"All kinds of metal was flying through the air"

Under withering Iraqi fire, I hunker down on a hilltop with a handful of U.S. and Kurdish soldiers -- and cheer the cluster bombs.

Published April 5, 2003 1:28AM (EST)

Twenty men are moving quickly across the green field toward a bunker of red earth on a hill. The hill overlooks the town of Khazar, and beyond Khazar is Mosul. We can almost see the city. The sky is overcast, but the sun is behind the clouds, and they make a bright screen. Until now, everyone has been looking down the road to the west because that is the direction the front is going. As recently as Wednesday night, Iraqi regime soldiers were retreating away from Kurdish-held territory, back toward Mosul on this road. In the morning, the Kurdish fighters known as peshmerga were happy when they talked about how the Iraqi lines collapsed during the night. Crowds of Kurdish men celebrated when the Iraqis pulled out of the ridge near Kalak. But now the situation has done a Jekyll and Hyde.

It's 10 minutes to 4 on Thursday afternoon and bad things are starting to happen.

We are just about to leave, to get back in the car and drive down the road away from the front lines, because it's quiet and that is OK with us, when from our place on the hill, I see the 20 or so peshmerga running across a wheat field toward us. I turn to Sion Touhig and say, "Tell me, what does that look like?"

Sion, a photographer from Wales, has this Delphic sense for when a situation will break open, so I'm taking the temperature as we stand on the edge of the hill. Sion's ESP comes with a built-in alarm for when to jackrabbit, to bolt without dignity or restraint, which is why I'm asking is this a retreat or what, even when the answer is obvious. Our car is down the road and isn't easy to get to. As we scan the fields, more peshmerga are leaving their positions and heading back toward the road where we are.

I try to keep Sion in sight all the time as a defense against evil, but he moves around and it's hard knowing where he is. "We might have to leg it, mate," is what he says when he thinks it's not working out. "See those guys?" Sion points at some U.S. Special Forces nearby. "When they go, I go."

Here's a freakish axiom: Twenty Kurdish soldiers running toward us through a field, a field we had just crossed, is a retreat, and the invisible thing making them run is fear and something else, and just behind the fear there are other men coming who are herding them with machine guns and rifles and rocket-propelled grenades -- Baath party members or Fedayeen Saddam, because who else would do something that bold? Sion is also sure the peshmerga coming across the field represents a retreat, and just as we figure this out, the state of the world does its silent flip from OK to not OK, and then the shooting starts, bringing with it all the attendant demons of the air and their hideous sounds, cracks, zips and detonations.

Sion says "Fuck this" and jumps into the Special Forces perimeter, which is now full of confused peshmerga who are trying to get out of the way of all the stuff flying through the air. They retreated to a raised square 30 feet on a side made of dirt berms. It sits on the top of a hill and below the hill is the road to Mosul; across from it, green fields. The American soldiers take each corner of the perimeter, load their machine guns and look out over the fields for targets. Inside the perimeter are deep foxholes reinforced by sandbags, but no one is in them yet.

The defensive perimeter, a popular principle in the age of shock and awe, is right where we want to be, and everyone who's anyone has one. If you don't have a defensive perimeter, find somebody else's and get in. So we get in. Sion does it first, then me, and that was it. Inside the perimeter I saw the men lying on their stomachs and peering over the edge into the fields, while all kinds of metal flew through the air over us. The perimeter made a red-earth edge against the sky.

We forgot about standing up. That wasn't going to happen. And we also forgot about trying to make it back to the car. That wasn't going to happen either.

We found the first battle of Northern Iraq the way everyone else did: We drove there after breakfast.

On Thursday we woke up and did the usual things. Sion ate an egg in the dining room of the Shireen Palace and argued with the waiter while I sat down and talked over plans with Baravan and Rashad. Rashad is our driver and Baravan is a lawyer from Dohuk who translates for us. They are old friends and can't be separated. They work with us, not for us.

