Keeping Safe in Kurdistan

Iraqi Kurdistan is the safest place in Iraq. This spring I returned there to better understand just how Kurdistan was keeping itself safe, even as Arab Iraq descends into civil war. Naturally, I began with what I could see: the Kurds have an effective police force and a strong military. A monopoly on violence is the obvious answer, one which suggests that bringing peace to the Arab south won’t be more difficult than providing guns and training. Unfortunately, the real answer turns out to be much simpler to see but the solution much harder to realize.




Hundreds of Shiite Muslim militiamen have deployed in recent weeks to this restive city — widely considered the most likely flash point for an Iraqi civil war — vowing to fight any attempt to shift control over Kirkuk to the Kurdish-governed north, according to U.S. commanders and diplomats, local police and politicians. (Jonathan Finer in Kirkuk, Iraq, for the Washington Post Foreign Service, 
Tuesday, April 25, 2006; A16)


Captain Marwan Lazgin Ahmed, of the Kurdish Zawita special forces company guarding the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) buildings in Makhmour, Iraq.

Captain Marwan Lazgin Ahmed, of the Kurdish Zawita special forces company guarding the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) buildings in Makhmour, Iraq.

Two years ago in Dohuk I found myself drinking coffee with an American special forces soldier on R&R from Mosul. As we sat in the special forces safe house, guarded by Kurdish peshmurga, he talked about how something new had happened after the war. For the first time, he told me, the Kurds have acquired heavy weapons. The Arabs can’t touch them now. The Americans rule the sky, and ground fighting is decided by tanks. The Iraqi army had lost all its tanks while the Kurds had been given tanks by the Americans. This was a new development, and it put the Kurds in a new and interesting position of power vis-à-vis their Arab compatriots.

This past spring, back in Kurdistan again, I joined two American bodyguards who sat smoking at the bar in the atrium of the Sheraton Hotel, a massive glass-and-steel tower in a green park with flowers and a zoo in Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan. Outside the 20-foot concrete blast walls, each slab lovingly painted with idealistic messages (don’t beat your children, avoid land mines, education for women is a right), the real city begins. The streets are full of people selling from pushcarts, hauling merchandise, drinking tea, strolling, chatting, loafing — people going about their lives. There are precautions against attack, but there is peace here. This same day, hundreds of miles to the south of Kurdistan, in Baghdad, 37 people were killed by a car bomb, and it was not considered unusual. The two bodyguards could relax in Kurdistan; they were waiting to take their clients south before the sun went down.

Somewhere in the sprawl of the hotel atrium their clients were still in their meeting. The American man on the left sucked on a cigar. He was a former special forces soldier, square-jawed and fit, clean-shaven and tanned, with short hair. His gray hair and crow’s feet suggested he was in his fifties. His buddy talked a lot about “having done stuff” in Latin America.

I’d come back to Kurdistan to discover just how the region’s new and interesting position of power had worked out. Kurdistan was safe and prospering, and I wanted to understand how it managed to keep out the both the military and terrorist threats from the south. I was looking for someone who understood intimately the effectiveness of the pick-up truck-mounted RPK or DShK machine gun — the kind of firepower that the Arab militias in Iraq could employ.

Kurdistan is a potential target for the Arab militias, of which the best known are Moqdar al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army and the Badr Organization, the military wing of one of Iraq’s largest political parties, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq. There are a number of reasons the Arabs might want a rumble with the Kurds. The Kurds are strong allies of the Americans, and Kurds fight alongside American troops in many southern cities. In particular, the Kurds have their eyes on both Mosul and Kirkuk, ethnically divided cities that overlook huge oil fields. The Kurds slowly are gaining control of Kirkuk, expelling Arabs and importing Kurds, to change the ethnic balance. They claim they’re restoring it to what it was before Saddam’s Arabization program, but their real goal is to win the referendum, planned for 2007, to decide who will govern Kirkuk. Kirkuk has become a major potential battleground between Kurds and Arabs, and both sides are preparing.

