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Maggie Zanger’s Letters


Maggie Zanger, a member of the Journalism and Mass Communications Department at the American University in Cairo, returned to Kurdistan in January to do research. Quickly enlisted by NBC as a news analyst, she soon found herself fully involved in the business of being a war journalist, albeit on a front that looked, at one time, as though it was not going to live up to its name. TBS reproduces her letters from the "Northern Behind." (The section by that name appeared in The Cairo Times of March 24).


Cairo, January 8, 2003

Getting into Iraq has become an obsession. Iraqi Kurdistan, that is. It was always easy before: Hiwa, my Kurdish translator, would talk to someone in London; they would talk to someone in Damascus and within a few weeks I'd have the magic number that a lonely bureaucrat at the Syrian-Iraqi border would look for in multiple huge books of hand printed numbers. Once found, I would be allowed to travel the final 200 meters, lurching down a precariously steep dirt road to the Tigris River to load my luggage up on a crude little wooden motorboat to cross over into the welcoming embrace of the Kurds who control about one-quarter of Iraq.

Maggie Zanger with supporters of Jalal Talabani.

Of course, Hiwa told them I was an expert in Islamic architecture going to Kurdistan to check it out, and now the lie has to continue into my third trip. Fortunately, no one seems to know that there is no Islamic architecture in Kurdistan. Everything has been destroyed in 30 years of war with the Ba'th regime, and the only architecture is what has been rebuilt since the last Gulf war: ugly, Saudi-funded, green plastic-looking monster mosques.

At any rate, it's not so easy to get in these days. All that has changed as the impending US war against Iraq looms large, altering everything in the Middle East that lies in its shadow. Every journalist and her brother is trying to get in to cover the war from Iraqi Kurdistan because the US won't bomb it, there are no government "minders," no scared-stiff "man-in-the-street" to interview, no need to carefully couch each and every story in terminology that will not offend Iraqi officials but will convey some semblance of the reality.

But the Syrians have closed the border, obsessed as they are about anything to do with that dirty word, press. (The al-Hayat newspaper bureau chief, who we talked to a couple of years ago in Damascus, was just tossed in jail for having the audacity to mention in an article that Syria was preparing to receive Iraqi refugees. Touchy indeed).

I have a small research grant, permission for unpaid leave for the spring semester, and all my savings in neat piles of US hundred-dollar bills locked in an unused suitcase in the corner of my spare bedroom. In other words, I am ready to go. I am just waiting for the magic Syrian number that will get me across the river. Or, permission to cross over the mountains from Iran. Jordan doesn't border the Kurdish area. Turkey is out of the question; that border has been closed for ages - and is no doubt now excessively stocked with Turkish troops and security.

So "getting in" has become my obsession.

But, of course, here in Cairo -- and indeed, in the whole of the Middle East -- even the simplest tasks become so difficult to accomplish that one has to develop a single-minded obsession just to get it done.

A simple telephone call becomes a three-day effort involving three people, multiple locations, multiple forms and passports. Journalist friend Betsy and I needed to call Tehran to see if the fax we sent (which also took three days, three locations, forms and passports) has arrived and whether the Kurdish political party based there thinks it can help us get across the Iranian border and into Iraqi Kurdistan.

Jubilant Kurds celebrate news of Coalition victories.

We solicit the help of Sinan, an Iraqi-American friend, to make the call. My taxi Arabic is worthless and Betsy is afraid the Iraqi Arabic of the Kurdish guys in Iran will be beyond her capabilities - especially when screaming over a crackling, fuzzy, fading out international telephone line.

Sinan and I try from his house using a regular international telephone card, punching in dozens of numbers dozens of times and getting nowhere. We knew that would be just too easy, but had to try. So we are off to the Marriott hotel business center, willing to pay ridiculous dollars to get somewhere. But after several tries, a worker wanders out and informs us that calls to Iran can only be made over radio (that's what she said) and we have to go to a Central, an Egyptian government international call center. Anything prefixed with "Egyptian government" means a dark, funky crumbling building with surly employees, lots of carbon-copy paper forms to fill out and crowds of people jammed up against a tiny window. In 6000 years of civilization, the queue is not a concept that has taken hold in Egypt, except, inexplicably, for popcorn at the movie theater.

We can't bear to torture ourselves more that day so will go tomorrow. After a day of missed connections, broken phones, mistakenly turned off cell phones and what not, Sinan, Betsy and I meet at the Roastery, a hip coffee shop in our neighborhood. We pump ourselves up on espresso and head into the fray, crossing July 26 without major injury and up the dark, dirt encrusted stairs to the Central. Sinan seems to be dreading it most - it was packed with people last time he was there. We are hoping it was bill-paying day.

We walk in - and there is one lonely customer: a man in a long white galabaya, a scarf wrapped loosely around his head, a toothless smile broadly appearing later as he laughs at our Laurel and Hardy efforts to make calls to not only Iran, but now Syria as well. Betsy needs to see if the other Kurdish party in Damascus received her fax with passport information to see if they can get her the magic number to cross the Tigris.

A line of six old wooden phone booths line one wall across from a glass-topped counter on the other. A big picture of kittens playing with colorful balls of yarn graces the wall behind the counter next to a fading poster, circa 1960, of hundreds of happy telephone operators sitting in front of what looks like may have been computer screens. Yeah, right.

Two helpful men behind the counter debate long and hard and decide our best bet is to buy a phone card and try to make the call ourselves - sometimes it's hard to get the international operator.

