonomy they have enjoyed roughly above the 36th parallel since 1991, when their “experiment in democracy” got underway below the protection of US and Brit warplanes.

I think only then will Kurds give a complete answer to part two of your question, that is whether the war has benefited them on the ground. At the moment, of course, they’re quite ecstatic.

Mt. Lebanon, Pa.: What makes anyone think that U.S. military operations in Iraq are winding down? There's fleeing Iraqi bandits to apprehend, there's the unfinished business over who's going to run northern Iraq -- the Kurds or the Turks, there's the complete mess in Baghdad, and the utter lack of any form of recognizable government in the entire country. And this doesn't include any Iranian destablization to foment or Saudi wahibi nonsense to eradicate. Man, it sounds like the complete U.S. military role is just warming up. Keep your head down; there's still evil scumbaggery about. Thanks much.

washingtonpost.com: "Though stopping short of declaring victory in Iraq -- aides said that would not come until after the Easter holiday -- Bush acknowledged in a Rose Garden speech what has increasingly become apparent on the ground in Iraq: that the war had shifted from ousting Hussein to consolidating U.S. control and civil calm." Hussein's Role 'Is No More,' President Says, (Post, April 16)

Karl Vick: I think you've got that right, mister or ma'am, dear reader nonetheless. The same thought occurred to me yesterday as I waited in the hot sun outside the main US base in Kirkuk, for a public affairs officer who never arrived. The paratroopers standing sentry were every five minutes dragging the concertina wire open then closed again for the hummer patrols and other military traffic cycling in and out of the former military airbase there (no one seemed to know its name but there were wonderful little gingerbread man airplanes lined up atop the gate, the wings kind of holding hands; there's not much that's cute in Saddamland public architecture, but there was that).

Anyway, a guy standing outside with us turned out to be from a town about 40 miles to the west. He was saying he'd come with several other Kurds from that place to tell "the coalition" -- mind, I didn't see any Poles around -- what they'd seen recently. After the Arabs in the town had dispatched about nine Kurdish police men who'd come to make peace -- the wounded one they set on fire -- the number two man from the Kirkuk Baath branch rolled up with a couple of tanks and led the assembled throng in pro-Saddam songs. Apparently this is one place certain elements had fled.

The Voice of Free Iraq, which is the coalition radio station, was broadcasting appeals for this guy's whereabouts, offering a reward and all. Don't know if the Kurds were chasing that money; the guy I talked to seemed more concerned with a couple of largish missiles the fleeing army had buried in an orchard outside town. This was a few days before Kirkuk fell, so maybe it's less likely they're WMD. But, still, there is indeed some unfinished bidness out there.

Cumberland, Md.: I have read that the Kurds have driven out a number of the Arabs which the former regime had resettled there when they drove out the Kurds. What do you think will happen with these Arabs?

Karl Vick: Yes, this is going on. Many Arabs have gotten not only warnings to clear out but even official-looking little eviction notices, with the stamp of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. The PUK and other Kurdish leaders insist these are not sanctioned and that they are telling people to keep their powder dry, that a judicial process will be set up to arbitrate competing claims for property. But it's going on in the meanwhile, especially in the villages where neither Kurdish police (who are undoing some of this damage in Kirkuk city) nor the Americans are much present. The Americans not at all, so far.

What will happen to the Arabs? Time will tell. But worth noting there are a couple kinds of Arabs. Kurdish leaders say they have no quarrel with the Arabs who have lived in Kirkuk for generations. It's a transitional area, the city is, going from foothills at the north edge of town to what could pass for high desert on the south, where the road signs point toward Tikrit and Baghdad.

But the Arabs in question -- in jeopardy -- are probably the Arabs who answered Saddam's generous offers to move to Kirkuk over the last generation or so, as part of his continuation of the "Arabization" campaign that dates back decades. Lots of these folks fled even before Kirkuk fell, fearing eviction or worse. I talked to some of those who stayed and got eviction notices; they were old men, most of them, yet several said things like, "Give us time, at least, to pack and move in an orderly way." I got the sense they were not keen to stay where they weren't welcome, but maybe the transitional authority the US is trying to put in place will undo that feeling. Big maybe, though.

Gullsgate, Minn.: The decency of human beings in times of crisis is something I keep looking for in reports from journalists -- yet to assume the possibility of the humane existing like a jewel among the anger and pain and anarchy, is to predicate prematurely a greater truth that may not necessarily exist? And ends up reducing a particular event or qualifying a happening by toning it into a morality play? So thank the gods, whomever, for wordsmiths like Finkel and Shadid and Karl Vick here ( with his special free-wheeling rhetoric) -- who try to tell it like it is without flashing restructured pictures that may reassure us that what we do in out name is noble rather than exploitive at times as we move through these mad days and months; and try soon, to retrieve a few of our lost values? And, yes indeed, thank you all for being there.

Karl Vick: Or something.

We jest. Thanks, I believe.