If such conflicts escalated, the Arabs might try to repeat Saddam’s successes in the 1980s and 90s, when Ba’athist forces destroyed the Kurdish insurrection. At that time, the Kurds had small arms and little else. Now, I was given to understand, the Kurds had acquired tanks (as well as armored vehicles, howitzers, mortars, and even rocket launchers). Could these new weapons make a difference?

I asked the man with the cigar: What if one of the Arab militias decided to take on the Kurds in a full frontal assault—say, five hundred pick-up trucks with machine guns, RPG’s and light mortars—in, a move to push the Kurds out of Kirkuk or even to invade the rest of Kurdistan, and what if the Americans didn’t want to get involved?

Cigar-sucking man paused, then explained that if the tanks work, and if the Kurds know how to use them, and if they have ammunition, then the second pick-up truck that sees the shell-burst from a tank is going to turn around really fast, because the first pick-up truck is going to be in many little smoking pieces, even if the tank is a crappy old thing. Tank shells are very discouraging for unarmored vehicles.

So, do the Kurds really have heavy weapons? I’m certain they do. The Turkish Anadolu Agency reported in April 23, 2003 that the Americans gave the KDP 34 tanks, 21 armored vehicles, 14 armored personnel carriers, 37 cannons, 78 mortars, 27 multi-barrel rocket, and 254 rocket launchers. The PUK got 21 tanks, 9 armored vehicles, 11 armored personnel carriers, 24 cannons, 60 mortars, 9 multi-barrel rocket launchers, 46 antiaircraft, and 125 rocket launchers. The PDK has begun to tank training in Zawita “with the help of surrendered Iraqi soldiers.”

The KDP Minister in Charge of Peshmurga Affairs in Erbil, Hamid Effendi, confirmed this. “We got many weapons from the Iraqi government: tanks, mortars, cannons, every kind of weapon … the weapons and tanks which we got from the Iraqi government are old. [But] of course we have some of them, and that’s better than before.” He added that his cannons were particularly fine….

I learned more about the tanks at the Deutsche Hof, a German biergarten, over a stein of beer with a foreign businessman who said he’d talked with the Kurds about their tanks. In fact, he said, his Czech partner had been asked by the Kurds to repair them. Most of them didn’t work, and the Kurds couldn’t (or wouldn’t) fix them. He thought the tanks were a mixture of T-54’s and T-72’s, not exactly top-of-the-line hardware, but good enough to get the job done.

The Arab militias move around southern Iraq almost with impunity, and they control large parts of the country. Ba’athist fedayeen and al-Qaeda jihadis control entire cities. But they are no match for the Kurds and not only because of the tanks.

While the Arabs struggle to build a new Iraqi Army, the Kurds already have one. The peshmurga now wear the uniforms of the Iraqi Army and the Border Guard, but they are still Kurds. “We have about 60,000 Peshmurga,” said Hamid Effendi, then added, “When we need them, all our people are Peshmurga.” And now, they’ve got the big guns.




A Kurdish soldier in training for the Iraqi Army at Kanigama, the 1st Combat School in Iraqi Kurdistan.

A Kurdish soldier in training for the Iraqi Army at Kanigama, the 1st Combat School in Iraqi Kurdistan.

On the bridge over the river at Gali Ali Beg, I met some Arab tourists, natives of Falluja. They had come to Kurdistan to enjoy the mountain scenery, the beautiful canyons and the waterfalls, and to take a break from the daily killings, kidnappings, and chaos at home. Here, we and they could walk around freely, albeit under the constant watch of the peshmurga at the nearby checkpoint.

We posed for pictures together, and my colleague, who had been to Falluja in 2004, asked one of them if he could visit again. The tourist smiled. He drew his finger across his neck then fanned both hands as if to send our souls away to heaven.

Those ever present checkpoints were one reason my colleague and I weren’t going join the martyred in Kurdistan. Traveling to and from Gali Ali Beg we had been stopped at no less than 10 checkpoints, approximately one each six miles.

