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From: Martin Smith · Re: Suleimaniya - Kirkuk · Date: Nov. 20-21, 2003

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Introduction: A Long Road

Your enemy was Saddam, I tell [our translator]. Not the Arabs. They went along, he says.

[Name withheld] is our translator in northern Iraq and today he is showing us around Suleimaniya. [Our translator] (named after a famous Kurdish martyr) is very happy to be here. It's his hometown, and he is proud of it. Indeed, compared to any other Iraqi town I've visited, Suleimaniya is strikingly different. The shops are well-lit and well-stocked. The streets are clean. The park across the street from our hotel is well-pruned and green.

"We have Madonna here too," [our translator] says. At least that's what I thought he said.


"Yes. The golden arches." [Our translator] points it out as we drive by. It's called McDonal, and it has appropriated the golden arches. Indeed, it looks like a reasonable facsimile of what it aspires to be. It also proudly displays pictures of Bush and Blair in its windows.

"You meant McDonald's," I tell [our translator].

"Yes, Madonna," he nods.

Suleimaniya's development is striking but not surprising. For the last decade and more, Suleimaniya has survived apart from the rest of Iraq, due to the establishment of a U.N.-sanctioned no-fly zone sheltering Iraq's northern cities from Saddam's advances. It has allowed Kurds like [our translator] to survive Saddam's genocidal ambitions.

Today, [our translator] feels safe at home. He is also wearing a nicely tailored suit -- the second he's worn in two days. Like Suleimaniya, he looks good. I compliment him. Eventually, I will learn that all is not as it appears. Not with Suleimaniya, and not with [our translator].

Off the main boulevard, just a few blocks back, Suleimaniya is largely indistinguishable from many other Iraqi towns: poor, dilapidated, tired. For most visitors, who don't often venture too far from the main boulevard, Suleimaniya maintains its Potemkin face. But the reality of Iraqi Kurdistan is dire. The people aspire to independence but there is little here to sustain a viable sovereign state. Iraqi Kurdistan has no resources. It has pride, but little else. The Kurds remain the world's largest nation without a country to call their own.

[Our translator] explains: "This is because Saddam robbed Kurdistan of what was ours." He is referring to the rich oil fields just to the south, about an hour and a half's drive away, near the once Kurdish city of Kirkuk. Forty percent of Iraq's oil reserves lie near the city. It was a prize Saddam wanted, so he took it. He then "Arabized" the city, moving many Shia and Sunni Arabs to Kirkuk from southern and central Iraq, giving them homes and jobs in the oil business. Thousands of Kurds were forced out. Others were slaughtered.

Later I am with [our translator] in Kirkuk. The town is a polyglot. There are Christians and Muslims. Turkomans, Kurds, and Arabs. But, except for a few obvious examples in traditional dress, I look about and wonder how anyone can tell who is who. Maybe they can all blend and live together, I think.

I ask [our translator] how he can tell people apart. He says he can tell easily. I point out a man over there, a group of women there, a young boy with a goat.

"What's that? Is that an Arab or a Kurd?"

[Our translator] says he knows. "Kurdish. Arab." Like that.

"What's the trick?" I ask. "How can you tell?"

[Our translator] knows that I'm doubting him and gets defensive.

"I can tell by instinct. It is a feel."

This irritates me, and [our translator] knows it. He tries to win me over.

"You know," he says, "the difference between Kurds and Arabs is that Kurds love the foreigners. The Arabs, they don't. They hate Americans." I don't ask how he can see this by just looking.

"You say you love foreigners, but you don't like the Arabs," I observe.

"Arabs are not foreigners," [our translator] responds. "They are the enemy."

"Your enemy was Saddam," I tell [our translator]. "Not the Arabs."

"They went along," he says.

Eventually, [our translator] will clarify how he distinguishes Kurds from Arabs. "The Arabs are dirty," he says. "The Kurds, they are clean. They dress well. I can tell them apart by their dress."

I learn a lot from [our translator]. I thank him for that. But it is dispiriting. He carries a profound and indiscriminate hatred for Arab Iraqis. It is, of course, understandable. But its depth suggests that the circle of violence and revenge will not be broken.

That evening the local American base commander, Col. Mayville, tells me that tensions run dangerously high in Kirkuk. The Kurds want their homes back, he says. They want Kirkuk back. Meanwhile, Arabs have no homes to which to return. Many are Shia Arabs from the now-destroyed marshlands of the south. "Where will they go?" Mayville asks. The problem is not easily solved.

When we head down to the Sunni Arab towns north of Baghdad, we leave [our translator] behind. We don't want him there. A few days before, in Kirkuk, [our translator] had told me how to solve the problem in Falluja, where attacks on U.S. soldiers have been common. The Americans, he said, should just kill them all.

At the time, I thought he was only kidding.

[Editor's Note: The name of the translator has been removed from this dispatch for security reasons.]


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posted february 12, 2004

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