The card won't work for Iran. After much confusion and a bit of waiting, Sinan is told to pick up in booth 5; Tehran is on the line. The guy we need to talk to is not there. But the guy who answers did get the fax, but he has not yet given it to the guy who needs to get it. Why don't we just come and wait at the journalist's hotel in Tehran? Sinan doesn't explain that it's a little difficult for Americans to get visas to Iran, and we were hoping that with permission nailed down to simply transit Iran into northern Iraq, we would have a better chance of getting visas. The guy in Tehran says we can call back after 7 tonight to try to talk to the guy we need to talk to. Gee, thanks so much. We are so looking forward to doing this all over again.

This costs me 42 pounds (9 bucks). If I'd had my passport with me, they would give me 12 pounds back, but as I don't - since the Syrians have had it for a week to stamp in a visa - they will keep the 12 pounds. I have no idea what this was about.

Damascus does work on the phone card. The guy we want isn't there, and the guy on the line says he's more important that the guy we want, so we should talk to him. He got Betsy's fax and will add it to the huge pile of other journalists, but it's "very difficult" right now. Maybe next week the Syrians will lighten up. Bukra inshallah. Call next week.

This is the usual. A lot of effort for little return. But we have few choices right now other than to obsessively peruse any and all possibilities for getting in. If I don't get in, I will spend five months sitting in Cairo with no work, no paycheck, and no grant money while a major war plays out in the area that has been my sole research focus for three years.

Betsy is obsessed because if she doesn't get in she will sit out the war covering pathetically small and grossly over-policed demonstrations in Cairo. Or worse still, sitting, boozeless, in a $200-a-night hotel room in Kuwait, covering daily, gag-inducing US military press conferences.

I know it will be a very different and very difficult trip for me this time. I will not have my usual translator by my side to provide not only top-notch translating, but to mentor me on Kurdish history, politics and culture in the lovely Chwar Chra Hotel garden every night.

But never mind, I no longer need a mentor. I have become a mentor to others, my knowledge so very much deeper and broader than when I started in 1999. But I do need to hire a translator and I will have to duke it out with hundreds of clueless reporters for the very few, good English-language speakers, not to mention drivers, and hotel space that will surely have more than tripled in price. And the reporters will be on cushy expense accounts. I have a meager grant and even more meager personal savings. It will be hard, very hard, even in the best of possible circumstances, given the dicey circumstances.

Again and again, I run over in my mind the possible scenarios. Worst one: Saddam pre-emptively attacks the Kurds with chemical weapons: mass exodus to the borders of Iran or Turkey. I will be sitting, if I'm damn lucky, in a battered car on a freezing mountain road jammed with terrified people who have endured chemical attacks and flight way too many times in their life times. Betsy will be covering the complete dearth of demonstrations in Cairo as the Arabs really don't care if the Kurds are gassed.

Another one: The US bombing begins, Turkey launches a massive invasion to reclaim the historic Ottoman Mosul Vilayet with the rich oil fields of Kirkuk. I will be sitting in the middle of a war between the Kurds and the Turks - with the Kurds getting their collective ass kicked and Saddam giggling as he dodges bombs an hour away in Baghdad. Betsy will be covering press conferences in Kuwait City that explain to her that Turkey is an important NATO ally.

A kittens-playing-with-colorful-balls-of-yarn scenario: Negative UN inspector's report on Jan. 27.; UN debates; takes six weeks to come up with another resolution that every country - except the US - insists on to cover their domestic butts; war in March (by this time, my obsession has long since paid off, I am comfortably settled-in, and most of my grant research complete). War is over quickly as Iraqi conscripts surrender en masse, no civilians are killed; there is no humanitarian crisis for me to cover. Saddam is found in women's panties dead in a bunker with the entire Ba'th elite dead drunk on the remaining Scotch stolen from the Kuwaitis in '91; they are all sent off to Guantanamo to hang out with the Taliban; Nelson Mandela is installed as governor until elections; US oil companies are banned by the Iraqi people who say it really is their oil; and Betsy and I walk into Baghdad to celebrate with my favorite Kurdish partridges. She gets Pulitzer Prize for best coverage of the post-war party and only wishes she could remember what she wrote.

A positive scenario: War is averted as the peace-niks convince the Bush administration that war is unhealthy for children and other living things. Not!

Okay, then possibly, war is delayed: Dubbya will take Bush Daddy's advice and hold out till nearer the end of his term; I will get in and spend five blissful months researching how people ethnically-cleansed from Ba'th-controlled Iraq adapt and integrate in Kurdish-controlled Iraq.

Then, next year, we can start the obsession all over again before the war starts.

Sulaimani, Iraqi Kurdistan, February 8, 2003

I arrived in northern Iraq more than a week ago after a Byzantine, 5-day trip from Cairo through Lebanon and Syria via 12-hour-late planes, scary Russian planes, funky hotels, small boats, private cars, rickety taxis, rented vans, and a prime minister's Land Rover.

I traveled with a BBC television crew, three of them virgins to Kurdistan and one my regular traveling companion here. We drove straight through to Sulaimani, about 50 miles from Halabja and the Iranian border, with only a quick stop at my beloved Chwar Chra hotel in Erbil for a change of cars.

