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Sulaymaniya Dispatch: Second Front

Through my hotel room window, I can see soldiers--dressed like commandos, not like baggy-panted Kurdish peshmerga--rearranging themselves around a machine gun mounted in the wagon of a white Toyota pickup. They're often there, jumping out of the truck, jumping back in, speeding off. They are guarding Barham Saleh, the prime minister of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), who lives behind my small hotel in Sulaymaniya. A year ago, Saleh came home from the Palace Hotel just down the street, and three Islamic fighters leapt out of their car firing madly. Five of Saleh's bodyguards were killed. The mother of one of the bodyguards died of a heart attack when she heard the news. Two of the assailants were killed instantly; the third tried to creep away with his wounds but was captured. 

The attackers were from Ansar Al Islam, an extreme Islamist group that the PUK has been fighting under a variety of names since September 2001, when the fundamentalists announced their existence and their intention to resurrect the early Islamic caliphate system of religious government throughout Kurdish northern Iraq. Many are Arabs who fled the U.S. attacks on Afghanistan. Less than two months ago, they assassinated a PUK diplomat and former military commander in Halabja, which is near Ansar territory and about two hours from Sulaymaniya.

Just days after American soldiers began battling the Iraqi army across the country's southern deserts and ports, they opened a new front here in the north against this comparatively small Islamic group tucked into a few mountain villages next to Iran. It's a tiny war, but one apparently significant enough in America's war on terror to warrant 50 cruise missiles and American Special Forces. And it fits into the Bush administration's preemptive-strike ideology as laid out in the National Security Strategy document of 2002. Kurdish and American officials have long claimed that members of Ansar established ties with Osama bin Laden as early as 1994 and that they created an Al Qaeda cell within the more moderate Islamic groups in northern Iraq, receiving financing from bin Laden and training in the Afghan camps. The last thing the Kurds or any future Iraq needs is a terrorist network of angry, displaced Al Qaeda members from around the world nestled in gorges, caves, and folds of the mountain range bordering Iran.

A few weeks ago in Sulaymaniya, five men in a four-wheel-drive jeep pulled up at a checkpoint and were sprayed with gunfire by peshmerga from the PUK. The men, who were all killed, turned out to be members of a different Islamist group, called Komal, that controls territory in northern Iraq and that heretofore had been on relatively good terms with the PUK. The PUK swore the shooting was an accident, that their boys had information the jeep belonged to Ansar. Komal reacted with rage and mourning and, the next day, invited a group of journalists to its headquarters to hear its complaints.

We drove east from Sulaymaniya toward the Iranian border through the tranquil, green farmlands of the Sharazur plain, one of the widest in Kurdistan and, say the locals, one of the most fertile in the world. Fertile for battles as well--between Iraqis and Iranians, Kurds and Iraqis, Kurds and Kurds, secularists and Islamists. There lies Halabja--which will forever be remembered for Saddam Hussein's chemical attack in 1988. And behind Halabja, in the Shinwe mountain ranges, are the redoubts and villages held by Ansar. Our driver was cursing his fate as we slowed to pass through the bazaar of Khormal, the town where Komal (the two words are unrelated) is headquartered, and we were eyed grimly by heavily armed, long-bearded men. Unlike in much of the rest of Iraqi Kurdistan, there were no women in the streets. Over a brook and up into the foot of a snow-dusted mountain that shelters these men, some 30 or so Komal militants milled around the two-story cement headquarters of Sheik Ali Bapir, the doe-eyed, black-bearded young leader of Komal's peshmerga. As we spilled out of our jeeps, the men lined up quickly. Suddenly, we were like two enemy armies--the cameras facing off against the long-beards. One by one, the journalists--the men, that is--filed past to shake the Komalis' hands; we women just nodded our heads in greeting.