Baravan and Rashad are Kurdish independent operators. Baravan has this joke, which isn't really a joke, where he says, "Mr. Phillip are you ready for Mr. Chicken?" when he wants to know if we're hungry. "What about Mrs. Rice? Oh, you know Mr. Chicken loves Mrs. Rice." He laughs insanely at this one as we drive down the road in a station wagon that reeks of gasoline and fresh bread. Because Baravan loves the Mrs. Chicken riff, Rashad loves it, and talks about his chicken farm outside of town. Rashad, a solid man in a chocolate suit, is a former peshmerga who keeps Mr. Kalashnikov in his station wagon with several clips of Mrs. Ammunition. They will go anywhere.

During the previous night there were airstrikes and thumps and bangs, but we don't pay attention to them any more, because they are normal business, like power failures. The thumps and bangs are the U.S. airstrikes on Iraqi positions near Kirkuk and Mosul, the major oil cities in the north of Iraq. For most Kurds, Kirkuk has a kind of holy status -- it is the urban center of their culture. It is also true that when the Kurds take Kirkuk, Kurdistan, their quasi-independent state, will become instantly oil-rich. Kurdish people don't speak about Mosul, a city built near ancient Nineveh, with the same reverence and longing. Kirkuk means both money and history in equal measure -- a state of affairs which greatly upsets the Turks to the north.

After eggs, we checked mail, and finally piled into Rashad's car and headed out toward Kalak from Arbil, looking for the new front. On Wednesday night, the Iraqi army had withdrawn from positions overlooking the town of Kalak, on the Zab al Khibir river, to Khazar, about seven kilometers away, and it seemed like it was worth a visit, even if we were getting there late.

The drive from Arbil doesn't take long -- about half an hour -- and Kalak's old bridge over the Zab al Khibir is still there. The town itself is there. Everything looks the same, except there are no Iraqi soldiers camped out on the ridge that rises up over the town; the emplacements are empty. We drive up to the ridge, past celebrating Kurds, until we reach the site of the Iraqi camp. Iraqi documents are flying, drifting across the muddy plain; boys are busy looting the weapons from the half-destroyed bunkers, cracking the crates with pieces of twisted metal. When we pull up, Sion sees a kid beating an unused mortar round with a stick.

Rashad finds an Iraqi military map of Kalak in a ruined bunker and pockets it. As we walk around the former front line zone, we find another bunker in the back that has scores of oblong boxes covered with orange stickers. Baravan translates the lettering and says the black boxes are sealed chemical weapon antidote kits. We get back in the car and keep driving west toward Mosul, looking for the last peshmerga checkpoint.

When we get there around noon, the TV networks have already set up shop, and there are media people milling around from all over the world. All the Land Cruisers are parked at the side of the road, and the peshmerga won't let us go any closer. It's a massive traffic jam. Worse, we can see that there are a few journalists a half mile down the road watching a battle, but we can't see it from where we are, and we want to go see what's happening.

Sion starts walking down the road, and a Kurdish soldier catches up to him and stops him. A couple of others try the same thing and they get stopped. But then all of us are trying to walk down the road at the same time, and there aren't enough soldiers to deal with everyone going at once. Sion gets into a scuffle with a peshmerga, which he wins, and keeps walking down the road. I remember a camera pointing at me -- some cameraman saves me by filming the two soldiers holding my arms. Then after they take off, a fresh pair of soldiers tries to stop me -- they're young guys who I know, and they are laughing. I tell them, see that battle? Yes, they say, yalla, and they are still laughing, which is good. And I say let's go, and they give up, and then we are all walking down the road toward the hill that overlooks the town of Khazar.

Just as we get there, two U.S. soldiers are walking back down the road, and they say to us, "You people have no sense."

Up on the hill that overlooks Khazar, the U.S. Special Forces were being mortared by the Iraqis just down the road. The mortars were coming closer, moving toward us as the Iraqis refined their aim. A U.S. soldier with a radio called in an airstrike, and after the explosion went off in the town of Khazar, it quieted down for long time.

The Americans then relaxed enough for the commanding officer to give an impromptu press briefing on the hill. He said that the Special Forces had gone down into the town at 7 a.m. to push the Iraqis back toward Mosul. Instead, they were pinned down and had to retreat to where they were now -- an open bunker on the top of a hill overlooking the town. The commanding officer spoke clearly, without any action-movie bullshit; his mind was clear and he didn't resent the journalists hanging around.