I've not seen Kurdistan in winter before and generous rain has draped mountain sides with a thin carpet of spring green that rises to snow-covered rocky mountain peaks. Really stunning. But what I have always loved about the Kurdish countryside was missing. In the summer, in even seemingly remote areas, there are so many people, so much life, in sight of the road: men harvesting wheat by hand, groups of women and children tossing the wheat into the air from wide shallow baskets to separate kernel from chaff, children tending to flocks of sheep or just playing, and women carrying bundles from market to home. In the cool gray of winter there was little of this activity.

Back in Suli

We checked into the Ashti hotel having correctly assumed the newer, bigger Sulaimani Palace, a block away, is now host to a coterie of the Iraqi opposition and a pack of international journalists who were just released from the hotels of Tehran to cross that border a few days before us. My hotel is home to more experienced Kurdish hands: Kevin McKiernan who made the documentary Good Kurd/Bad Kurd, Chris Chivers of the New York Times who has been here awhile and writing good stuff, LA Times reporter Jeff Fleishman - all three of whom I liked immediately since each knew my name because they had "read my stuff." Also here is my other old Kurdistan travel buddy, Michael Howard, writing for the Guardian of London, and occasional parachutists from Japan, Germany, Canada, Italy.

Old friends greeted me with "Welcome to Free Kurdistan"-more an expression of hope than bravado-" Kurdistani Azad" in Kurdish, to the delight of my friend Azad, the news director of Kurd-Sat, the local satellite TV channel. Azad's Kurdistan, like Saudi Arabia. I now call him the King of Kurdistan. He is one of the few people I have talked to here who has serious reservations about a US-led war in Iraq. He feels much the way I do, that a US military occupation might not be all people hope it will be. But in general, people are desperate to see the demise of their long-time torturer and the United States is the shiny castle on the hill. Who can blame them really?

The only other dissenter I have talked to is Awaz, a beautiful, unpretentious young actress I met on our first trip. Two of her brothers were killed by Saddam's men and the rest of the family had to spend years hiding from the government in the mountains. Though she comes from an intellectual family, she never finished high school because of this time in the mountains and says she wants to travel when Iraq is free so she can learn all she can about the world. But, she says, war is so horrible and so many people will die that she cannot possibly condone it even if it means she will be free to travel.

It's nice to be back here, and of course, all looks on the surface as it was. What isn't visible to me-though I hear plenty about it-are Sulaimanians who are stockpiling food and water, hording dinars, trying to build gas-proof rooms, and making plans to head for the borders in case the death throes of the regime cough up one final chemical attack on them.

Since I am interested in any humanitarian crisis that may result from the war, I am diving into the endlessly confusing world of Kurdish government ministries and local and international non-governmental organizations (INGOs) who are scrambling to respond to a possible "emergency."

They are all planning to prepare camps for Kurds who will run for mountain heights in case of chemical attack-or even the perception of an attack-and for people who will flee US bombing that will happen south of the Kurdish area. The irony of Kurds preparing to assist Arabs from central Iraq is overwhelming, and belies the oft-repeated wisdom of the pundits that there will be massive ethnic strife in the aftermath of war.

And so I sit through interviews listening to things like: "Well, ICRC is in unofficially and UNOHCI won't participate at all, but PWJ, MAG and 4-Rs are involved in wat-san and site security. And this is all under the umbrella, of course, of MORAC." Oh, of course. Excuse me a moment until this glaze leaves my eyes.

For mental relief, I switch on the TV in my hotel rooms and relax with a cold Amstel Light, grateful for the clever Kurdish smugglers and the terribly leaky UN sanctions that supposedly only allow for "humanitarian" goods. Shouldn't beer be on that list, anyway? I watch as war "chatter" seems to rise to a climax from London and Washington. Little relief. After a few hours I am quite convinced the bombs are going to drop any minute. Then I watch the European Union, France and NATO stand firm and think they may yet stop Bush and Boys, Inc. The whole game is fascinating.

The massive demonstrations this weekend were nothing if not, well, massively impressive. The people speak. CNN World covered them thoroughly, even obsessively, though less from the US than other places. I can't quite tell if they were so much smaller in the US or if CNN just didn't cover them.

People here frankly don't understand why anyone would support Saddam Hussein with such demonstrations. Don't they know what the man is like, they ask? Would they like to live under his rule?

I often wonder if I too would be demonstrating against the war if I had never moved to the Middle East, never traveled here to northern Iraq over the past few years. But I have, and I really can't say I could, in good conscience, participate. Perhaps I am unwisely letting my heart speak louder than my brain.

Perhaps I've listened to too many horror stories of life under this regime, talked to too many unsung heroes who have struggle just to stay alive under the rule of someone who just wants them dead.

The Iraqi people deserve so much more and they cannot overthrow this sick regime alone. At the same time, I certainly can neither support nor condone the further reach of Pax Americana. I frankly loathe the very thought of the US exerting its further domination of this region. But it will, regardless of what I do or say. So I stand back and just observe, and hope for the best.

The war will be terrible, though I think far less bad than the dire predictions. I do not believe the worst-case scenarios. Call me naive, but I do think US troops will eventually be greeted as liberators by many. I think Iraqi troops will surrender in droves. I don't think there will be massive in-fighting, though some; the Arab tribes will mostly maintain local control, the Kurds will not go for Kirkuk. The US military will have to sit on the place for awhile and that will be nasty. They will not respect the people. And democracy will not grow easily out of decades of centralized authority and extreme oppression. The Iraqi Opposition is a mess.

But I have to have faith that the people will prevail. At least they deserve that chance. And I don't see any other opportunities on the table than this US-led war.