A Komali in a brown-fur, Russian-style hat said they didn't know if the PUK had really believed the men they killed were Ansar fighters. "Perhaps," he said, "they think we're the same types." Are you? someone asked. "We have a common border with them; they come here for food sometimes. But we have different ideas. We want to spread our ideas by negotiation. They want to spread them with fighting," he said. A darkwindowed Land Cruiser sped up the slope and stopped in front of the compound. Ali Bapir stepped out, grinned, and greeted everyone. He appreciated, he said, that he has already gotten a letter from Jalal Talabani, the powerful PUK leader, saying the attack had been planned against Ansar, not Komal. Ali Bapir began a slow lecture to the journalists sitting on the floor about the definition of terrorism and the fact that the PUK's unprovoked killing of five of his men indeed constituted it. "It's just a local story," one reporter, impatient, whispered. "An insignificant internal feud, let's get out of here." Another said, "Their crime? Driving while bearded"--a play on the "driving while black" slogan young African American men use to explain why their cars are frequently pulled over by the police. Another reporter, perhaps desperate to turn this into an international story, asked Ali Bapir and just about any other Komal Islamist wandering around, "Don't you think the Americans could have been behind it?" Everyone looked puzzled, and he explained, "You know they were killed near the airstrip the Americans plan to use for their forces." The Komalis didn't answer him. 

Ali Bapir served kabob, bread, and tea and then said goodbye. In the village, on a slope of the mountain, a sturdy mother of seven children stood by her gate. Two of her sons are with Komal's peshmerga. Why? "It's not up to us," she said. "Komal decided to live here because the mountain protects them." The villagers here are just like leaves, blowing this way and that for decades, running from chemical attacks, from the Iranians, from the Iraqi army. Her house was destroyed and rebuilt three times. Now, she said, she's afraid of everyone--the PUK, Ansar, the Americans. Saddam, she said, is the least of their worries; he's so far away.

The story of the current Islamist presence in northern Iraq begins in 1986, in Halabja, with five brothers led by the eldest, Sheik Osman. The people of Halabja were on the streets demonstrating against Saddam's cruelty. The Iraqi army retaliated by leveling the square where they demonstrated. Osman and his four brothers and their families fled and settled at the foot of a snowy mountain in a refugee camp with thousands of others from Halabja who were fleeing Iraqi military service, arrest, and retaliation. One of them was Ayub, nine years old at the time, who told me the history: Sheik Osman and Sheik Ali and their brothers were well-known figures in Halabja. "Sheik Ali was the preacher of Halabja's second-biggest mosque, which was called Pasha Mosque," Ayub recalled. "Because of this, they drew the attention of the Iranians, who proposed the idea of creating a political Islamic party for them. It was called the Islamic Movement of Kurdistan [IMK]. Sheik Osman was appointed the leader. The people in our camp were extremely poor refugees and angry with the Iraqi regime, and they began registering their names eagerly. One of the first to sign up was my brother. He signed up his name in the tent of Sheik Omar, who was paying out everyone's salaries." For Iran, the IMK was a perfect sword to stick in the back of its enemy, Iraq. The Iranians took some IMK members, including Ayub's father, to Iran and gave them guns and education. The fighters infiltrated Iraq, guiding hit-and-run attacks, sneaking around at night to inform people that a new party had been born.

In 1991, the IMK descended from its mountain hideouts to help the Kurdish uprising against Saddam and began establishing bases throughout Kurdistan. They were a moderate group, but, as with so many other moderate Islamic groups, extremists began infiltrating, spawning several splinter groups over the last decade, including Ali Bapir's Ansar and Komal. As internal Kurdish fighting broke out, the extremists jumped into the fray, attacking the secular Kurdish parties for having relations with the United States. Then, in 2000, the PUK's Talabani made what everyone says was a fatal mistake: To retaliate against his enemy Massoud Barzani, of the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP), he made a deal with one of the extremist Islamist factions and paved the way for them to set up a base in the villages near Iran. In September 2001, Islamic radicals split from the IMK and formed a group called Jund Al Islam; they immediately began fighting against the PUK. Since then, it's said that Jund Al Islam--and its successor, Ansar Al Islam--has killed some 200 of Talabani's fighters. Former Ansar hostages say Ansaris pray to Sheik Osama. The United States says they have ties to Al Qaeda. The Kurds say at least 100 to 200 of them are foreign jihadis. And, now, they've retreated into mountains and caves that locals say are a copy of Tora Bora.