Most of the time we showed our documents and passed on through. Most of the time, my press ID sufficed — a 5×7” International Press Pass, with a passport-sized photo and a paragraph on the back explaining what it was. Getting through seemed too easy — while much ado is made about the checking of documents, they are poor methods of control. They are easily forged. Most of the Kurdish soldiers couldn’t read the Latin lettering — Iraqi Kurds use Arabic script — and some could not read at all.

Besides, I had made the press pass myself in my hotel room a few days prior, yet it was my main identification in Kurdistan. How good a control could that be?

Checkpoints work for other reasons. The possession of convincing documents is a piece of the puzzle a soldier assembles in the instant he decides to pass or detain someone. The soldiers always spoke Kurdish with our driver and listened for a foreign accent — a hint of Arabic perhaps? They checked that we had Kurdish license plates. They examined our clothes and our baggage. Kurdistan is a part of the world where the manner of dress and the brands of clothing are more limited than in the West — the unusual cut of my clothes alone marked me as an outsider.

The whole point is to watch out for outsiders.

Iraqi Kurdistan is a small place where almost everyone is a Kurd. They speak Kurdish, they do the line dance, they like guns, they eat really fast without speaking, they wear keffiyeh and a knit cap in a particular and local way, and their fathers wear baggy pants. An Englishman can hear a compatriot’s social class the minute he opens his mouth; a Kurd can spot an outsider before he sees the whites of his eyes.

At Bani Maqan — the last checkpoint between Sulaimani (in Kurdistan) and Kirkuk (in Arab Iraq) —the procedure is much the same except that, being a border post of sorts, it’s a place where the visiting Arabs get permission to enter Kurdistan. They need an invitation from a Kurd and a small pile of documents to verify who they are and what they’re up to, which they push through the tiny window of a cinderblock office. They are rewarded with a scrap of paper that allows them to pass. I peered into the office and could see stacks of folders representing many hundreds of visitors. The checkpoint commander, Major Bakhtiar Rashid, assured me that the Kurdish intelligence services are quite serious about this paper.

Major Rashid claimed that the Bani Maqan checkpoint passes around 8,500 cars a day and employs up to 55 soldiers, in shifts. The soldiers stop every car that comes through, and each third car (or so) the soldiers look in the trunk. When a bus comes by — often filled with imported Arab labor — everyone’s papers are checked.

It turns out that despite its location, the checkpoint doesn’t get much excitement. Major Rashid said he’d arrested two terrorists in 2004. He’d been tipped off by the Kurdish security services, the Asayish, and they’d set a trap for the men. It was a rare occurrence.

The soldiers employ no science when looking for trouble. They listen, they look, and they watch for nervous behavior. The Ba’athists used to kill people at checkpoints, the major said, so while good people are often quite nervous, bad people are especially nervous. However, would-be bombers don’t transport TNT in their trunk, he said — the materials are sent by other routes and await them near their targets — so unless someone freaks out or forgets his papers, the checkpoint isn’t going to stop him. I spent a few hours at the checkpoint, watching as the sun went down over the fields —those unguarded fields stretching into the distance — and thought that it must be very easy to sneak into Iraqi Kurdistan if you weren’t in a terrible hurry and didn’t mind walking. “Of course it’s easy,” my translator agreed. “None of us think these checkpoints will stop a real terrorist.”

Even so, the checkpoints do prevent the bad guys from simply driving into Kurdistan and raising hell. In the south, criminals and militias move around easily, and their ability to drive anywhere unimpeded is crucial to their control. So, simply requiring the bad guys to work a bit harder helps, and blocking free movement of the militias is crucial. The Mahdi Army is not going to roar into town unnoticed, shoot up the place, and zip back out as it does in the south.




"Ramsey Kurd"“I am Ramsey Kurd!”

He posed for the camera in the porch light, a keffiyeh wrapped Kurdish-style around his head, his Kalashnikov held high — the perfect figure of a Kurdish fighter about to venture into the deep night on a secret patrol. The Iranian border was a mile away down the hill and over the river, and we were about to walk through the Kurdish side in total darkness to look for, uh, smugglers or sheep or something.