Going with the Flow

I am getting back into the flow of Kurdish life. And the flow is slow. Kurds are surprisingly calm, gentle and serene people. Maybe it's the centuries, even millennia, in the mountains, tending to sheep, planting and harvesting season after season. This gentleness belies the Kurds long historical reputation as fierce fighters. They walk with small steps, sit quietly, nod slowly, smile warmly and laugh gently.

Kaka Hama, the Kurdish peshmerga (guerrilla fighter - literally, "those who face death") I talked about in a summer Cairo Times story, is a case in point. He grew up and lived and fought all his life in the Suran Mountains near Iran and claims to have participated in 600 battles with the Iraqi military. Someone who knows him well, says it's all true. He has a reputation for fiercely leading the charge into battle. I met him a couple days after we arrived in the Sulaimani Palace hotel lobby. My Kurdish colleague crossed the lobby toward Kaka Hama, signaling me to follow. I rushed to catch up with him and reached out my hand to shake with Kaka Hama, saying, Choni Kaka? How are you? He nodded quietly and softly shook my hand. I suddenly felt like a New Yorker on speed. I realized how almost aggressive my body language seemed compared to his. It was a reminder to slow down.

I am reunited with my few Kurdish words and slowly learn more. Kurdish is an Indo-European language, related to the Persian of Iran, with a mix of Arabic and even English. Bottle ow, is bottle of water. The maids taught me that the word for toilet paper: rolla. The British must have introduced bottles and toilet paper in the early part of the century. Every morning I order Nescafe sheer, coffee with milk, although the word for milk is mast. Internet, is of course, internet. Bazabt, exactly in Arabic, works well. Marhaba, hello, is used.

My communication is a pathetic mix of English, Kurdish and Arabic: "Kaka, mumkin chi wa bottle ow. Okay?" Kak actually means "little brother" but is used like Mister. It is sometimes just Kak, as in Kak Hiwa or sometimes it has the a on the end, like Kaka Hama. It seems to go by the beat of the words.

Enough. It is a beautiful sunny afternoon, after days of rain. I cruised the downtown market this morning (yes, by myself) looking for an electrical adapter for my various Egyptian, US and British plugs - and found it - while waiting for the satellite connection at my favorite internet cafe to come back on line. Never happened. But maybe now.

Sulaimania, March 5

It's hard to imagine I've been here a month, but I have. Got the hotel bill - $675. Life has become oddly routine. But I feel like the calm in the middle of a storm that swirls around me, growing more threatening every day.

Information comes from local chit chat, journalist gossip, BBC TV, and slow and painful daily internet sojourns. The most effective source, outside local chit chat is journalist gossip. They have a huge system of friends, ex-fleeting-lovers, cohorts, compatriots and competitors, who are well-armed with satellite phones and keep the grapevine moving. Word travels fast through news professionals. For days - more than a week actually - we swapped daily reports in the Ashti hotel over breakfast of hard boiled eggs, goat yoghurt, tomatoes and olives, about the growing pack of reporters waiting on the Turkish border to get in. The Turks had said they would allow journalists to cross for five days only to cover the Iraqi opposition conference that would take place near Erbil.

My friends were among them. They arrived long before the Turks agreed to the five days. They were so determined, so persistent, they were ready to pay a smuggler 5 grand to run them through someone's mountain farmland and across the river to Iraq - sans boat, that is. Them girls got balls. They had everything triple packed in zip-lock bags, laptops in backpacks to be held over their heads, and were ready to make the trip when a fixer called to say the Turks had relented and they needed to get on the good-for-5-days list. And they did - numbers 11 and 12 on the list that would expand to nearly 200.

And then they waited. And waited, as the pack grew and hotel prices grew with them. To entertain themselves they organized a 10-mile donkey cart race 5 miles from the border. When things got really bad, they called for Dr. Walker and Nurse Efes (the local brew) in great quantities. And they got on their Thuraya sat phones, which, to everyone's dismay, only work outside in direct line to the overhead satellite. One friend said he nearly killed himself trying to lean far enough out of his hotel window to get a connection. He asked to be moved to a room with a balcony.

The Turks were so determined that the Js would all make the return trip to Turkey, they first said they would hold all passports. They relented under a chorus of denunciation. Then they said the Js had to leave all laptops and mobile phones. More denunciations. The Turks relent. But they stood firm on satellite TV up-link equipment. Js 2 - Turks 1. No up-links were to go in. The Turks were organized. They formed lists and assigned journalists to buses. My friends were on Bus #1.

After days of waiting, the big day came. Everyone trooped out to load up. Under gray skies of pouring rain Bets and Gretel sloshed through gooey mud to board Bus # 1-only to have the entire CNN crew screaming at them that it was the CNN bus! My friends' protestations that they were supposed to be on Bus #1 came to naught, so they pushed ahead up the stairs only to be physically shoved back by a small CNN woman with a huge sense of entitlement.

A bit of background here. CNN went into northern Iraq from Syria sometime in late October, early November, I think. Their first "news" broadcast from Kurdistan was all about how they had flown into Damascus, crossed the Syrian desert, and got in the little boats with all their fancy CNN equipment and landed on the other side with the big Welcome to Iraqi Kurdistan sign. Any one with half a brain (like me) knew this would totally piss off the Syrians (who fear the media like Kurds fear plumes of gas) and make them even more reluctant to allow journalists in.