Four nights ago, U.S. cruise missiles slammed into Komal's checkpoint and into Ali Bapir's headquarters where we ate lunch; one, which didn't detonate, even hit Ali Bapir's home. At least 40 Komalis were killed. Others were injured. Six died at the Iranian border while the Iranians decided whether to let them in. Was this a justified hit on terrorists? The Americans claimed it was an attack on Al Qaeda-connected terrorists, a battle in the war on terrorism. And it's true that Ali Bapir has now vowed to join forces with Ansar Al Islam. His is a hard-core Islamist group that already has connections to Ansar and sometimes gives its members refuge. But they also say they eschew terrorism. After the U.S. attack, the Komalis were again enraged. Why, they asked, were we targeted? Why, replied the Kurdish leaders, did you mingle so freely with Ansar when you were warned repeatedly to differentiate yourselves or suffer the consequences?

The day after the U.S. missile attack, we drive through the wide, green plains to Halabja and snake our way up a mountain road to a bunker where the PUK peshmerga are reveling in the U.S. attack. Mamrosta Dler, a teacher and sniper dressed in fatigues and sneakers, tells us that at about 12:30 a.m. they watched cruise missiles sail in from the Red Sea, past their position, and dive into Dekon, missing the target. But, we interrupt him, his commander said the missiles landed in Khormal and that Komali fighters were killed. He smiles, and the other peshmerga laugh. "Three rockets hit Khormal, but we didn't want to tell them," Dler admits to our translator, signaling that he meant us, the American journalists. "We would like the Americans to bomb every single village under Komal and Ansar. Last night, we watched Komal vehicles heading for Ansar. They are just the same."

Another peshmerga says, "It was such a great pleasure to hear the missiles. They sounded just like slow-moving jets. But we're unhappy with the Americans. We expected more bombs. This isn't enough." Still, they say, they were pleased with their American military visitors. Six of them, they say, arrived at midnight, three in army uniforms, three in civilian clothes. "The civilians stayed to spot the targets," says Dler, "and were repeatedly contacting the jets and U.S. bases." They shared a ridge with the Kurds but no words, no tea, no meal. They stuck to themselves, did their work, and left at around 6 a.m.

The clouds disperse, a mist lifts off the lake in the distance, the sheep swarm through glistening, wet green fields. There is a strange quiet all around us. One of the peshmerga leads us inside the bunker where Ansar had lobbed a few grenades and killed several sleeping Kurds when they overtook this hilltop for a day in December. Graffiti drawings of the Ansar leaders still blacken the bunker walls.

Abdullah Hama Said Fakradin, the intelligence officer of the PUK forces based in Halabja, steps out of his Land Cruiser and says we should leave, they have an important meeting. But, first, he wants to tell us that the beginning of the end of Ansar's existence has come. "In the next few days, all the Kurds here will be able to experience the freedom the other Kurds do in Kurdistan." Already, he says, drivers can now use the road where Komal had its checkpoint outside of Khormal without any risks. The PUK, he says, has taken control of the road following the U.S. attacks.

We take Fakradin at his word and drive down the hill to the crossroads outside Khormal, where we'd visited Ali Bapir just a few weeks ago. A jalopy with four young civilian men from Khormal idles at the checkpoint. They are in a hurry to flee Khormal to safety before the next round of U.S. attacks. They say the bodies of Komalis are stuck under the Komali political office that was hit by a tomahawk missile. One Komali is still crying out from beneath the rubble, but they are too scared to go near the building. Other cars, packed with women, are peeling out of Khormal. Some say many angry Ansar gunmen came down from the hills into the Khormal bazaar. Others say it was just a few. A team from Al Jazeera television warns some of the journalists at the checkpoint to leave quickly. Another car comes by and warns a photographer that I'm traveling with to get her flak jacket. Something isn't right. We get into our jeep, arguing about which way to go, and then comes a metallic explosion I can feel at the back of my head and through my bones. It is only two cars away. We think it is a mortar, maybe a car bomb, maybe a suicide bomber. Our car shivers from the blast, and our driver speeds off. Behind us rise plumes of gray smoke. A pickup barrels ahead of us, its back tire spitting out rubber, a bleeding peshmerga holding in his lap a friend whose head is oozing brain. 

