August 10, 2020
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Broken April

Barring the Kurds, the rest of the Iraqis fighting with the coalition are not pleased with American arrogance

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Broken April
Broken April
The abandoned commander’s office was stripped bare, just one page from the newspaper left on the dusty floor. It was the March 25 edition of Al-Qadsiyeh, the organ of Iraq’s defence ministry. "The Enemy Will Face Great Obstacles in Our Holy Iraq", blared the headline, in two-inch red type, above a picture of a beaming Saddam Hussein.

The paper was left behind when the men of infantry chemical unit No. 8 hastily retreated from this military base last week. While the US-led coalition has hit plenty of "obstacles" in south Iraq, Kurdish forces encountered no resistance when they took this territory. The jubilant peshmerga pushed all the way down to 3 km outside the city of Kirkuk where the retreating Iraqi forces had dug in.

All along the 500-km front between the Iraqi forces and the Kurdish autonomous zone, the Iraqis fell back last week, abandoning fox holes, Baath party offices and barracks decorated with murals exhorting the conscripts to "show good behaviour and make sacrifices for others". Kurds quickly occupied the territory—and small groups of US special forces went with them, moving to identify Iraqi positions and call in air strikes.

But as the war moved into its second week, the Iraqi opposition was conspicuous by its absence from the coalition campaign. Its leadership sits here in the north, watching the US-led forces cut a swathe through their country, feeling left out. "Our contribution has been ignored—there has been a pointed decision to exclude us," said a senior figure of the Iraqi National Congress (INC), a coalition of opposition groups. He said the Americans foolishly believe they can "do it alone".

Two Kurdish leaderships, one of Ahmed Chalabi, head of the INC, and representatives of the key Shiite group, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, were finally summoned to a meeting by the Americans in the Kurdish resort village of Dukan last week. It was reportedly an "operational" meeting, designed to get their input on war plans. But disgruntled Shiite leaders said they would tell their fighters "to do nothing" since the US had yet to offer them a credible role in the war.

Neshirwan Mustafa, a founder of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, suggested the US had made a critical mistake in leaving the opposition out, no matter how "dubious" some elements of that opposition are. "Until now the Iraqi population has no confidence that this is permanent change—they believe that in one or two months, when the army is gone, the Baath party will return.... Put someone from the opposition on the radio, take them (into Basra with the US troops) and give the people confidence that this is the end of the Baath party regime."

But for now, the only members of the opposition who look like they might get to play a role in this fight are the Kurds. They got a trial run on March 28 when 100 US special forces operatives joined 9,000 peshmerga in a ground assault on Ansar al-Islam, a radical Islamist organisation that had been at war with the Kurdish government for the past three years. The attack followed a week of air strikes that had reduced most Ansar positions to rubble; the fight took less than a day. Some 200 Ansaris were killed, while 150 more fled over the border into Iran. (Twenty-two peshmerga were killed, and 60 injured; there were no US casualties.)

The US military presence here is minimal and it seems that if there is a northern front, the Kurds will do the fighting. Turkey seemed to have accepted that idea (sweetened with a multi-billion-dollar aid package) after a Wednesday visit by US Secretary of State Colin Powell.

And the Kurds can’t wait. Mohammed Assad, a stocky young peshmerga who hails from Kirkuk, says: "I want to go to Kirkuk to rescue my family." His hands are wrapped around the barrel of a rocket-propelled grenade launcher. "We’re just waiting for George Bush’s orders."

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