Kurdistan Rising

For the pesh in northern Iraq, it's the birth of a nation—and they don't mean Iraq

There's a healthy respect for the pesh among American soldiers here. But it's a respect tempered by the danger the pesh pose to U.S. intentions in Iraq. For America wants a stable, peaceful Iraq—an Iraq where rival ethnic groups bury their differences and where the oil flows freely. But Kurds want at least their autonomy—many say their independence—and in the short term, that would mean breaking Iraq into pieces and shuffling around its ethnic populations, a process that would be anything but peaceful. And as for oil, 40 percent of Iraq's reserves—5 percent of the world's—lie beneath Kirkuk, a city of almost a million people just south of the Green Line. But despite pumping nearly a million barrels of oil per day, Kirkuk suffers a gasoline shortage and still has neighborhoods that are "below Third World," according to Brigadier General Alan Gayhart, the 55-year-old commander of the 116th.

Since the Shiite-dominated Iraqi government in Baghdad has a monopoly on the state's oil production and is using oil revenue to fund reconstruction, "nothing comes back into Kirkuk," says Major Darren Blagburn, 36, also from the Idaho regiment.

All that would change if the Kurds had their way.

Old anxieties: Kurdish kids line up on a bridge on March 20 to watch U.S. soldiers.
photos: David Axe
Old anxieties: Kurdish kids line up on a bridge on March 20 to watch U.S. soldiers.

Kirkuk's population is evenly split among Shiites, Arab Sunnis, and Kurds, but it's surrounded by areas that are almost entirely Kurdish, and many Kurds eye it as the heart of a future independent Kurdistan. "The PUK's goal is to bring Kirkuk into Kurdistan as the capital," Blagburn says.

But any Kurdish attempt at taking Kirkuk from Iraq could instigate large-scale violence, because of what Blagburn calls the city's "competing social demographics."

"In order to keep a unified, peaceful Iraq," Blagburn adds, "Talabani must keep the Kurds back."

Kirkuk is a fascinating place. As Gayhart says, "A political science major would go nuts here."

Old pesh are a rare breed, because most pesh die fighting. For a century, they've fought for Kurdish independence—first on horseback with sabers and breech-loading rifles, later with AK-47s and Soviet-built tanks captured from the Iraqi army. Even with the tanks, they were always outgunned by their enemies. But the pesh relied on stealth, dark of night, and not a little savagery to gain the upper hand during the bloody '80s and early '90s. K.G. remembers when pesh would slip into towns at night, gun down collaborators in their homes or in the streets, then slip away. That yesterday's pesh used the same tactics as today's insurgents is not lost on him. Old-school pesh were terrorists.

But these old pesh are now in their forties and fifties. They've graduated from gaunt terrorists to potbellied military officers and politicians. Their goals are the same, but their means have evolved.

Anwar Dolani was a pesh fighter—and one of the best. It was his troops that destroyed the last Iraqi tank to penetrate Sulaymaniyah in 1991; its rusting carcass is a famous landmark. After the liberation in 2003, Dolani surrendered his PUK membership in order to accept a general's commission in the new Iraqi army.

His men came with him.

Today, fat and imposing at the age of 47, with a cigarette always in one hand and a bottle of Scotch in the other, Dolani is one of the most powerful men in Kurdistan, commanding an entire brigade of 2,000 former pesh wearing Iraqi army uniforms and overseeing security for all of Sulaymaniyah and its environs. He wears the uniform of his former enemy—and not with irony. Dolani says that his people are becoming the real Iraq and that they want the rest of the country to "stop falling behind."

He's got a point.

Sergeant José Alvarez tours a park near Sulaymaniyah during Kurdish new year celebrations.
photo: David Axe
Kurdistan is the most prosperous region of the country—so prosperous that it steals jobs from other areas. "We're seeing a lot of businesses move to Kirkuk from Baghdad because it's safer," Blagburn says.

Kurdistan's a refuge too. Local security forces—overwhelmingly pesh and former pesh—are entirely capable of independent operations. They even deploy to other parts of Iraq for emergencies. On election day, Kurdish patrols appeared unannounced in the Sunni town of Baqubah and began clearing roadside bombs from polling sites. Kurdish forces are so strong that the U.S. Army plans to turn over Kirkuk within weeks, making it the first city outside of Kurdistan proper to make the full transition from foreign to local protection.

"Because of the safety and security, Arabs come here to forget about the problems in their own towns," Colonel Kamal, one of Dolani's lieutenants and another former pesh, says, as K.G. translates. "Kurds have a good habit of respecting them."

During a visit to a shrine to the 5,000 victims of Hussein's 1988 chemical attack on the Kurdish town of Halabja (a former pesh stronghold), a badly scarred Arab gentleman in his fifties approaches this reporter, introduces himself as a doctor, and says in British-accented English that I must show the world the evils of terrorism.

"I've tasted it," he says.

Two years ago, he was working for the U.N. in the Baghdad Green Zone. On August 19, 2003, an insurgent rocket attack blew off half his face. Only the quick work of U.S. Army surgeons saved him. After months of treatment abroad, he returned to Iraq. But word was out on him; death threats piled up. So he fled to Kurdistan—the only place in Iraq, he says, where he feels safe.

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