Tim Judah reports from Iraqi Kurdistan, focusing especially on the town Kirkuk, for which there is an astonishingly badly done, but still intriguing web page.
Kirkuk is where the oil is, and where over the past twenty years many Kurds have been driven out by the Iraqi government, though it is not certain how many, and how many still are there.
At present (read: when the report was written, perhaps about a month ago), Kurdish fighters in the area are fighting Ansar al-Islam, a fundamentalist Islamic group they believe is linked to al-Qaeda. The Kurds are saying Ansar al-Islam are supported both by Saddam Hussein and Iran. Puzzled?
From Judah’s report, it appears that the real risk in any coming fight with Iraq is not Hussein’s alleged possession of chemical or similarly destructive weapons, but Iran:
“As we peered at the Ansar front lines, Lieutenant Colonel Ahmad Chekha Omer told me that a few weeks ago these positions had been visited by American military intelligence officers, preceded by British officers. The peshmerga high command, he believed, had requested air strikes in support of a PUK (Patriotic Union of Kurdistan) attack. He said, “We only need two jets.”
The coming fight will be extremely risky Â— but not because Saddam Hussein’s intelligence services are providing money and other backing to Ansar, as the peshmergas say. The real problem is Iran. According to Lieutenant Colonel Omer, “If the Iranians don’t interfere we can finish them easily.” He says that Iranian military trucks were spotted in the area two months ago, that Iran has supplied the fundamentalists with three Katyusha truck-mounted multiple-rocket launchers, that Iranian spotters are helping them target their artillery, and that “Iranian officers give them maps and training to use their Katyushas.”
Officials from the PUK find all this acutely embarrassing. In the past the PUK has relied heavily on Iranian support, based on the principle that they were the enemy of Iran’s enemy, Saddam Hussein, not to mention the PUK’s need for assistance in its conflict with the KDP. But now things are changing. While Iran was happy to help the US get rid of its other enemy, the Afghan Taliban, its leaders now fear that a democratic and especially a federal Iraq will emerge with a large, stable, and secular Kurdish unit within it. This, the Iranians believe, probably rightly, would only encourage their own Kurds to demand the same thing. Everyone here remembers that after World War II a short-lived breakaway Kurdish republic emerged in Iran before being crushed. Today, its legendary leader is celebrated with a large portrait in the center of Sulaimaniya.”
There are reports about chemical substances being smuggled into Iraq, about weapon traffic from Iraq to bin Laden when still in Afghanistan, and reports about the desastrous state of the Iraqi army, with some Kurds voicing the opinion that the Iraqi army, when attacked, would simply not fight back.