At the rise in the road, there were eight or 10 Americans in nominal command of several hundred Kurdish fighters. In the briefing at 12:30, the commander told the cameras, "The Iraqis don't care how many of their soldiers die, but they just leave them in certain places, and we have to slow down to remove them." Somebody asked him where the Iraqis went and how many there were out there, and the officer said, "They seem to have withdrawn. I don't know how many there are."

During the afternoon, there is shooting, but it's sporadic, most of it pointed at the TV cameras. We get used to it and make sure we aren't exposed and easily hit, and after a few hours of that, we think that it's time to head back, because there's nothing new in sporadic shooting. At 3, everyone else is on the road to Arbil to write their stories or file video, and instantly the place clears out, except for the soldiers, who are still up in their redoubt on the hill. Sion says, "Do you want to go?" I want to stick around, though without any well-defined reason. We drift around until quarter to 4, and we are standing on the hill where the Americans are dug in when we see the retreating peshmerga. Then it breaks loose, and we can't go anywhere.

I get little bits of conversation among the men in the perimeter, but I can't move around. Sion is taking portraits of the soldiers and they are letting him do it, making sure that he isn't in a place where he can get hit. Then the gunners move out to each corner of the perimeter and load their machine guns. They start sighting through the telescope sights and get ready to fire on distant targets, but they're having trouble figuring out where all the bullets are coming from. More bad things are coming toward the perimeter, and the Americans are getting nervous -- not so much that they couldn't deal with it, just tense frustration.

Kurdish fighters kept running up to one gunner, saying, "Don't fire there, those are peshmerga." The gunner tells the Kurdish soldier, "I know where I'm firing and I know those are peshmerga. I don't shoot peshmerga, I'm shooting at that bunker behind them." The gunner lets the Kurdish fighter look through his sight to make sure. Everyone is confused and firing weapons, but the incoming gets steadily worse. The American soldiers seem focused, careful about their targets. The peshmerga inside the perimeter just wait around with their Kalashnikovs.

The commanding officer gives a soldier near me some ammunition and says, pointing to the man's gun, "Are you any good with that?" The officer speaks to his men without yelling -- just talks to them, checking in. "Why don't you go over there and see if you can draw a bead on that motherfucker," he tells the westward-facing gunner. The air above us is a bad place, and the soldiers are not standing; they're running from place to place in a crouch. It's getting much worse. Confusion reigns. The U.S. soldiers have to translate every question or command several times, and the translation varies. "Where are the bad guys? Are these the bad guys?" the commander wants to know. They lose time. The firing on our position is coming from two directions now -- not just from the west, but also from the south. Iraqi gunners are moving around abandoned peshmerga positions in a flanking maneuver, trying to cut off the Americans, and they are making steady progress. It is a counterattack. The Iraqis are coming back.

For a second I think that rounds are coming from the north as well, but I'm still not sure if that really happened. It feels like we are on the way to being surrounded, and there is no way to get back to the car more than 200 yards down the road. I can still see it, because Rashad had stuck around and parked it below a rise.

Sion says that he thinks the Americans are thinking of retreating, because he sees them pack up their gear in their vehicles. Instead, they decide to call in a series of intense airstrikes on the Iraqi positions. The commander gets on the phone and calls in the location. This takes time, and we wait for the shriek of the planes and the bombs. When the sound comes, it's good, and when the bomb hits, I think, Jesus, I hope that did it, I hope that solved our problem.

The American soldiers are keyed up and working at finding the targets without hitting the Kurdish fighters by mistake; they do it by straightforward, elementary means -- looking and using compasses. After the first airstrike, which is earmarked for the Iraqis to the west of us, there is still all kinds of fire coming from the south. A few minutes later, a pair of fighter jets circles and drops cluster bombs that scatter over the ground, crackle and light up an entire wheat field -- a sick Chinese New Year. They do it again, screaming and diving. We are right there with the jets, cheering them, because we want the situation to back off, and if there's a fuck-up, a bad coordinate, a bungled retreat, anything like that, we'll be running across the green fields without much in the way of a chance.

I watch the eight soldiers get it right, solve the problem. The sheet of cluster bombs falls across the road, not far away at all. After that, it is quiet again, and we can leave.

By Phillip Robertson

Phillip Robertson is reporting from Iraq for Salon.

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