Talking with the enemy

The thin men sitting in the hut are the lucky ones: Iraqi soldiers who escaped U.S. bombs and Saddam's "execution committees."

Published March 31, 2003 6:06PM (EST)

The large room has eight men in it, all of them sitting on sections of gray office carpet. They are thin and sit close together around a small gas heater because it is March and the nights in Arbil are still cold. They are talking about their situation. Other men come into the room with Kalashnikovs and wearing fatigues but these new men do not sit and instead stand at the edge of the carpet. The thin men sitting by the heater watch the men with the guns closely, with open expressions.

When a journalist arrives, they immediately offer him a piece of their carpet to sit on and a glass of water. The men all stand and say hello with their hands over their hearts, a gesture of sincerity and respect in the Islamic world. After the introductions, a man with a shaved head leans in close and whispers in English, "I have been in Italy," a way of making a connection with a foreigner. He says this the way someone might say, "I have been to El Dorado."

The men on the carpet do not have haunted looks or hollow stares or pitiful demeanors. All of them seemed relieved. They are waiting for the end of the war so they can go home to places like Basra, Nasiriya and Baghdad. In the meantime, they are expecting the Red Cross to help them, since the men happen to be Iraqi soldiers who have recently surrendered along the winding border with Kurdistan.

This border, a static line for the past 12 years, is now in motion, the Iraqi front receding fitfully back toward Mosul and Kirkuk after each wave of U.S. bombing. The border is melting away, with Iraqi forces slowly withdrawing from the network of ridges and checkpoints back to the urban centers. Every time the border shudders backward and Iraqi Kurdistan takes a step toward Kirkuk and Mosul, a few frightened Iraq soldiers manage to give themselves up. It seems that there should be many more such surrenders, but according to the soldiers' accounts, the threat of being shot by Iraqi officers is nearly as great as the bombs.

Before they arrived in Kurdistan and successfully made contact with the Kurdish fighters, the peshmerga, the Iraqis had to contend with a variety of hazards, in addition to American air strikes and summary execution. They were short on food and worn down by lack of sleep and shelter, and besieged with thunderstorms and heavy rain. Stationed on exposed ridges while their commanders slept a safe distance away from the front, the soldiers were immobilized by the constant fear of Iraqi military intelligence, the Istakhbarat.

Once a soldier makes the bold decision to cross the lines, he is essentially a fugitive from all parties to the war. Capture by his own countrymen means certain death, and he does not know what will happen at the hands of the Kurdish forces. Staying at his post on a mountaintop where the U.S. government has mapped each emplacement with an electronic marker for air strikes does not increase his odds of survival either. If a deserter goes back home to be with his family, he faces immediate arrest by the security apparatus. It's impossible not to be moved by the rawness of their deal as conscripts, the magnitude of the forces against them.

The soldiers who speak with me choose new names to protect their families from retribution. "Falah Tal Afar," the Iraqi who mentions that he's been to Italy, is a lucky man. When he surrendered to Kurdish forces at Kalak on Friday morning, he had already lived through nearly a week of continuous U.S. bombing of his position in the mountains close to the town. News footage released over the past week showed the green hills erupting into gray jets as the explosives struck them. Even half a mile from the detonations, it is much like being punched in the chest; the air lurches and cracks.

"On Sunday and Monday there was bombing and I didn't sleep for 24 hours," he says. "I went to my commanding officer, Zaydan, and he said you must defend and die here and stay at your position. I stayed at my post until Wednesday, but the American planes were strafing us and I was frozen and I couldn't move. I went back to officer Zaydan to ask him to leave the position and he told me the same thing before, that I must defend my country. Then he told me to go to another post and instead I went to a place near the Khazar road and hid in a place where they keep water. Because I was worried about what officer Zaydan would do, I went back to my post on the ridge on Thursday morning where I dug a trench and covered it with a blanket to avoid the airplanes. I hid there. When they attacked, a big piece of shrapnel landed very close to me, so I left the position with my Kalashnikov and blanket and went up into the mountains." Tal Afar says he spent Thursday night wandering the hills during a rainstorm, not knowing where he was.

The Iraqi soldiers are Vladimirs and Estragons whose chances of survival often seem to hover around zero.

"I crossed a mountain and in the morning saw shepherd tents. I went there and a Kurdish man gave me hot tea, bread and yogurt." When Tal Afar talks about the moment of his deliverance, the other men nod, because most of them also found Kurdish shepherds who helped them in the mountains on the Iraqi side of the front line. "I asked the shepherd how to get to a safe place and he told me the way to Kalak and said that I could go see the peshmerga there. On the road I see a pickup coming and the man is also Kurdish and he tells me that he can take me to the checkpoint and not to worry. When the driver took me there, the peshmerga welcomed me."

