| Confronting Iraq:|
In the Field
With Karl Vick
Washington Post Foreign Correspondent
Monday, March 17, 2003; Noon ET
In the clearest sign yet that war with Iraq is imminent, the United States has advised U.N. weapons inspectors to begin pulling out of Baghdad, the U.N. nuclear agency chief said Monday. From Baghdad to Tikrit, Iraqi citizens are preparing for war. In northern Iraq, the ethnic Kurd population is preparing, too. A recent Washington Post story reports that Kurdish militia leaders have begun intense preparations for participating in a war against President Saddam Hussein's government despite repeated pledges to heed U.S. appeals to stay out of the way. Kurd Underground Prepares to Fight (Post, March 15)
Washington Post foreign correspondent Karl Vick was online live from Northern Iraq Monday, March 17 at Noon ET, to share his observations and field questions and comments as the region prepares for war.
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: Holiday greetings from northern Iraq, a.k.a. Iraqi Kurdistan. I'm in a net cafe in the city of Sulaimaniyah, a surprisingly modern city of maybe a million in the northeastern reaches of the country, about an hour and a half by road from the Iranian border. I've been here about six weeks now, coming in through Iran after a week in its vibrant capital city, Tehran. But that's another story.
Fair warning that I've been here just long enough to think I know something, which of course I don't, or at least not much. A huge amount of history in this place, most of it pretty painful; yet the feeling at the moment is very hopeful. Also apprehensive. And one wouldn't be out of line with edgy. Actually you could say almost anything at the moment and not be far wrong. There's an editor on the Post's Foreign Desk whose parting advice to young reporters being sent abroad is, "When you land in a new place write something right away before it gets complicated."
Too late now.
Gaithersburg, Md.: Karl,
You're right in the thick of it, so tell us, please: what is the perception of the U.S. by the "average" person over there? Are we bad guys, liberators, trustworthy, deceitful?
And what, if you can tell, is the perceptual legacy of the 1991 conflict? What kind of impression did we leave?
And finally, how will these folks react, do you think, once we pull the handle?
Thanks for the answers and thanks for being our eyes and ears.
People here -- Kurds, that is -- love America. At the moment at least. If there are hard feelings from 1991, when the President Bush the First urged ordinary Iraqis to rise up against Saddam with the visibly implicit promise that the US military would swing by with some support, but didn’t, it’s so much water over the dam now, I gather. This may be the most pro-Iraq war place on the globe, with none of the ambivalence visible that’s risen from Kuwait.
One has to bear in mind that I suppose that in the rankings of folks the Kurds have a bone to pick with, the U.S. falls so far beyond Saddam Hussein that it's not even visible. Most people here have family members lost among the 100,000 to 180,000 killed by Hussein's forces in the 1980s, in the anti-Kurd campaign called Anfal. And Kurds are keenly aware that, whatever the inconstancy of the US over the years, its jets (and those of the UK) are the reason they've been able to build an autonomous government beyond the reach of Baghdad's might over the last 12 years.
washingtonpost.com: Karl, thank you for joining us today. Are Iraqis aware of the fast-breaking developments today at the U.N. and from the Bush administration? If so, what is the reaction?
Karl Vick: Happy to be here. And here, to be clear, is in the autonomous north of Iraq. This is where the Kurds live, with internet cafes and satellite TV and access to other uncensored media that people living in the portions of Iraq still under Baghdad's control simply cannot see. So while almost none of the 20 million people in government-controlled Iraq can watch anything but gov't TV channels, and may not have seen Bush's tough words from the Azores yesterday (last night, here; we're 8 hours ahead of Eastern time), the Kurds saw and understood immediately.
The reaction was measured, but appreciative, I'd say. Kurds favor this war as an effort to topple their tormentor. But they also know that they're awfully close to the combat zone. I spent most of the day in a town that lies just below the guns of Iraqi forces. That town, Chamchamal, has taken a lot of artillery rounds over the years, and regards battle as something to take in stride. But this time, with the end in sight, they fear the other side will let loose some chemical weapons. The road leading away from the front toward the security of the mountains was...well, not filled with refugees, but definitely had some outgoing traffic. Tractors and trucks and cars filled with families and their belongings.
Washington, D.C.: What are the areas where you are traveling like? Do they resemble the dirt roads and outdoor plumbing we associate with Afghanistan, or are they more like suburbia here in the United States?
Karl Vick: A little of both, actually, but less like Afghanistan. The cities are quite modern. Sulimaniyah, where I am, has net cafes and a couple of quite nice modern hotels. There's a fair amount of money around, especially for traders who've made out well since the UN started sharing 13 percent of the oil-for-food money with the Kurdish region. Lots of young people around in Western clothes. There's a university kittycorner from the net cafe where I'm writing now.