And so it came to pass by mid-November. Hence my and everybody else's nightmare finding alternate routes into northern Iraq with the Syrian border closed to journalists - and all Westerners for that matter. Karma came back around a few weeks later when Baghdad reportedly told CNN they could have a bureau in Baghdad or they could have a bureau in Kurdistan. CNN left Kurdistan but left behind much equipment and an entire rented hotel, rumored to be up to $25,000 a month. They sat outside and watched the only free news reports from Iraq until the Turkey opportunity arose to go back.

All this is to say that CNN was not terribly popular with the hordes of reporters sitting for a week in the mud of the Turkish border waiting to cross for five stinking days. And the bus debacle did little to make up for it.

So someone in the mob of reporters (not my friends) made it their business to inform the Turks that CNN had carefully hidden a satellite up-link on bus #1. Everyone off the bus.

Eventually, it did happened, but several days later and not before they once arrived at the last border checkpoint only to be turned back - back to their hotels and in great need of Dr. Johnny Walker. And not before the Jack Daniels sloshing occupants of Bus #1 wagged their fingers in shame as they passed a newly anointed CNN Bus. But it did happen. A reported 165-200 journalists crossed. The opposition conference is now over and the grapevine says 17 went back. The only ones who returned were people working for the big news bureaus in Istanbul and Ankara who had to re-cross or face loss of their ability to operate in Turkey. Everyone else is AWOL. A couple of days after the crossing, a second pack of journalists who were not allowed to cross with the mob staged a hunger strike from their border hotels. No word yet as to their disposition or whether or not they stopped drinking as well as eating.

And so most of the Turkish refugee journalists are now here in Sulaimania. Waiting for war. And that tells you how boring my life has been - I'm telling other people's crossing stories!!

I am immersed in a couple of consulting jobs. Working with the prime minister here on media issues. Have just been asked to join the NBC team as a reporter and "Kurdish expert." Ha ha ha. Haven't decided yet but they will train me to work on-air and it will be a great experience for me as I haven't worked in TV. They will go to Kirkuk and Baghdad ASAP and that will be pretty exciting. But also more dangerous.

Been doing media training here with workers at a local NGO (non-governmental organization) on how to approach the media with possible stories. They focus on rural women's literacy, safe water and small income-generating projects. They work with villages near the demarcation line with the area under Baghdad's control. Tribes in that area cross borders easily and from the villagers the NGO workers hear stories of Iraqi soldiers who are constantly asking when they war will start. They say they will immediately cross and surrender to Kurdish officials. I hope to go with them tomorrow when they conduct human rights training in the villages to teach local officials what the Geneva convention says about proper treatment of civilians and POWs in wartime.

In fact, a huge issue here right now is what to do with all the anticipated Iraqi soldiers who will turn themselves over to the Kurds. In 1991, after the uprising and before Saddam reasserted control of the Kurdish area, more than 150,000 soldiers surrendered to them. The people in this city brought them food.

A number of Iraqi officers were, in fact, held in the courtyard of my hotel, the Ashti - then called the Salam (peace), although one journalist insists it was the Saddam hotel (I think his ear was not properly tuned to Arabic). Anyway, one of the journalists from the Turkey pack was here in 1991 and said most of the officers elected to stay with the Kurds rather than be turned over to the central government. But of course, all that went to hell when Iraqi troops moved back into the area.

Other local chat has it that in the past week or so the Iraqi military has dug huge trenches filled with oil around the nearby (70 miles) city of Kirkuk, which is under the control of the Iraqi government, not the Kurds. But there are lots of Kurds that haven't been ethnically cleansed from the city yet and they seem to report regularly to their compatriots in Kurdistan. It is assumed these trenches are to be lit to create a huge smoke screen to distract possible US bombing. You will be hearing much more about Kirkuk as it is the center of huge oil fields and will surely be the first major goal of any northern front.

I had anticipated Saddam might torch the Kirkuk oil fields as he did in Kuwait. When I asked the AUC pharmacist for surgical masks to protect from the sooty fallout, she looked at me like I was on drugs and said, "He wouldn't light his own oil wells!" I explained that he might to keep the US from getting their hands on them. She was skeptical but kindly gave me a handful of masks. I never anticipated at the time that he might deliberately light lakes of oil to create a smoke screen. The masks were, unfortunately, one of the things I elected to leave behind in the name of paranoia and space (how much space could they have taken?). Malish.

More news from Kirkuk: a few days ago people woke up to discover a huge photo of Saddam that graces the city walls was burned to a crisp! A heavy act of defiance that would get any perpetrator killed. Neighborhoods have been sectioned off and are under the control of Ba'th party functionaries. Residents have been told that if there is a war, anyone who steps outside their home will be shot immediately (have they been training with the Israelis??). Roads are being dug up and TNT placed under them to be ignited by remote control once US tanks and trucks roll in. All this means plans have been made by Saddam to rigorously defend this city and the oil fields not only from US forces but its citizens as well. I was kinda hoping he'd just defend Baghdad and sacrifice the north.

Okay, It's 1 a.m. and the obviously recorded-from-satellite movie being broadcast by the Toilers Party on local TV is over. All I know is something horrible happened to Anthony Hopkins when he was hanging out with gorillas in the jungles of Africa, a continent far far away.

March 22, Sulaimani

Just a quick note here to say all is fine, though it has all turned around the past 16 hours or so. Just yesterday morning we were moaning that we were not on the "Northern Front" but the "Northern Behind" because nothing was happening up in the north. This morning we have had not only the massive bombing of Baghdad, but of Kirkuk, 70 miles from here, Mosul, right on the Kurdish border, and of Ansar al-Islam, the radical Islamist group near Halabja, about 40 miles from here. They were hit supposedly with 5-7 missiles last night. Friends doing a live TV feed on the roof of a hotel heard the missiles zooming overhead.