“Rambo Kurd,” I corrected him. “Not Ramsey.”

It was 9:00 p.m., time for patrol at the Awa Kurteye checkpoint and border fort. 1st Lt. Jamal flicked off the French soft-porn movie on the TV, and we piled into the pickup trucks. We headed down the hill toward the river that divides Iraq from Iran. No radios. No moon. No lights — except for the big spotlight that Jamal waved around, the ultra-bright blue LED flashlights the boys flicked on and off, the one flashlight that changed smoothly from blue to red like a disco light, the glowing tips of cigarettes floating in the dark, and the occasional flashes of cigarette lighters. Nothing else broke the darkness but the fireflies and the faint glow of the stars in the moonless sky above.

I had asked the Kurdish military for a chance to join a front-line mission, to be given the opportunity to see, and photograph, the fear in a man’s face and the stress in his eyes, on the forefront of the struggle to keep Kurdistan safe from the terrorist threat. Enough training and exercises, I said: I want to show the true face of the Kurdish security forces at work. The Iraqi Border Patrol offered to take me on a night mission along the Iraqi-Iranian border. Only two weeks before, Iran had fired at least 160 shells into PKK-held territory around Qandil mountain, according to the PKK guerillas who live there. It’s a border area about 100 miles to the north. At least three shells hit the valley below, clobbered a tree, a rock, and a satellite dish. It scared the hell of the villagers below.

My mission was a night mission — no camera flash allowed. The result is a roll of black frames with small points of light: the glowing ends of cigarettes and the an occasional flashlight beam. And one nice frame of Ramsey Kurd, taken just before setting out. Somehow I captured the truth of the mission, because nothing happened on the patrol. It seemed amateur and pointless: the long pauses looking for our way, the guy with the disco flashlight, the long cigarette breaks, the lack of radios or night-vision. The soldiers were relaxed and playful, even dancing at one point, arms over each other’s shoulder, two guys with guns doing a Kurdish step-dance in a field of flowers in the bright beam of a blue LED flashlight.

They had an odd sense of humor. Every five minutes, a soldier stopped and pointed across the river. “Iran.” Then, he’d point at our feet. “Iraq.” It was the only stratego-operational secret I learned.

They patrol every night at the Awa Kurteye checkpoint and presumably at all 70 border forts along the Iranian border. A squad — eight men and an officer — walk along the border, looking for nothing in particular, making their presence known to the Iranians across the way. From the fort, they watch the Iranians, who make their presence known as they stumble around in the dark.

In general, there’s nothing happening at the border these days. But nothing happening tells a lot. While Baghdad’s exploding, in Iraqi Kurdistan they’re dancing at midnight in fields of flowers near Iranian border. Not exactly a scene from First Blood, but my soldier with the keffiyeh had no particular affection for that American affectation. “Ramsey Kurd” it turns out, means ‘symbol of the Kurds,” quite as tough as Rambo – but closer to the Kurdish heart.

Terrorists, freedom fighters, heroes and cowards have traveled through these mountainous regions as long as people have lived here, from the medieval Assassins to the modern PKK. People still move back and forth between Iraq and Iran, if only to visit family in the next valley. The few shells from the Iranians have caused minor flurries of protest, gusts of indignance, but no winds of war. It is a testament to the mostly level heads in the current Kurdish regimes that these borders are calm, for they have not always been so. Whatever the sordid details of the uneasy truce between the Kurds and their neighbors, it seems to be working.




In both Erbil and Sulaimani, you can see the neighborhood watch concept taken to the extreme. Before every building of any significance there is a paunchy mustachioed man sitting calmly on a plastic chair, puffing on a cigarette. He might be chatting with some buddies, he might be watching the girls on their evening stroll, he might be swatting at flies and drop-dead bored, but he’s another pair of well-armed eyes on the street.