The countryside is definitely more rustic -- as is the outskirts of town, for that matter. A lot of people living on the fringe of the city are displaced from their homes in the south, forced out by the Baghdad government in the effort to "Arabize" the oil cities just to the south, especially Kirkuk, or just preferring the kinship of fellow Kurds.
Beautiful country, though, especially now. The winter wheat is coming up iridescent green. Most roads are paved and not too bad, though my reference on these matters is Africa.
Swindon, U.K.: How concerned are the Kurds about Turkey taking advantage of the probable war to try and impose their control over Iraqi Kurdistan?
Karl Vick: Very concerned. In fact, when the Turks started making their moves toward the border a few weeks ago, the Kurds got so pre-occupied that the previously robust sales of gas masks -- or rather of the diapers that their civil defense authorities were advising they fill with charcoal and fashion into inexpensive substitutes for gas masks, which are few and expensive here -- and sales of plastic sheeting suddenly eased off noticeably. People stopped worrying that Saddam would send over chemical weapons (as he did repeatedly in this area in the late '80s), and grew almost consumed with angry concern about the Turks.
Turkey of course has about half the world's ethnic Kurds living in its borders, and is itself pre-occupied with the notion that Kurds in Iraq will find in the chaos of war an opportunity to assert independence. A troubling example that would be to the Turkish Kurds, the thinking goes. So they want to send troops to, ah, monitor the situation.
Orlando, Fla.: Have you heard any more regarding reports that Saddam has opened up the valves in many oil fields, allowing the oil to flood the surrounding areas, and that he has set explosives in the oil fields?
Karl Vick: The reports we're hearing from travelers and Kurdish officials with access to intelligence from the gov't side is that the trenches the Iraqi military had dug around the oil cities of Kirkuk and Mosul, just south and west of here a few dozen miles, are being filled with crude. Which presumably will be ignited at the crucial moment. A medieval defense, at best, and not likely to be very effective against bombs and missiles guided by satellites.
Could be effective against helicopters, though, I suppose.
As for the explosives in the oil fields: those reports persist but to my knowledge remain unconfirmed.
Richmond, Va.: How do the folks you're talking with view the lack of support for war from other countries such as France or Germany -- or even Turkey?
Karl Vick: Oh they don't think much of France or Germany these days, no no no. You don't hear the phrase cheese-eating surrender monkeys, it's true, but you do hear the accusation that those two nations are close to Saddam. Also that they fear that after the war it will be shown that the supported, indeed provided, the chemical and biological weapons that are supposed to be the cause of all this.
And which, in the case of chemical weapons, at least, were used against the Kurds. A few weeks ago i was in the main market at Halabja, the town where 5,000 were killed by Iraqi mustard and nerve gases 15 years ago this week. A shopekeeper who had saved an old chemical warhead -- empty and sanitized, of course -- was rolling it out to show off. Suddenly a man started hollering almost hysterically. I feared he was one of the Islamic extremists from the nearby stronghold of theirs. Turned out to be a local resident screaming that the French don't want a war because they supplied Saddam with the weapons.
And you know what? One of the long term effects of these weapons people talk about in Halabja is constant irritability and anger.
Austin, Tex.: CNN reports activity of Kurdish military preparations for probable attacks against Saddam, in spite of official Kurdish promises to stay out of the war. Obviously, this may draw Turkish forces into the country in mass. Do you see or hear of this, too?
Karl Vick: We are hearing the same things, especially on the "other side" of Kurdistan, the western part administered by the KDP, or Kurdistan Democratic Party. As my colleague Dan Williams reported from there in today's paper, Kurdish militias are working closely with US forces who have been working very discreetly here over the last few months; apparently they're teaming up a bit more in the days before an attack, perhaps with forward air controllers and other specialists embedded with pesh merga, as the Kurds call their fighters. If I've got that right, it's a practice carried over from the Afghanistan war, and would indeed seem to at least somewhat belie American vows that they did not see the Kurds in the role of the Northern Alliance.
That probably would irk the Turks. But the Americans can come back with: What did you expect? You wouldn't open up the bases to our land forces, so we've got to work with what we can.
No question, though, that Turkey's lack of cooperation improved the Kurds hand on the ground, at least inasmuch as they're more valuable than ever to the US special ops and commando types they've been hosting (and bonding with) these many months.
Turks, Kurds and US in Ankara today trying to iron it all out. US very much wants to keep Turkey out of the north.
Olney, Md.: What do you think the chances are that Americans, such as reporters, in N. Iraq will be specifically targeted by terrorists or others? How concerned are you for your own safety?
Karl Vick: We keep getting reports that Ansar, the extremist group that holds a section of a valley on the Iranian border about an hour from here, is indeed targeting the Western journalists swarming over the area. And they're nutty enough to do it. One of their suicide bombers took out a Kurdish checkpoint a couple of weeks ago.