Of course, we watched all of this on CNN and BBC. CNN was kicked out of Baghdad (a "propaganda tool...") just before the big show and must be shitting. They'll spend a fortune getting tape from everyone else.

I watched the bombing of Baghdad with the Kurdish prime minister here (an old friend) and the heads of the Kurdish military, security, humanitarian aid, etc, and what I call the Ashti (hotel) Cabal of privileged journalists (NYT, LAT, WP) at the PM's house. It was really bizarre. An old peshmerga (Kurdish fighter), a leader in their military, was shocked and awed. He shook his head and chuckled at the massive firepower: "And we fought these guys with Kalashnikovs!"

The mood was both jubilant and sad as we drank wine and munched on nuts. More than 1 million Kurds live in Baghdad, but besides that, no one watching could NOT think of all the civilians who were surely getting hit, regardless of Rumsfeld's claims of precision. At the same time, for the Kurds, it signaled the beginning of the end of a long struggle to get rid of this genocidal bastard. One Kurdish friend, who joined the peshmerga when he was 14 and is now a minister and speaks perfect English, said, "I feel so bad about the people getting killed and then I think of my brothers 5 children who were killed in a government bombing. I can still picture my 5-year-old nephew dead and his skin peeling away, and I have to say it makes me happy to see this."

Everyone was happy to hear Ansar was getting hit -this started about midnight. Ansar was supposedly targeting western-especially US-media in Sulaimani and that made us a bit nervous. Security has been really tight with peshmerga everywhere around our hotels and along the street. 'Course, the US should have hit them weeks ago - they have reportedly sent 30 suicide bombers into the cities of Kurdistan and many of the al-Qa'ida and Afghan Arabs have no doubt slipped across the Iranian border by now.

Have done a couple of live shots so far on MSNBC - I never thought I could do live TV, seemed way too scary. But I have survived it and everyone says have done really well. Guess I can BS with the best of them. CNN e-mailed right away wanting an interview, but I'm on contract with NBC for a month.

Anyway, pass this on, couldn't get all e-mail addresses in. Just wanted to let you know all is well where I am, though it seems hell swirls all around and is getting closer.

Cairo Times

March 24 
Of Journalists and Dogs: Tales from the Northern Behind

Sulaimani, Northern Iraq -- For most journalists, embarrassingly comfortable in the hotels in Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq, this war began with an early morning phone call: "It started." Sleep and hang-overs were shaken off as remote controls were punched in to CNN and satellite phones jammed up with traffic. The long days of waiting were over.

Most of hundreds of reporters, cameramen, producers, picture editors and technicians had been here for anywhere from one to five months. Each had done the Halabja anniversary-of-the-chemical-attack story; the Kurdish-fighters-in-training story; the Turkey-may-interfere story; the Kurds-face-an-uncertain-future story; and the Iraqi opposition conference story. They had been scared to death by the mountain men of Ansar al-Islam, a radical group the US government claims have al-Qa'ida connections. They had crawled around the mud of old airstrips in the dead of night, waiting for US planes that never landed with special forces.

In short, they had done it all. And they were getting restless. Without stories to file, lobby lounging became a boring routine as all the rough and ribald tales of past adventures in Bosnia or Afghanistan had already been swapped. Grumbling about the monotony of kebab and chicken tikka rose to a shrill, and the bar crowd expanded as closing hour grew later and later.

The stress of waiting manifest itself in short tempers and bad behavior. TV crews screamed at each other over whether their guards should carry Kalashnikov or just side arms, romantic liaisons were made and broken, and fights broke out over who stole whose translator, and whether the defection was voluntary of spurred by promises of twice the salary.

Kurdish fixers and drivers stocked their journalists and rented Land Cruisers with jerry cans of petrol, jugs of water, extra tires, tents, bio-chem suits and gas masks. Hotel parking lots were jammed with trucks with huge "TV" taped to the top and sides. They were ready to cover the northern front.

On the morning of the 19th, newspaper reporters from Tokyo to Minneapolis and TV stars from ABC to Al Jazeera, thought all that was behind them. But as it became clear that this was not the beginning of a fast, spectacular, all-out assault from all angles, it began to dawn on people that there would be more waiting.

The Northern Behind

Antsy for action anyway, a near caravan of journalists traipsed to Chamchamal, a scruffy city of 28,000, less than an hour away that lies smack on the border with the Iraqi controlled area. Iraqi troops and their bunkers are visible on the hills to the west of the city. As the journalists were filing in, the remaining citizens of the city, fearing possible chemical attacks, were filing out, heading for Sulaimani or villages in the mountains beyond.

From Chamchamal, any attack on Kirkuk, 30 miles away, just might be visible. Kirkuk lies in the heart of some of Iraq's most productive oil fields and even journalists who normally cover city hall back home, have figured out that Kirkuk will be an important benchmark for the northern front in the war. For weeks they'd heard tales from people fleeing Kirkuk of the trenches of oil that would be torched to create a smokescreen and of the oil derricks ready to be exploded into a hail of smoke and fire. They heard of a people forced under 24-hour curfew and of young men rounded up and forced into Saddam's al-Quds army. Then the Iraqis closed the road to the Kurdish-controlled area from Kirkuk and the stories stopped.