The pickup skids to a halt in the middle of a crowded market in the town of Sayed Sadiq, controlled by the Kurdish Socialist Party and the generally jolly Kakar Hama, a rotund party leader and commander whose territory abuts Komali land. He has been a mediator between the Komalis and the PUK with an eye toward expanding his territory into Komali lands. We pull up behind the pickup, in front of the military hospital. The patient is lifted up clumsily through the crowd and is carried into the back of a van. Toyota taxis and pickups are racing in, dropping off wounded. Inside, one young man who is lying on a bed with a piece of shrapnel in his knee says he'd just come to the checkpoint with his cousin to look for his relatives. He says he watched a Toyota on the road from Khormal swerve into the dirt as it neared a cluster of Kurdish peshmerga outside the guardhouse. "I thought it was strange, and then it blew up, and I fell to the ground and came back conscious and ran through the bushes. Women and children were crying. Mullah Asim, the minister of religious affairs, saw me running and brought me here in his car. I think some foreigners might have been killed. They were quite close to the car that exploded, and their translator was wounded." By now, it is becoming clear that the explosion was a suicide bomber who detonated himself inside the car.

More wounded are arriving. An older woman, her head wrapped up in white cloth. An enormous old man, whom they can hardly carry out of the jeep. A doctor kindly takes a pile of cash from one shy young man's breast pocket, shows it to him, and transfers it to the young man's pants pocket. "Don't worry," says the doctor, "you'll be cured soon." The doctor peels off the man's shirt, inserts an I.V., and prepares him for transfer to the Sulaymaniya hospital. A peshmerga arrives and shouts, "No, he's not going anywhere. He tried to run away. He's an Islamic. He's under suspicion." Someone shakes their head in sympathy and remarks that, even if he had nothing to do with the bombing, the peshmerga will take their anger out on him.

We walk out. Outside, a tall Australian gets out of a maroon jeep, the windows blown out, blood on the back seat. He is trembling, breathless; he asks to borrow our phone to call Australia. His friend, he says, is dead. I recognize the man as one Australian journalist's translator. His hands are blistered and burning. His head is bleeding. His leather jacket is shredded in the back from the blast. He says he had a funny feeling when he saw the Toyota swerve off the road, and he turned away just as it detonated. The gates of the hospital swing open, PUK security men rush in to donate blood. The gates swing closed and open again as a taxi backs up to the hospital door. The driver opens the trunk, then quickly drops it shut as everyone turns away. It is the unrecognizable body of the journalist. Their driver tells a sad story about some of our colleagues who arrived, filmed the carnage, but refused to take the body away. "He's a foreigner, but they just took pictures and went away," says the taxi driver.

Someone says it was definitely a suicide bomber. "An Islamist taking their revenge for last night's bombing" by the Americans, indirect revenge against the Kurds and, possibly, against the Western journalists amassed there. Someone else says there are more cars ready to come.

There, shaking his head, is Ayub, who was nine years old in the Iranian refugee camp when the IMK was born in 1986; the movement scooped up his father and brother for two years before they wised up to the extremists among them. "This is the beginning of our country becoming the next Palestine," he says with tears in his eyes. 

Tonight, the PUK's Talabani is negotiating with the leaders of Komal through Kakar Hama. Inside Khormal, Komal's Ali Bapir has close to 700 fighters, and their families are terrified of another round of U.S. cruise missiles. Some of them are probably angry enough at the Americans to join up with Ansar; Ali Bapir is afraid of losing everything. Talabani is afraid Ansar will slip into Khormal and have another base. Kakar Hama explains, "Yesterday Ali Bapir was here for lunch with the Iranians"--who are helping in the negotiation. "I told him, `Be mindful, man, don't be silly. Look at the Iranians. In the past, when they had any problem, even a comet dropping from the sky, Iran blamed it on America. But now Iran is acting differently, mindfully.'" Kakar Hama takes a breath, leading us out of his compound into the howling rain. "`Iran is such a powerful country,' I told Ali Bapir, `and they won't take on the USA, but you with a handful of peshmerga want to take on the Americans. Think wisely, Ali Bapir.'"

This article originally ran in the April 7, 2003, issue of the magazine.