Published: January 2006

The Kurds in Control

By Frank Viviano
Photographs by Ed Kashi
In the city of Kirkuk, one of the most hotly contested places in Iraq, members of a Kurdish security force patrol an otherwise deserted street. "The place is hell on Earth," says National Geographic writer Frank Viviano. "Suicide bombers, drive-by shootings, targeted assassinations, you name it." Kirkuk has been Kurdish for thousands of years, according to the Kurds' tradition, though it now lies just outside their de facto territory. Saddam Hussein evicted Kurds from the city and repopulated it with Arabs. But now the Kurds want Kirkuk backā€”and are returning by the thousands. There's more than ethnic pride and history at stake here: Kirkuk sits on one of Iraq's largest oil reserves.

At 10 a.m. on a sweltering Tuesday morning, our death sentence was delivered by telephone. Photographer Ed Kashi and I had made the 50-mile (80-kilometer) trip from Erbil, the Iraqi Kurds' regional capital, to Kirkuk early that morning. Two Northern Oil Company officials accompanied us to the crest of a low hill. An iron red sun hung over the ancient city that Kurds call "our Jerusalem," floating in a thick haze of dust and refinery fumes. Swarms of flies rose from pungent clots of slick, stagnant water. Nearly nine billion barrels of crude lay below us. Suddenly the cell phones of both officials rang simultaneously. As they listened silently to the calls, I watched their faces tighten, noticed their eyes sweep across Ed's and fix briefly on mine. Without a word, one of them jumped into his pickup truck with a pair of their four bodyguards and sped away. The second official remained only long enough to escort us to the company gate. "You've been identified as foreign journalists by a terrorist group," he said. "Their fighters are watching us right now. Death threats have been made, and we can't afford to be seen with you."

He turned his head away, embarrassed. "Please try to understand. I have a family." Then he too left with the other bodyguards.

In the agonizing half hour that followed, our panicky driver raced at breakneck speed on a zigzag course through the Kirkuk streets. A mile (1.6 kilometers) short of the checkpoint where Kurdish troops manned barricades to the road north, we were brought to a halt by a traffic jam in the city's bazaar. The cars around us were full of young bearded men who fit the classic stereotype of a terrorist.

Paranoia? Less than 24 hours later, we were within 300 yards (275 meters) of a suicide bomber who blew himself up on the same street.

It was the bluntest possible reminder of what northern Iraq's Kurds see when they look to the south: a country awash in blood.

Since the aftermath of the 1991 gulf war, nearly four million Kurds have enjoyed complete autonomy in the region of Iraqi Kurdistan—protected from Saddam under a "no-fly zone" north of the 36th parallel and behind the defensive wall of the Kurds' highly disciplined army, the peshmerga. They have held region-wide elections, formed a legislature, and chosen a president, establishing a world entirely apart from Baghdad—a de facto independent state. For the first time in their long history, Kurds are wielding significant political power, successfully negotiating for control over their own military forces and authority over new oil discoveries in their own terrain. Under the federated Iraq being called for by the international community, they would have powers of autonomy that match—or even exceed—what they now enjoy.

But in the end, the essential Kurdish truth today is that they can't give up the dream of outright independence. After 14 years of self-rule, the Kurds can no longer imagine themselves as Iraqis. To travel through Kurdistan is to follow an intense national debate whose central issue is no longer the pros and cons of full, unambiguous separation from Iraq. It's how best to secure it. I came to think of it as a debate between Builders and Warriors.

A 13-year-old girl put the distinction into words. I met Mivan Majid in a mountain park above the city of Suleimaniya, where she was taking the evening air with her father and younger sister. To the north and east the jagged ridges of the Zagros Mountains, marking Iraqi Kurdistan's border with Iran, were receding into dusk. To the south, the immense Mesopotamian plain was a sunset-gilded carpet stretching toward Baghdad and the Persian Gulf.

I needed some air myself—we'd stopped at the park after our escape from the oil field—and I involuntarily flinched when a tall, gangly teenager in faded blue jeans tapped me on the arm.

"Hey," she said, "are you guys American?"

That's an uncomfortable question in the Middle East today, but her casual manner put me immediately at ease. She had remarkable poise and proceeded to grill me in near-perfect California slang, which she'd picked up from an expatriate girlfriend.

When I learned her age, it struck me that Mivan Majid was the Kurdish dream personified. She had never known a day under the rule of Baghdad. Suleimaniya, her hometown and the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan's eastern sector, has been under unbroken Kurdish control since 1992, the very year of her birth. She wanted to be an engineer, Mivan told me, "because they build such cool things: houses, roads, shopping centers. It's like, when you're an engineer you don't get hung up on our terrible history. You look ahead."

It's hard not to get hung up on history if you're a Kurd in Iraq. I met not a single family there that had not fled its home at some point in the past 20 years, not a single farmer who had not seen his village shelled by bombs or artillery, not a single person without a tale of chemical weapon attacks, torture, or execution under Saddam Hussein. During the infamous Anfal campaign, which peaked between February and September 1988, the Iraqi Army destroyed thousands of Kurdish villages—and killed 100,000 people.

Mivan's father joined the conversation, smiling at his daughter as she interpreted my questions and his responses. Majid Nadir was a slim, articulate man in his late 40s, with a dark, neatly trimmed mustache and penetrating hazel eyes. He had his own grim story to tell—arrest by Saddam's police in 1979 for his dissident views, followed by torture and imprisonment for a year.

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