Alas, the only footage of fire journalists got that night were of a couple of stalwart Kurdish peshmerga (fighters) dancing around bon fires in celebration of Nawrus, the traditional Kurdish New Year which happily marks the beginning of spring. Kurds had something more to celebrate this year: for them the beginning of the war also signals the end of their 30-year struggle against the Ba'th regime.

The Kurds are quite happy to sit back and let the war swirl around them. They have lost hundreds of thousands of people fighting Saddam Hussein. They know all too well of the lives stunted and warped; they know of chemical attacks, torture chambers, raping rooms and endless displacement. But the journos have no experience with this and they want action. They need pictures; they need a story.

For the next few days they routinely trek back to Chamchamel only to come back empty-handed the next morning for showers and to exchange information over breakfast with those who stayed behind. The breakfast room of the Ashti Hotel becomes a morning briefing room.

Frustration soon saturates the morning briefing. On the third night they did see some distant glowing in the sky as Camp Khalid and the Republican Guard near Kirkuk came under some bombing. But a TV producer reports that Chamchamel was basically once again quiet. "Nothing but journalists and dogs," he grumbles. A young free-lance journalist from Cairo agrees, wailing, "I'm not shocked and I'm not awed." This prompted a friend at a nearby table to pick up the cue. "Yeah, where the hell is this northern front? We've been waiting all this time to cover the northern behind?"

Hell Breaks Loose

But soon, it seemed everything was breaking open. Turkey's threats to send troops in to northern Iraq increased, a provocative move that could quite possibly start a war between the Kurds and the Turks-a war within the war. Journos debated whether to move to the western half of Iraqi Kurdistan to cover this action. Meanwhile, the cities of Kirkuk and Mosul came under more bombardment, which sent journalists to the front lines with the Iraqi government to stand in front of the cameras and say, "Behind me, US bombs rain down on the northern city of " Not mentioning, of course, that it was many miles behind them.

Shortly after midnight last Friday, a BBC TV crew was doing a live shot from the roof of the Sulaimani Palace hotel when they heard missiles whizzing overhead. As many as 50 Tomahawk missiles pounded the mountain enclave of Ansar al-Islam on the Iranian border mountains, 50 miles away from Sulaimani. Later, in the early morning light, US fighter planes again hit the area. At least 60 dead were left dead. The only journalists who caught the assault on video tape were from the Kurdish satellite channel, Kurd-Sat, and there was a mad scramble to acquire a copy.

Ansar is believed to have about 700 fighters over as many as 40 villages in the mountains. A US air attack on them had been expected for some time and was an ongoing topic of rumor sharing and speculation.

Excited journalists spun out of the breakfast briefing room that morning, flack jackets and cameras in tow, heading east for the Ansar area. Some got footage of the dead and injured being pulled from the rubble at the encampment of Komali Islami, the Islamic Group, an armed Kurdish Islamic group that borders Ansar's enclave. Speculation was rife as to whether this was an accident or a purposeful targeting to wipe out both groups at once.

At a Kurdish government checkpoint in the valley below the Ansar-occupied mountains journalists stopped in the afternoon sun to interview people fleeing the bombed villages. An Australian TV crew had finished up and were heading out. But cameraman Paul Moran decided to get one final shot of fleeing refugees. Near him, a '82 Toyota sedan innocently pulled up to the checkpoint. A Kurdish guard leaned into the car to check the man's id when it exploded with 220 kilos of TNT, blowing body parts as far as 500 feet, and hurling a mushroom cloud of smoke and debris into the cool spring air.

Moran was killed as were six others, and his reporter and translator injured, along with as many as 24 other Kurdish peshmerga and civilians at the checkpoint.


The war had come home. Shaken journos trekked back in to Sulaimani, each with a tale to tell about how soon before or after they had passed the checkpoint. Or about how they had heeded warnings and avoided that checkpoint, taking the longer dirt road instead. They told of rumors of three more Ansar suicide bombers who have supposedly been dispatched to Sulaimani purposefully to target US journalists.

It was a somber group of perhaps 200 Kurdish and international journalists who sat quietly at Moran's memorial service in the Sulaimani Palace hotel the next night. Suddenly, fights over translators seem absurd; the weapon their guards carry superfluous; and the drive to have the first and best images of war unimportant in the bigger scheme of things.

Moran's colleagues told the gathered crowd that he had been in here in 1992 and 1996. They told of his love of northern Iraq's snowy mountains and high green valleys and of his affection for the Kurdish people. His arrival a few days earlier marked an opportunity to see their liberation. It was an assignment he eagerly wanted.

Sulaimani, April 08, 2003

God, another month gone by - day 20, I think, of the war. One day fuses into another; and endless procession of sitting at the computer, sitting in the car, sitting in front of the TV, sitting and talking, sitting and drinking tea, sitting and drinking beer, sitting and swapping tales, sitting waiting for the next round of bad news. Sitting because you have nothing better to do. The Northern Behind takes on new meaning.

While sitting, thoughts swirl. Of the intense mountain beauty rolling by the Land Cruiser; of the seemingly odd business interaction in an official's office; of the cold grip of paranoia; of helpless sympathy for hopeful people who sit day after day waiting in poverty to return to homes they haven't seen in decades; and of more helpless sympathy for the Iraqi families I see on BBC, wailing for lost love ones, lost homes.

