General Nasrudin Mustafa, commander of the Kurdish forces north of Kirkuk, was just finishing a sentence, saying: “There is nothing new happening on my front.” But as he spoke the last word there a thunderous roar, his headquarters building shook and the door of his office rattled on its hinges.
A US aircraft had just bombed the long, dark ridge on the Iraqi side of the front line which protects the city of Kirkuk and its oilfields. General Mustafa, who usually plays down the significance of skirmishing between his men and the Iraqi army, looked briefly impressed, saying: “Well, I haven’t seen that before.”
War is slowly coming to northern Iraq and is likely to be hastened by the setbacks to the US-led coalition in the south of the country.
Major-General Henry Osman of the US Marines arrived yesterday, the first openly visible sign of the several hundred American troops who have been landing under cover of darkness for the past three days. Kurdish officials reported bombing near the city of Mosul, and a Reuters television crew heard a powerful explosion near Arbil. So far the Kurds ? Iraqis themselves and with decades of experience of warfare against Baghdad behind them–are singularly unimpressed by the US and British coalition assault.
Struggling to say something polite about Allied strategy, Hoshyar Zebari, a veteran Kurdish leader, said: “People in Iraq are beginning to think that they [the US and Britain] are not invincible. There have been no major victories: Umm Qasr and Basra have not fallen as was announced.”
He criticised the Allies for making a headlong dash for Baghdad without securing the cities on the Tigris and Euphrates rivers or trying to use the support of local people opposed to President Saddam Hussein.
He said: “The impression Iraqis are getting is that there are no Iraqis involved in this campaign, but this is an occupation.”
The criticism is somewhat self-serving. The Kurds, with perhaps 70,000 peshmerga under their command, believe the longer the war goes on the more likely that the US will have to call on them, along with small numbers of US troops, to open a northern front against President Saddam.
This would help the Kurds to return to the provinces of Kirkuk and Mosul, from which 300,000 of them were ethnically cleansed by President Saddam, and give them a strong hand to play in post-war settlement.
So far, the war has been very unlike the triumph of the US-led forces in 1991, Kurdish leaders point out. Iraq has had a string of little successes such as the downing of a helicopter, the capture of US ground troops, and there has been no uprising of Kurds and Shia Muslims as there was after the Gulf War.
The latter has not happened because the US did not want it and Iraqi security has been much tighter than it was 12 years ago.
Disappointment with Allied performance so far is wide-spread among Kurds and not confined to their leaders. In Sifaya, a village of smugglers and farmers on the Zaab river, a mile from Iraqi government-controlled territory, people watch every step of the war on local television.
These days, they have suspended smuggling to Mosul because it is too dangerous and they have drawn up their boats on the bank of the Zaab.
But they think President Saddam is a long way from falling. Khalil Ibrahim, a local leader, said: “The war is too cold. It is not warm enough yet.”
Even in Kurdistan, where the US is popular and where President Saddam committed some of his worst atrocities, there are flickers of Iraqi patriotism. A Kurdish official, who has devoted years to opposing the government in Baghdad, admitted: “It would have been better if the invasion had been with the mandate of the UN and not just by the US and Britain.
“Iraqis won’t like to see American soldiers ripping down posters of Saddam Hussein though they might like to do it themselves. They didn’t enjoy watching the Stars and Stripes being raised near Umm Qasr.”
So far, the northern front has been a fiasco. A month ago the US was expected to land 62,000 troops, their armour and transport and 310 aircraft and helicopters in Turkey.
This would be the northern pincer of a two-pronged attack on Baghdad with the other pincer advancing from Kuwait in the south.
But the refusal of the Turkish parliament to sanction US use of Turkish bases lopped off the northern pincer.
But the sudden appearance of General Osman at a press conference in the headquarters of the Kurdistan Democratic Party in Salahudin yesterday marked an escalation of US involvement in northern Iraq.
He announced, in a statement written in peculiarly lumbering prose, that he was there to establish the military co-ordination and liaison command. This will “synchronise humanitarian support operations, assist in the deconfliction of humanitarian and military activities, and co-ordinate relief in northern Iraq”. It will operate in south-east Turkey and northern Iraq.
In reality, General Osman is here to prevent the Turks fighting the Kurds, and vice versa. The Turkish government has said it wants to send troops into Iraqi Kurdistan to stop an outflow of refugees into Turkey. There is no sign of such refugees, but the presence of General Osman, based in Salahudin and Silopi in Turkey, will, the Kurds hope, make it more difficult for the Turkish army to invade them. There are thousands of Turkish troops already massed on the border.
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