With the Peshmerga in Kirkuk, Iraq
-Patrick S Lasswell
Embedding with the Peshmerga is different than going with the other Coalition forces. For one thing, there is the absolute absence of paperwork. Michael showed me some of the bureaucracy he has to struggle with to go to Baghdad. On the other hand, we had to provide our own car and driver. Since we had an ace driver who was also our translator and friend, this was fine with us. Going in a low visibility sedan instead of a Hummer with a turret and “ATTACK ME” written all over it also has a certain appeal. This is not to say that we were accepted without security precautions or providing bona fide's, it's just that they were more organic and less structured. It's easier to keep track of visiting journalists when your Media Relation's personnel rotation in-country is from birth to death. The choice of where to go on an embed was not my greatest happiness, though.
My immediate response to Michael Totten's suggestion that we go to Kirkuk was to smack him upside the head. Due to the length and character of our friendship and business deals, he accepted this with equanimity. After all, he had just won the argument. If I had a good reason not to go to Kirkuk, I would have offered superior logic. If I was deeply unwilling to go, I would have offered superior liquor. If I was genuinely afraid, I would have administered more than a token tap and suggestion of physical improbability. I was in, it was just a matter of negotiating the conditions.
Kirkuk is a city with unique conditions because although there are areas solidly in the unsafe red zone, most of it is strongly secure and pro-US. Talking about security in Iraq is first a matter of discussing race and sect. Western political correctness trends toward babble at the best of times, but in Iraq it is excruciating. We must talk about race and sect because they are killing themselves over it. Kirkuk is historically Kurdish, but there is also a strong component of racial Iraqi Turkomen remnant from the original 9th Century Turk migration out of Central Asia. Also hanging on in a living rebuttal to the concept of historical inevitability are some Assyrian Christians.
The violence comes from and mostly stays in the areas of recent Arab immigration, another poison legacy of Saddam Hussein who was unable to control this oil-rich region so he destabilized it. Not only did Saddam transplant Arabs from the South, he sent another of his enemies, the Shia Arabs. This was a blatant and deliberate move to counter the Kurds, and if they incidentally wiped out the local Turkomen, so much the better. Saddam's planting his enemies amongst each other to get them fighting is still yielding a harvest of hatred and blood. But because the new Arabs were placed according to bureaucratic decree instead of organic availability, the settlements of the insurgents are contained. The place is risky, but the risk is moderate. I found myself trapped by my own blog title.
This is the part my wife is going to hate. Kirkuk isn't just nasty, it really is dangerous. In the month we were in Iraq, there were dozens of attacks there including one memorable day when four idiots detonated themselves inside of eight hours. The potential wealth of the area draws terror financing and organization. For perspective, imagine a VA Tech psycho attack once a week in a metro area the size of the Omaha, Nebraska. One difference is that the police and the citizens are prepared and willing to confront murderous idiots with appropriate force. My part of not aiding the lunatics is simple, I don't publish locations or pictures that reveal specific locations. I used my GPS receiver until right outside of town to help me orient myself, then turned it off so if it was captured it couldn't be used to hurt my hosts. One of the biggest obstacles the imported homicide bombers have is not knowing their way around town. For all the jihad dollars and dupes coming into town, lack of local knowledge and cooperation outside the Arab zone means the violence stays localized.
One of Michael's rules for operating in the Middle East, and it's a good one, is that you find people you trust, and then trust them. For our purposes, that meant independently asking a lot of people if it was safe for us to go to Kirkuk and with whom. To cross-check the validity, we asked if it was also safe for us to go to Mosul. Universally it was acknowledged that it would be safe for us to go to Kirkuk, and that the best person to go with was General Mam Rostam. Universally it was also acknowledged that going to Mosul was just stupid. The best caveat I heard was our translator (and friend) Hamid, who reminded us that in Kirkuk we were “hard currency”. Any terrorist group that caught us would recieve a lot more financing and attention.
Once we decided to go and had verified notional wisdom of doing so, we put off testing the actual validity of our choice until the end of the trip. Partly that was to ensure that the consulting job we came here to do was in the can and wrapped up beyond question. Partly that was to make sure we had plenty of additional material to work on if something happened. Mostly it was to reduce the amount of time we were not telling our wives what we had done. We both like being married and do not relish the opportunity to evade their questions or risk their trust.
We both also felt a deep need to validate our logic and choices in the Middle East by going to Kirkuk. To the extent that we have a marketable skill worth charging consultant rates for, it is that we both accurately comprehend what the ground truth is and make good decisions on the basis of our experiences, intellectual rigor, and insight. If going to Kirkuk is wrong and we thought it was right, we should not be in this business. If going to Kirkuk is right and the terrorist's fear, uncertainty and doubt overmasters our mental processes, we should not be in this line of work. If one of us is unable to operate in Kirkuk, we need to revisit the conditions of our partnership.
Normally I don't go in for the kind of trust exercises touted in corporate retreats. With eight years of active duty, most of it on undermanned destroyers at sea in every ocean, I can verify trust at a glance. More than that, I can and do get people to perform at their best during critical periods. I'm also working with Michael Totten, who is not exactly a shrinking violet and has only let me down by not being up for work the day he passed a kidney stone...and then for only the one day. The trip to Kirkuk established that intellectually, physically, and emotionally we could work anywhere in Iraq worth working. This was a lot more than closing your eyes and falling backwards, this was keeping your eyes open and heading into understood danger.