The local authorities are keenly aware of the threat, though, and seem to be working very hard to keep us safe without freaking us out. There are guards and even a machine gun mounted on a truck outside one hotel where a lot of us are staying, and sentries posted other places we frequent.
I must say, though, I've been more apprehensive about that threat than the prospect of covering the war ahead. One expects this to change in a day or so...
Washington, D.C.: This is a great discussion. What kind of expectations do you think will people have after a war with Iraq? Do Kurds seek complete independence? Do they want to remain autonomous?
Karl Vick: The Kurds very much want independence. They say so frequently and openly, so frequently and openly that it has the effect of boosting their credibility when they add: But we know we can't have it, so we are sincere about being willing to settle for autonomy.
Their clarion call does seem to be "federalism," meaning a weak central government in a system that will let them continue the local administration they've put in place here over the last 12 years. If they can enjoy their culture unmolested, speak their language, govern themselves to some extend and see that their rights are protected, they don't need a flag and an army of their own, they say; they'll have what they need -- and more than they've had for most of the last century, a century pocked by liberation struggles they never quite managed to win. That's sunk in here, I think.
Bethesda, Md.: How does the Kurdish population feel about the prospect of a U.S. general running the country for years to come?
Karl Vick: They seem fine with that. Eyes here are on the prize: that is, the form of government that Iraq ends up with after the Americans and interims are gone. The mantra here -- you hear it from peasants, for crying out loud -- is 'an independent, pluralistic, democratic, parliamentarian, federated Iraq."
Washington, D.C.: How long do you think Mosul and Kirkuk could hold out after having been cut off from Baghdad? And how big are those cities? Thank you. I must say it is exciting to have this "conversation."
Karl Vick: Good question. Kirkuk I think is about a million people, Mosul must be comparable. How long they hold out is anybody's guess, but a couple of weeks ago Hussein summoned the Republican Guard division in Mosul, the Adnan Division, back to Baghdad. Was hearing reports in last couple days that the Guard division in Kirkuk was also being withdrawn, or at least seriously depleted, but not able to confirm that.
Seems fairly clear, though, that he's going to remain true to his announced plan to make a hard final stand in the capital. If only regular Army units are left defending other cities they should fall pretty quickly. Those guys are not well cared for and have nothing to gain by fighting, from all I hear.
Irvine, Calif.: Have you met our Special Forces there? How are they doing?
Karl Vick: Sorry, this connexion suddenly got r-e-a-l-l-y slow.
Have not had the pleasure of meeting our boys in shades. They are but glimpsed on the commodious byways of Kurdistan, in distinctive-enough convoys of late-model white Land Cruisers known locally as "Monicas." Because of the rather voluptuous fenders.
By all accounts they are doing just fine. Only hearsay, though.
Cambridge, Mass.: Hi Karl. How do you see the Turkey/Kurdish situation playing out -- short term and long term? Stay safe.
Karl Vick: All guesswork, of course, but short term I've got to assume the US will be able to prevail upon the Turks to stay on their side of the border and trust their NATO ally and strategic ally (the USA) to enforce its pledge about keeping Iraq in one piece.
Assuming that happens, and the Kurds of Iraq are more or less satisfied with the form of government that emerges postwar, I'm optimistic long term as well. Basically, the lot of Kurds both in Turkey and Iraq should improve over time, provided their governments do as well. The future well-being of Turkey's long-oppressed Kurdish population lay with Turkey's acceptance in or at least movement toward the European Union, which will be the guarantor of the basic rights of expression and assembly so long denied by the Kemalists of the Turkish Republic. Or so I say.
Pittsburgh, Pa.: What are your plans for the next 24-48 hours? What plans do the people in the region you are in have should the area be targeted if/when "it" all starts?
Karl Vick: I'm doing some last-minute logistical planning -- packing my rented Land Cruiser with the provisions (water, sardines, cookies), sleeping bags, body armor, gas masks and other stuff the driver, translator and reporter (that's me!) will want to have close at hand. Will be chatting a lot with other reporters here; everyone is trying to figure out which way to pivot -- toward Kirkuk, to the southwest, toward Ansar, which the US is supposed to be attacking at some point in the coming festivities, to the southeast, toward the Turkish border in the north, if the Turks do come in and the Kurds raise guns to meet them?
No one's really much looking forward to the next few days, and anyone who is will probably have another think on it after hearing the distant thunder of bombs and that haunting roar fighters make even at 10,000 feet. But there is some sense of anticipation as well as dread. With luck the roads will be clear and not ambiguous, which is the worst, the very worst thing to deal with, uncertainty. But everyone will be taking temperatures and trying to find out what's going on around the next bend before setting off. Journalists seem much less inclined to assess risk on the fly since so many were killed in Afghanistan; we all look out for each other. There are worst places to be.
Off to do some real work. Wonderful batch of questions, and thanks for the expressions of concern. With any luck we'll try to do it again in the not too distant future.
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