Washington, D.C.: My understanding about the Kurds is that many of them were forcibly relocated under Saddam's regime. I have read that Arabic settlers were given approximately $30,000 each to take over Kurdish lands. Do you foresee an attempt by the Kurdish people to reclaim their land, and, if so, won't this start a civil war?

Karl Vick: The figure quoted in Decision 42, which edict cemented the Baghdad gov't's offer to the wandering Bedouin to consider an apartment bloc in Kirkuk, was 10,000 dinars.

Today, that would be about $1.50. It must have been more then.

St. Petersburg, Fla.: Do you get much seafood in Sulayminiyah?

Karl Vick: There is a lake fish brought down from the Dokan reservoir. Kind of like salmon if it's fixed right, on a grill beside an open fire with not too much creosote.

Some call it carp. I prefer not to think so.

Iowa City, Iowa: I was wondering how the Iraqis (Arabs, Kurds, etc.) reacted to the shooting in to the crowd in Mosul by U.S. troops which resulted in about 11 people dead and over a hundred injured (and which incidentally was not covered by The Washington Post even though it was arguably the most important news story yesterday).

Karl Vick: We are guilty as charged on that one. Our reporter who usually does Mosul was out and about in the countryside documenting the assertion of Kurd-dom in the hinterlands, and the suffering of the Arabs being evicted. Then he was summoned to Syria, where of course there's real news going on even as we squeak.

Me, I'm not operative in that sector, and about to head toward Iran, also "in the news" as Christopher Glenn had it. Painful as it is to plug a competitor, I'd probably hop on over to www.latimes.com and read Paul Watson's account. He took a blade in the buttocks at the start of that particular melee, and rates reading for many other reasons as well, ordinarily.

Cumberland, Md.: Why do I get the impression as I read reports and complaints about what is going on in Iraq that people who are both reporting and complaining have forgotten what the aftermath of WW II looked like. For example the French hung 3,000 colaborationists from lamp posts in one day, there was disorder in Germany -- looting, rape, murder etc. for many months after Keitel signed the armistice.

Do people like you Mr. Vick have such a limited knowledge of history that all memory of the chaos after WW II has been forgotten? Remember it all got sorted out in the end. Don't you think this is much tidier than the aftermath in W. Germany in WW II?

Karl Vick: It is an imperfect world, despite the hand-wringing. Sir, you have me there. This does seem a good deal tidier than the aftermath of World War II.

Washington, D.C.: How long do you plan to stay in northern Iraq. Is there a sense for the foreign correspondents that the story is on the wane?

Karl Vick: Lots of them are gone already, scampering down to Baghdad to make toward Jordan overland, or onto the C-130s that go back empty toward Romania but will accept the burden of an American correspondent if you ask nice and give them a copy of your passport.

Me I'm headed in the next couple of days toward Iran, as I say. There is a sense of the place emptying out, but I must say there's also no end of really fascinating stories all around. This is usually about the point where I pitch up, and remain diverted for weeks at a time. But after two and a half months without a day off, I'm pretty well baked. Will do some news reporting in Tehran and then have a little lie down.

Watch for M.B. Sheridan in this space. She's making her way up to greater Kurdistan from Baghdad tomorrow, I understand.

New Concord, Ohio: Is there any chance that Saddam is going the Enver Pasha route, hiding in the hills with a small band waiting for a propitious moment to start a Ba'athist uprising? Could that be a monkey wrench in remaking Iraq's government or a smaller nuisance?

Karl Vick: I could dig that. He'd have a hard time finding hills in Iraq, though, that didn't have Kurds in them already. Would take the fun out of that particular approach almost immediately.

I did hear he's got tanks, though, and some other armor. This from a guy who spoke to a guy in Tikrit yesterday. The original source was from a village the big guy had slaughtered after local residents had, ah, made an attempt on his life (a very colorful one, involving sacrificial sheep and a woman's bloody palmprints on the headlights of his car, which he then neglected to get back into, so the gunmen waiting ambush in the orchard outside town riddled the wrong vehicle with their angry fire, opening the way for the bulldozers, etc.).

Anyway, the guy claimed to know where Saddam was holding out, with his tanks. No idea if this vital word was passed to "the coalition" but he did seem to understand there was a reward.

Terre Haute, Ind.: Sure, the scale of upheaval was different in post-WWII Europe, but the expectations were different too. It did come in the aftermath of the worst conflict in human history. Saying "Oh, Iraq is going much better than that, get over it" is comparing apples and oranges.

Karl Vick: You have a point there. Certainly the age of television and the concurrent rise of the narrative -- the individual's story -- has gotten us somewhere pretty close to zero tolerance on bad things happening to people just standing there.

Somerville, Mass.: Is the U.S. refusing to maintain order because they are short on troops? If they had waited until the 4th ID had arrived, they would have had enough men to easily guard all the ministries, museums, libraries and hospitals. As it is the cultural history of Iraq, and civilization itself, has been forever lost to a significant degree with the lost of the national museum, National Library, A major Islamic library and who knows what else. Isn't this a historic failure in post occupation planning by the U.S. It reminds one of the times invaders allow the Library of Alexander to burn. Those invaders are still hated by anyone that cares at all about history. Will the U.S. be remember in the same vein for our failures?