Mental Relief

Spring bursts here. The high mountain valleys are awash in a patchwork quilt of shades of green generously smothered in yellow flowers and interspersed with blood red poppies. Above lime green fields of new wheat, lined with pink-blooming fruit trees, rise rugged rocky mountains, some still snow encrusted at their peaks. Flocks of roly-poly sheep flow over low hills guided by old men in balloon pants and crooked walking sticks. In the soft crotches of water-made, mountain-side canyons are tucked small villages of adobe mud homes nearly invisibly integrated into the landscape. One house uses the roof of the one below it for a front patio as the village climbs up the canyon sides.

I can't leave the city without feeling an overwhelming desire to leap out of the truck and just start walking, seduced by the raw simple beauty and propelled by a desire to leave the news of war behind.

In the city of balmy spring, an air of normalcy prevails. War is on TV. It is distant violence, even here. People who fled for mountain city and villages when the war began have mostly returned. People are happy with how things are going.

The bazaar is packed. With small boys selling cigarettes, and juice makers whirling their blenders of fresh bananas, pomegranates, carrots, apples and oranges. Workers flow out of the Royal cigarette factory across the street from the Ashti hotel. I see them sometimes at 3 if I am writing in my room and looking for diversion on my balcony overlooking the main street.

But beneath the waves of normalcy a deep riptide flows. There is a constant kind of buzz, of tension perhaps, that undercuts everything. Or is it just me? For days I felt this deep sense that something is about to happen. It never does. We have had nearly three weeks of the Northern Grunt, as the war up here moves forward in fits and starts. It drives everyone crazy. The tension is constant but nothing really happens.

The Northern Grunt

In the past couple of weeks, under pretty steady US bombing, Iraq has abandoned one checkpoint after another along the northern front line with Kurdistan - Kalak, Taqtaq, Kifri, Chamchamal. As the Iraqis fall back from the line toward Kirkuk, Kurdish peshmerga move in to fill the void. US special forces, working with the peshmerga, call in air strikes on the new positions. In some areas, the Kurds and US special forces are within 10 miles of Kirkuk-the crown jewel for the Kurds. And Kirkuk's oil fields no doubt the crown jewel for the US. They have been bombing military and security Iraqi government positions inside and around Kirkuk and another northern Arab city, Mosul.

So reporters run to the "front" every day to see how close they can get and to catch video of bang bang. And at night in the Ashti restaurant over dinners of Chang chicken (the New York Times photographer, Chang, taught the cook to make a kind of chicken stir fry with vegetables -- that sometimes include French fries, called potato fingers here; you I-hate-Francers should appreciate that). Anyway, Tales from the Front are swapped nightly over dinner. There is really little to tell in terms of news value; each night sounds like a repeat of the last. But there are plenty of rumors and exaggerated humor to fill the time.

But these trips are also dangerous. A BBC cameraman, an Iranian I was quite fond of was killed by a landmine near Kifri. On another BBC crew, their translator was killed by US "friendly fire" near Kalak. The third BBC crew - the people I came in with from Syria - pulled out yesterday before their luck ran out. Others have left, still others are thinking of leaving (as much from dearth of story as danger). As I wrote this earlier in the day, three more journos were killed in Baghdad. Right now, CNN is talking to Abu Dhabi TV where 25 reporters are hunkered down in Baghdad, caught between US and Iraqi forces and asking the US to rescue them.

These stories are always told. The hundreds of thousands of civilians who have no access to international media are no doubt in far more dire circumstances. I find it too painful to even watch the images of Iraqi people groveling, arms in air, before beefy US troops. I know this is war. I know this is all part of it. Soldiers don't know who's who. No one speaks Arabic. Despite the fact that this war was planned months in advance, no one thought about how soldiers would talk to civilians? And as we all know, one doesn't pick up Arabic in a week - or even in four years in my case. Why didn't they recruit Arabic speakers for each unit?

But there are also images of people greeting soldiers, happy to be free of the grip of the regime. People are so afraid and once they know they can no longer be hurt by warfare or by the long arm of Saddam they come out and see these invaders as liberators.

Since the Northern Front is still in Northern Grunt stage, I've done little for NBC/MSNBC. A new reporter came in - a star supposedly - and he and the other reporter stand up in front of the camera and repeat what is on the wire services. Which is fine by me. I have to admit, speaking as a long time print journo, that every disparaging thing I ever thought about TV journalism is true and then some. Shallow, superficial, too short to do anything but repeat the same shit over and over to people. And all focus is on the military moves. Journos spent an inordinate amount of time chasing down US special forces up here. And what does it matter in the long run? No one gives a shit about the people really.

TV news is totally driven by images, not news. No effort to really inform or educate people with some depth. This is all not true across the board of course. There have been some pretty impressive reports and TV can be great for breaking news. Though often rumors are reported and I've seen so many mistakes in location, names, pronunciation.

Day 21 dawns. I get off my behind and go to bed.

April 9, 2003-04-09

Not half an hour after writing and posting this, we sat for lunch with chicken shawerma sandwiches and watched on BBC as people in Baghdad were celebrating and hailing the entry of US-UK troops. Within minutes Kurds here in Sulaimani gathered in the streets and within half an hour the main circle in town was packed with cheering, honking, celebrating, dancing people. I have never in the three years I've been coming here seen people so ecstatic.

The simple word that Baghdad was falling was enough to send folks here into the streets to celebrate the end of a long long struggle against this regime. I was a great feeling to be there with them.

Word is, all the Peshmerga from here are heading to Chamchamal to take Kirkuk. We hope to go tomorrow.

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