BIARA, IRAQ — The PUK’s Minister of the Interior ordered 20 heavily armed Peshmerga soldiers to go with me to the borderland mountain village of Biara. For years the village was occupied by Ansar Al Islam, the Kurdish-Arab-Persian branch of Al Qaeda in Northern Iraq. Biara wasn’t the only village seized by the Taliban of Mesopotamia, but it was perhaps the most important. It is there that the Jordanian-born Abu Musab al-Zarqawi had his last stand in Iraqi Kurdistan before the 2003 US-led invasion forced him out.
My Peshmerga weren’t really necessary. I told my translator Alan that I was embarrassed so many military resources were being spent on my account. I probably didn’t need any.
“It’s too much,” Alan said and laughed. He, too, was clearly embarrassed. “It’s too much. The minister is doing this to be nice. He wants you to know that he cares about you.”
I introduced myself to some of my Peshmerga guards. There were so many it wasn’t easy to speak to them all. I had a hard time looking them in the eye. Jesus, I thought. These guys must think I’m the biggest wimp in the world. Biara isn’t actually dangerous. Zarqawi hasn’t been there for years. But it wasn’t my idea to bring them along. When the minister said “I will send guards with you” I thought he meant maybe two guys. I cringed when I saw how many picked me up at my hotel in the morning.
Alan and I left Suleimaniya in a convoy. One truck bristling with Peshmerga led the way. Another truck followed. Heads turned as we drove through the small villages. Who might that be was the look on all the faces. I wanted to bury my own face in my hands. It’s just me! I’m not that important! It turned out, though, to be fun.
I don’t know if these guys actually thought I was a wimp because they had to come with me. They probably did. If so, they did a terrific job hiding it. Most likely they didn’t care. Driving up the mountains and into Biara surely beat boring checkpoint detail or whatever else they would have been otherwise doing.
We arrived in Biara and parked near the mosque founded long ago by a Sufi mystic from Turkey. Zarqawi lived in that mosque during the Ansar Al Islam occupation. I could tell most of the Peshmerga guys had never been there. They gawked at the mosque and at the mountains like tourists.
Their disposition had drastically changed since morning. At first they were all business. We will protect you said the look on their no-nonsense faces. Now they looked like boys. Cool! Field trip!
After a few oohs and ahs and the pointing of fingers they found a kebab shop and ordered some lunch. Alan and I went over to join them.
“I don’t have enough food for everybody,” the stunned shop owner said, clearly intimidated by the sheer volume of food he would have to prepare all at once. “Try the tea shop down the street.”
Alan and I went to the tea shop down the street and settled in.
The proprietor happily made us Iraq-style tea (dark brown, overflowing, and packed with a wallop of sugar) and delicious kebabs.
There were a few other patrons in the tea shop and they eyed me, the obvious foreigner, with a mixture of curiosity and shyness.
“Do want to talk to some of these people?” Alan said. “I’ll be happy to translate.”
Of course I wanted to talk. That was the reason I went there in the first place.
“Hello,” I said to two slightly goofy looking gentlemen sitting across the tea shop on the other side of the stove.
They both stepped across and we firmly shook hands.
“Do you want to know about life in Biara?” the one on the left said. He spoke perfect English and I did not need Alan to translate.
“Yes,” I said. “Did you live here when the village was occupied by Zarqawi?”
“I did,” he said. “Life wasn’t good. We had no freedom. TV was banned. Women couldn’t walk outside without an abaya. There was violence. Anyone not affiliated with them was treated badly. During prayer time everyone was required to go to the mosque. If we didn’t go we were insulted and fined 50 dollars.”
50 dollars may not be a lot of money in the United States, but was a huge amount in a remote village in Iraqi Kurdistan while all of Iraq was under international sanctions. People needed the Oil for Food program just to stay alive.
“Did anyone here actually like Ansar Al Islam?” I asked.
“There were one or two very young people,” he said. “I am from here. We never had anything like that before. I was joking with my friends in this tea shop. We were arrested, chained, blindfolded, and beaten. Laughing was banned.”
“They were like the Taliban,” his friend said.
“Did Ansar kill anyone here?” I asked.
“One person was tortured to death,” he said.
The tea shop owner joined the conversation.
“I was accused of being a member of the PUK,” he said, referring to the left-wing Patriotic Union of Kurdistan political party. “So they put me in prison.”
Ansar Al Islam’s occupation of Biara and surrounding villages ended in 2003 when the Peshmerga launched a ground invasion with U.S. air support. Biara, including the Zarqawi-occupied mosque, was bombed from the air.
“How did you feel when the Americans bombed your village?” I asked the shopkeeper.
“We were waiting to get rid of them,” he said. “We were desperate. They were the worst people ever. Many people had to close their businesses and leave this place.”
Two other men came into the tea shop. One wore a military uniform, the other wore civilian clothes. They kept to themselves at first, then came over to talk.
“Did you ever meet Zarqawi?” I asked the man in civilian clothes.
“Few people saw him,” he said. “He covered his face with a cloth. He wasn’t the boss, though. Chafee was their commander. They had three commanders, actually. We are still afraid of them.”
Apparently the threat to this part of Iraqi Kurdistan isn’t quite over. Otherwise the minister of the interior would not have even thought to send Peshmerga guards with me. But the Islamists haven’t been back since the US and the Peshmerga drove them over the border into Iran. It was hard to imagine they would dare try to come back again without getting themselves killed the instant they arrived.
“When the US attacked,” he said, “they escaped to an Iranian village. Then Iran sent them to Kirkuk. One guy was arrested in Kirkuk and sent back to Iran. Then Iran sent him back to Kirkuk again.”
I paid the bill and made my way to the mosque. It was hard to believe the US actually bombed it and destoyed one whole side. It didn’t look like it was ever even damaged. The mosque was being used as a terrorist nest so it was technically a legitimate military target. Still, it’s a mosque and it seemed to me that bombing it wasn’t the best way to “liberate” it. I thought I would go inside and ask local people who prayed there what they thought about that.
I took my shoes off outside and went in. Some of the Peshmerga guys came in with me.
The imam wasn’t around, but we met the mosque caretaker Hussein Mahmoud inside. He was happy to show us around and tell us what’s what.
Three Sufi saints are buried under the mosque dome. Most of the people who pray here aren’t Sufis; they are mainstream Sunni Muslims. But they honor and venerate the mystics for whom the mosque was founded.
“Zarqawi destroyed the tombs,” the caretaker said. “He and his men turned this room into a toilet.” He shook his head in disgust at the filthy Islamists who fouled their Islamic shrine. Muslims who say Al Qaeda is not really Islamic may have a point.
“You see that there in the floor?” he said. “That’s where they began to install plumbing.”
I braced myself. “How do you feel about the U.S. bombing this mosque?” I said.
“I don’t know,” he said, as if he had never even pondered the question. “It’s okay, I suppose. I am grateful. If they had not done it this place would still be a toilet.”
Five feet past the last house in Biara is the beginning of Iran. The Iranian government actually asked one person to move his house two feet over because one part of the living room was technically outside Iraq. I walked up a long flight of stone steps to the houses, made of slate bricks, that lined the Iranian border to get a view of the village from above.
My Peshmerga came with me. They whipped out their cell phones and used the built-in cameras to take photos of the village just as I did.
We couldn’t stay long, though. We were at the edge of Iraq. But there was one more place even more on the edge than this one even higher up in the Kurdistan mountains. We had one more place we needed to see. There was one more village to go…
Postscript: Don’t forget to hit the tip jar. And thanks so much to all of you who have donated money already.