Karl Vick: History buffs unite! My what a fine flurry of throwback hoohah. I like it.

Only part of that one I can begin to get my paws around is the 4th ID. No question the US forces are understaffed, especially in the north. You wouldn't see the Kirkuk oilfields still being looted (or at least I hope you wouldn't) if Gen. Parker had more than the tiny little contingent he has, as many men as you can throw out of an airplane so they look bigger when they get closer to you, plus a few planeloads after.

It is a mighty light footprint the US has in the north. A lot of why Mosul is in the state it's in -- though it's a thoroughly Baathist place, and was billed as a stronghold. Luckily Kirkuk has held it together pretty well so far or Turkey would be in even deeper water than it is already with its valued strategic ally.

Vienna, Va.: Do the Kurds remain apprehensive about a terrorist chemical attack against them?

Karl Vick: Don't seem to be, no. I mean, Saddam is gone, or at least his launch platforms seem to be. The return of the thousands who fled the cities in the first days of the war --because they feared the cities were the likeliest targets of chemical-weapon-laden missiles -- attests to that.

And the only other known threat, the militant Ansar al Islam group, also lost its base, in the joint Special Forces-pesh merga attack, also in the first days of the war.

Wheaton, Md.: It seems almost certain that Turkey will invade Kurdistan as soon as the U.S. and U.K. leave. Is there a plan for when this happens?

Karl Vick: I rather doubt it myself, but lord knows. If there really were a breakaway Kurdish republic it'd be Anything Can Happen Day.

But absent that, I think the plan is to attain assurances that Turkey will in fact do no such thing. And strained as the US-Turkey alliance may be at the moment, the States is in fact Turkey's strongest and most necessary ally, even if the noncooperation over this war could be traced in part to the candidate casting longing glances at the EU.

For reference, six months ago Turkish leaders were talking ardently about achieving with the United States the kind of "special" relationship that Israel has.

Somerville, Mass.: Please!!, It would have taken at most 200 men to protect all the cultural centers, and I don't remember the Louvre being looted after WW II, so someone protected it. To protect all the hospitals, against determined looters it would have taken perhaps 2,000-4,000 (20 or 40 men squads) which would have been a significant deployment. Easily doable if the 4th ID was in place before the war started, but still hard. Given the response of the Iraqis to U.S. troops, however, I would bet any significant show of force and resolve would have stopped the looting at the most important places.

Karl Vick: Yessir. Deterrence is everything, unless it's deterrence. One tank, five guys, and Bob's your uncle.

We are together on this, major.

Dulles, Va.: You related to the fleet-footed, strong armed Michael?

How likely is military action against Syria?

Karl Vick: Is there a photo with this chat?

Dunno. Hard to imagine even this White House would go after Syria, but it does seem to enjoy watching Syria seriously consider the question.

From a personal perspective, I'm just glad the same loose talk isn't about Iran, where domestic politics are so delicate and sensitive to every little stifled belch, or even rumors of a change in the menu that might, down the road, produce one.

Alexandria, Va. & Ria: Karl,
You mentioned you'll be moving on to Iran. What is the attitude in Iraq about Iran, given the war and all?

Karl Vick: I'll have to get back to you about that from Iran. I've been so far in the dark -- there's no internet in Saddamland, and damned little power to recharge the satfone and it's 9600 baudrate -- that I dasn't dare comment.

Harrisburg, Pa.: What is the mood of the Kurdish people you've met, and what are their expectations? Do they believe that, once again, they have fought hard in initial hopes that a Kurdish state will be granted with expectations of being denied again, or do they see hopes for some type of greater autonomy? How will they react if they do not receive as much as they had hoped?

Karl Vick: Kurds: Happy.

My sense is that they'll stay that way if they don't loose the autonomy they've got. As a tribal leader in Chamchamal, a grubby little frontline town about an hour from here, put it to me: "We'll take federalism and then try for independence later!" I can't imagine that later is coming any too soon; what do you need a flag and an army for if you've got your rights and your culture (and no Turkish army to fight) in a free and democratic Iraq?

Now to get one....

Cumberland, Md.: A little more history for Summerville, Mass.
The great Berlin Museum was looted and pillaged by the Russians. Many of the Berlin Museums were looted and many historical treasures vanished -- including the Quedlingburg Bible which was stolen by American soldiers. Yes great museums and works of art were looted and pillages by Soviet and U.S. troops.

Karl Vick: Summerville, you gonna take that guff?

washingtonpost.com: Karl, again, thank you so much for joining us today and for the past couple of months. You've got an open invitation from here on out.

Karl Vick: Pleasure is all mine. Maybe we can try it from Tehran if I get that excellent connection at the Melal.

Ya'll take care.

© 2003 The Washington Post Company