The war in the dark

In the north, the Kurds watch the Turks and wait for a decisive U.S. strike against Iraqi forces -- and meanwhile hold their fire.

Published March 26, 2003 9:24PM (EST)

In the north, the war is a shouted rumor of troops that never arrive, and explosions just over the next ridge. Orange flashes light up the sky at night and early morning, while Iraqis fire Russian antiaircraft guns at invisible coalition planes.

It's spring and the bombings are happening during a time of sudden electrical storms and high winds. Explosions and lightning often occur within seconds of each other against the black frame of the sky, the two species of violence conjoined.

The dimensions of the northern front are hard to make out from here.

Kurdish peshmerga fighters at the Kalak and Chamchamal border checkpoints are telling the same story: U.S. aircraft have mostly avoided bombing the Iraqi front lines, and instead attack positions closer to the major cities of Mosul and Kirkuk, while leaving the hostile forces directly opposing the Kurds in place.

Meanwhile, the limited numbers of U.S. Special Forces that have come into the region are mostly engaged in fighting Ansar al-Islam, the militant Islamists linked to al-Qaida. Peshmerga fight alongside U.S. troops in that battle. Today, I was turned back at the Halabja checkpoint where Australian cameraman Paul Moran was killed by a suicide bomber on Saturday. The local authorities shut the roads after that, so witnessing the fighting with Ansar al-Islam is difficult.

But in recent hours, there have been new developments: Early Wednesday, U.S. airstrikes were reported on Iraqi front-line positions near the Kurdish frontier. And last night, CNN reported, 1,000 U.S. paratroopers dropped out of the sky and seized an unidentified air base in Kurdish-controlled territories. That is expected to clear the way for allies to airlift troops and armored battle vehicles -- and then, it appears, to open a fully operational northern front.

In the absence of clear information about the American plans, everyone speculates about American intentions. It has become an urgent pastime, particularly for those who live here. When Turkey, a longtime U.S. ally and a member of NATO, refused to let the U.S. deploy troops in Kurdistan, it left the north in a strange and unsettled limbo. It turned the peshmerga into a potentially crucial U.S.-allied fighting force. And yet the coalition is ambivalent about unleashing the Kurd fighters. The U.S. military is said to want to discourage the Kurds from moving forward on the major oil cities, Kirkuk and Mosul, keeping the resources for a national postwar government.

The peshmerga themselves say that they are not allowed to return Iraqi fire, and say that they are waiting for the Americans to arrive and help them defeat a hated regime. The wait may be longer than they expect. Even if the Kurdish forces attack those cities, it's not clear if they could win. Despite their famous bravado, there just aren't enough local militia to do the fighting. Roughly 50,000 soldiers are said to be part of the peshmerga forces.

In Iraqi Kurdistan, many are furious at a proposed Turkish military occupation of a 12-mile buffer zone on their northern frontier, and say they will immediately take up arms if troops cross the border. The Turkish prime minister insists that his troops will only enter Kurdistan in cooperation with the U.S., but few here believe that.

"Turkey believes that the Ottoman Empire still exists, and if they come here Kurdistan will be their graveyard," said a senior Kurdish military commander on condition that his name not be used. When asked if there would be a fight near the border, he suggested that journalists should go to Zakho, a small town, and wait to see what would happen. In the past week, the U.S. government has urged Turkey to steer clear of Kurdistan.

The U.S. wants to control the northern oil fields and cooperate with the Kurdish government, but does not want to cede control over Kirkuk to the Kurds. Without troops to execute its policy, the U.S. cannot achieve its goals, and the peshmerga are not in a position to take the cities by themselves -- although there are reports that many have trained with the U.S. Special Forces to prepare them for a larger role in the coming assault. But for now, it is a stalemate.

There are American military personnel in Iraqi Kurdistan, but the numbers, while growing, are still extremely small. U.S. Special Forces maintain a ghostly presence here, shunning journalists and imposing a strict code of silence on their Kurdish counterparts. In Kalak, a small border town roughly 35 kilometers east of Mosul, U.S. soldiers are said to be occupying a peshmerga fort near a mountain ridge held by the Iraqis. As of several days ago, the U.S. soldiers were invisible, but journalists are forbidden to enter the fort.

Most observers here believe that U.S. Special Forces are operating behind enemy lines, identifying targets for airstrikes and preparing for a joint coalition-and-Kurdish offensive against Iraqi positions around Mosul and Kirkuk. If this is true, it would be a reprise of their role in Afghanistan, where Americans worked with tribal fighters to weaken and demoralize the Taliban with devastating airstrikes. The Kurdish and American teams might have a more difficult job in Kurdistan than in Afghanistan, because the local militia is much less well-armed than tribal warlords and the Northern Alliance. There simply are not enough fighters to take on well-defended Iraqi positions.

Iraqi soldiers have launched volleys of mortars at peshmerga forces at various checkpoints on the winding border between Kurdistan and Saddam-controlled Iraq, but the peshmerga do not fire back. When the Iraqi soldiers see a television camera aimed in their direction, they fire down on the journalists with sniper rounds and mortars, causing them to scatter. In the past week, the shooting incidents have become more common.

During a drive from the city of Arbil to Suleimaniya, entire families could be seen camped along the road, seeking shelter from the wind in ravines. Many towns in the north are deserted now, as rumors of a coming grand battle chase families from their homes.

The pace is still too slow for many Kurds. But if the war isn't here already, it's definitely on the way.

By Phillip Robertson

Phillip Robertson is reporting from Iraq for Salon.

MORE FROM Phillip Robertson

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Iraq War Middle East