All of the Iraqi soldiers speak of their fear of their commanding officers and the armed security men who make sure that no one defects. The term the soldiers use is "execution committee." The men say the officers warned them that if they do successfully surrender, they will be killed by the Kurds, so they shouldn't think about it.

"Qasim Daragi," a soldier from Baghdad who was stationed not far from Falah Tal Afar, also fled the Thursday night bombing with several other Iraqis. He says he witnessed a mass execution of Iraqi soldiers who tried to quit the war. "Security officers at the Bardarash checkpoint arrested [10 soldiers] as they tried to cross into Kurdistan in civilian clothes," say Daragi. "Nageeb Salah from Baghdad, the security officer for the unit, then took a Kalashnikov and shot them against the wall of the checkpoint building. They brought soldiers from other places to watch it, so they would be frightened. Salah said before he shot them, 'Why are you not defending Iraq? We must kill you because you are not ready to defend the country.' That is why we ran away."

After Tal Afar and Daragi tell their stories, the others ask if they can describe what they have seen, but the Kurdish guard has grown tired of waiting and signals that the time for the interview is over. But the soldiers aren't ready to go. A third Iraqi prisoner wants to testify about the American bombing runs where he was stationed. "The airplanes were flying very low over our position and it was very easy for them to kill us, but they did not. They were so close we could see the pilots. We understood that it was a message and it was a warning for us. The message was, 'We don't want to kill you. Run away.'"

Qasim Daragi and Falah Tal Afar draw closer and quickly add details to their stories, making sure everything is recorded carefully. The men go back in time, years and then decades, describing stints in prison and torture at the hands of the security services. Their stories pour out in a torrent as they sit around the heater and though none of what they say could be confirmed, the accounts did not have the texture of fabrication.

In the aftermath of the Iraqi retreat, it's possible to see some of the places the Iraqi soldiers have left behind. The peshmerga moved their forces 20 kilometers closer to Kirkuk on Friday morning after the Iraqis abandoned their checkpoint at Qushtapa and retreated toward Kirkuk. The Kurdish forces walked in small groups down the road, haphazardly trying to fill the vacuum left by the Iraqi army, all of them nervous and excited, and not entirely sure if the road was safe. Iraqi soldiers mined the road before they retreated and Kurdish sappers built a display of what they had found by the side of the road. In their collection were 50 or 60 black plastic anti-personnel mines that resembled hockey pucks encrusted with mud. A sapper picked up the mines to show a television crew. It wasn't clear whether they were still armed.

In the roadside display, there were live anti-tank mines which can easily destroy vehicles and anyone unlucky enough to be inside. A fighter handled them gingerly as a crowd of journalists looked on from a few feet away. Out of the ground, the anti-tank mines looked innocuous, but the fields nearby are full of them.

On the other side of the road to Kirkuk, in a former Iraqi camp, were two identical huts, one for searching men and the other for searching women. They were empty. Low dirt barriers blocked the road where electrical wires hung from a pole, and Kurdish forces drove over them slowly. Just off the road away from the checkpoint was a small encampment, a series of low huts 50 feet from the guard house. The places where the checkpoint soldiers lived were little more than holes in the mud, scraps of paper and debris covering the floors. It was a ruin. The Iraqi checkpoint at Qushtapa was the kind of place that spoke of defeat and terror.

Sharwan, a Kurdish commander, led a small group past the Iraqi checkpoint into the no man's land between Qushtapa and Alton Kopri. Just before the town came into view, the men stopped to pick karbashk growing along the road, peeling back the outside of the leafy greens and eating the insides. They tasted like celery. As the Kurds chewed on their stalks, Sharwan said it was not safe to go any farther although no Iraqi troops were visible. In the distance, a haze of smoke rose in the space between two hills from the Iraqi oil refinery near Kirkuk and it was not yet ablaze.

Sharwan was nervous like all the peshmerga, but was matter-of-fact about it. The U.S. air strikes unsettled him. "I don't want to go any farther because the Americans don't know we are here, and I don't want to be bombed," he said. When he was asked what the plans were for Kirkuk, Sharwan said that they weren't ready to move yet because the Americans had not finished their program of air strikes. "When they strike, they make it much easier for us, so we will wait for more heavy attacks on the (Iraqi) positions."

The Kurds are not acting like the Northern Alliance forces in Afghanistan, despite their similar role. They don't race down the road before they know it is free of Iraqi troops, nor will they allow journalists to go to their new checkpoints at Alton Kopri and Qala Anjir. They say that there have been too many incidents where Iraqis have fired on television cameras, and now they need to keep the foreigners at a distance for their own safety. The peshmerga have also been forced to deal with a number of inquisitive journalists and their patience is growing short.

By Phillip Robertson

Phillip Robertson is reporting from Iraq for Salon.

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