We had dinner and an interview the evening before the trip to Kirkuk with Judge Rizgar Mohammad Ameen at his house. Judge Rizgar sat on the bench during the first phase of Saddam Hussein's trial and allowed his identity to be known. As soon as we have a translation, we will be posting that interview. Judge Rizgar offered his endorsement of traveling with General Mam Rostam and added his own travel story. A few years ago they were flying together to Baghdad and the plane was diverted from landing at the last minute. For an hour and twenty minutes they flew in waiting patterns over the city and Judge Rizgar remembers looking over at General Rostam and telling him that they won't let the plane land because they know who's on it. There are plenty of people in Baghdad who have good reason to fear letting as legendary a fighter as the general on the ground.
We met with General Mam Rostam on the street outside his house in Suliamaniya as his convoy was getting ready to head to Kirkuk. I was wearing a white Ex Officio shirt, grey North Face slacks, tan rigger's belt, tan Danner boots, and a black trauma kit strapped to my leg. I think the general approved of my accessorizing. With the trauma kit I was showing that I was prepared, by not wearing body armor, I was showing that I was not nervous. The general has a reputation for taking journalists on “exciting” rides. We showed up dressed appropriately professional for the trip we were on, instead of wildly over prepared for a trip we were afraid of. That's why I think the general cut us some slack and got us to Kirkuk in a brisk, but not fear-inspiring manner.
The drive through the city was fast going in. Cars got out of the way once they saw the SUV barreling down the street at high speeds. Once we got to the house where we would be talking with General Mam Rostam we went through the now familiar introductions with all the subordinate staff and were sat down for talking on the porch. It was a lovely spring day, hotter than Suliamaniya, and the roses in the front yard were already in bloom. Small cups of something like muddy espresso shots were delivered to all participants on the porch, I drank mine straight off like the others but Michael tried to savor every shred of coffee goodness. Fairly quickly we established our bona fide's with our questions; we knew what to ask and how to ask for it. One of our questions was about the differences in security between the Kurdish portions of Kirkuk and the parts where things got blown up. To answer us, Gen. Rostam offered to take us to a police station later in the day.
As we were talking, two Kurdish gentlemen came in and were seated with us on the porch. It developed that there was an accidental shooting and they were intermediaries settling the differences between the affected tribes. Part of the job of being a living legend and troubleshooter in Kirkuk is making sure that small problems don't become huge ones. Unlike the more urbane parts of the Kurdish Region, nobody in Kirkuk was making excuses about participating in tribal structure. Until 2003, this place was under Saddam's thumb, and the kinds of political growth that the Kurdish Regional Government is tirelessly trying to display just hasn't happened yet. Also awaiting development are trash removal, modern sewage disposal, and widespread security. General Rostam dealt with the visitors during a break in our conversation, fixing municipal services is going to take longer.
Part of the process of interviewing important people in the Kurdish region and the Middle East is the interruptions. Some of it is probably for show, but a lot of it is dealing with small problems kicked upwards. Since Michael and I have benefited repeatedly from interrupting with just this kind of phone call, we don't mind. During one of the interruptions, two more gentlemen arrived and were greeted as close friends. General Rostam told us that they were Turkomen and that they were not being oppressed. It is hard not to take this as boilerplate political posturing, except that they were invited to lunch. Getting invited to meals happens all the time to Michael and me, sometimes we have conflicting invitations come simultaneously and have to act quickly to avoid hospitality feuds. That happens because we are Americans and people in Kurdistan respect and need us. By inviting the Turkomen to lunch, General Rostam indicated that they are respected and needed. This is a bond that lasts longer than one meal.
Shortly before lunch the police arrived in the form of Iraqi Police Chief Major Sherzad. A neat and trim man, he kept his radio in close proximity. He managed to look orderly Instead of going to the police station, the local chief came to us. General Rostam was eager to show us the best parts of Kirkuk, which turns out to be the people working to make it work despite an active enemy. We talked about security in Kirkuk and how he kept things safe in the Kurdish zones. Major Sherzad was proud of his accomplishment of minimal attacks, dozens of captured terrorists, and scores of discovered weapons caches in a sector that was 80% Arab. He and his police accomplished this through integrity, hard work, and active trust with the inhabitants. The chief had more great things to tell us that I will cover in my next post before we were called in to lunch.
The inside of the house was different from all the other presentation spaces I've been to in Iraq because there were no carpets. In other places you are expected to take off your shoes to avoid carrying the omnipresent dirt into the house. Here you were expected to keep your footwear on because when events occurred time was of the essence. Since I wear great Danner desert boots that take forever to don and doff, this suited me fine. The table was crowded with all the participants invited to share food. The Turkomen sat across from me and one of General Rostam's aides was wedged into the corner to my right. The main course was chicken, but the proportions were off, a taller local breed not in commercial production around the world. On the walls were pictures of Peshmerga fighters and special guests to this house, including many US personnel. Throughout Iraq people from the US are forbidden to eat in local homes...except at General Rostam's. Somebody must have figured out that if General Rostam wanted to hurt the Coalition he wouldn't violate hospitality, he'd just refuse to show up for work in Kirkuk for a couple of weeks. US troops live because Mam Rostam is committed to making Kirkuk work.
Tea after lunch was enjoyable and more exciting than I expected. I burned a CD of the pictures I had taken to give to General Rostam as a gesture of good faith and a nice token of our trip. As we were preparing to move back out to the porch, Major Sherzad's radio started going off in earnest. It developed that some idiot had been shooting from a motorcycle. Then came word that the driver of the motorcycle had been caught and was being brought to our location. As he stepped off the porch towards the arriving police trucks, Major Sherzad announced “I'm not going to feel good until I slap that man.”