The Christian neighborhood of Ankawa in Erbil is the best example of the phenomenon. It has more paunchy guys with guns than the other neighborhoods because it’s where the foreigners and politicians live. Seimens and the U.N. have sealed off entire blocks, and the area is a warren of blocked off streets, cement barriers, guard houses, and guards who sit outside, day and night, making their presence felt.

The men control who goes where in the neighborhood. They are watching for anything suspicious, meaning outsiders and Arabs. In Kurdistan, racial profiling is just fine. And, unlike the USA, it’s just fine to ask anyone who he is, what he’s up to, where he’s going, and to stop him — at gunpoint — if you just don’t trust his puss.

Or, you can call the Asayish.

The KDP and PUK each have a internal security agencies, called Asayish. The Asayish control prisons, police, checkpoints, and apparently they’re very effective. Above them are the spy agencies: the KDP have the Parastin, and the PUK has the Zaniyari. When Major Rashid at the Bani Maqan checkpoint said he was warned about two terrorists coming through, he meant he got a call from the Asayish, who were probably tipped by the Zaniyari.




There are a historical reasons Kurdistan has become a safe haven in Iraq. One reason the Kurds aren’t fighting is they had their war ten years ago. Civil war? Been there, done that. Between 1994 and 1997, the KDP and PUK fought a bloody war. Thousands died. There were pitched battles on the plains between Erbil and Sulaimani. Since then, the division of spoils is handled without armies in Kurdistan. Of course, there are still struggles for power and money, but they are done without resorting to open warfare.

Another reason is that the Kurds are more unified into a nation than the Iraqi Arabs, many of whom in recent years have found their identity (and security) as members of tribes and religions. External enemies and persistent propaganda have shaped the Kurds from a geography of tribes into a nation (although tribal loyalties persist).

The Arab areas, by contrast, still are fighting over tribal affiliation, religion, politics, land, money and power. Saddam’s regime thrived on the dissension between tribes and religious sects, and the conflicts on which he capitalized are still being played out. As well, no one younger than 45 has any local political experience with anything but brutal dictatorship as a form of governing. Outside powers (Syria, Jordan, Iran, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia) are doing their best to shape the outcome of events in Iraq.

Kurdistan has escaped the revolutionary religious ideologies that have spread through Arab Iraq. The mostly Sunni Kurds had no interest in the revolutionary Iranian Shi’ism we see behind the Mahdi army and the Badr Brigades. As well, when the Wahhabi/Salafi strain of Sunni Islam — meaning al-Qaeda & Co. — appeared in the form of Ansar al-Islam, it was annihilated early on.

Of course, it helps that the Kurdish government wasn’t completely destroyed by an Anglo-American invasion in 2003. This total devastation of all parts of the Iraqi government has yet to be repaired.

But, the basic reason that Kurdistan is able to maintainpeace in the face of the chaos in the south is that it is essentially a big village, where people speak the same language, know their neighbors, wear unusual clothes, are meddlesome, and most people accept all of this. It’s easy to spot the outsiders, and people are quick to report them. So, any attacks have to be done by adept secret agents, deep in “enemy” territory, or carried out by locals who manage to keep their secrets. Kurdish intelligence and security agencies are competent with forty years of experience against with all kinds of dire threats, ranging from Saddam’s genocidal Anfal campaign to Iranian-backed Ansar al-Islam terrorists.

For now, the Kurds in Iraq are safe. Their traditional enemies, the Arabs, are weak, while they are the strongest they have been in hundreds of years. The U.S. protects them from the neighboring countries. Certainly, compared to Baghdad life is good in Kurdistan, but many Kurds are fed up with their leaders’ greed and the parties’ oppressive control over daily life. Some Kurds say that they have almost as much to worry about from their own rulers as from the Arabs, and it is common to hear — however exaggerated this may be — Barzani and Talibani compared to Saddam. But still, that’s an “almost,” because, for now, the outside is far scarier than what’s at home.


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© Copyright 2014 David I. Gross