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French Foreign Policy is Over

I missed this last week when it was published. You probably did, too, so read it now. (Thanks to Tony Badran.)

Transcript of Interview with Peshmerga Colonel Salahdin

Below is a transcript of my video interview with Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga Colonel Salahdin Ahmad Ameen. Most of the questions were edited out of the video, so they aren’t present in the transcript either. Questions were only included when they were necessary for context.

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Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga Colonel Salahdin Ahmad Ameen

Salahdin: March 11, 1974, the war started between Saddam’s army and our Peshmerga. It was a very tough time — all the time killing, capturing, and…war. It was a war. A big war between us.

For missions we were coming to attack by night Iraqi positions or Iraqi posts, Iraqi bases, around the city and inside the city. But in the day time we were not coming to attack.

During the Anfal campaign we fought Saddam’s army when they came, but the forces they used, we could not defend ourselves from them. It was very huge numbers of army with all kinds of weapons, with chemical weapons. If we defended some place and they could not seize that place, at last they used chemical weapons.

I think all the people of America, or somewhere, they think they used chemical weapons in Halabja only. But I can tell you tens of villages and places where they used chemical weapons. But the number of casualties in Halabja was [so] high, five thousand. In Sosinan here, in Kara Dagh, with chemical weapons they killed 106 people. They killed…everywhere on the front line when they could not capture any position from us, straight they used chemical weapons against us and after that they came.

One day we captured Kara Dagh town from them, from the Iraqi army. We liberated Kara Dagh. They wanted to come to Kara Dagh and occupy it again. But we defended [ourselves from] them. We had some mortars, we were mortaring them. They could not…

After that, four big jets came and threw something white. We never saw it. Big white boxes coming down from the sky. When it exploded there was no sound from it. Only a faint sound. After that, there was a smell coming like…a bad egg. Some people were wounded by it, their bodies became blistered. But we were a little far from it. We smelled it.

“We Were 300”

We were traveling between the — we were about 300 Peshmerga — traveling from Kara Dagh to Halabja area because we wanted sometimes to show ourselves to our people and make their morale higher and higher and higher. We were traveling among the villages between Halabja and Sesara, near Halabja. There is a plain area.

At night someone came to us and gave us information that the Iraqi army was collecting its forces to attack. There is a good place we chose called Zam. It has thick bush, big trees, and a swamp area where it’s not good for tanks or something to come through it. There were four villages near to each other in that area. We distributed our forces, 300 Peshmerga, in those four villages.

In the morning the attack came. Later we were informed that it was a brigade of Iraqi army. And we were 300. A brigade of Iraqi army supported by artillery, mortars, helicopters, and some of the Kurds who were cooperating with them, about 2000 Kurds who were — we call them Jash and you call them mercenaries.

The attack started in the morning. It was dark still. We were ready for them. The first blast of fire we killed 14 of them and took their weapons. We came back to the villages and we had good places for defending ourselves. At 3:00 they started withdrawing. We found that we killed 38 of them, five of them officers. We seized 14 pieces of weapons from them. And our casualties were one Peshmerga. A shrapnel from the helicopters from when they were shooting rockets at us, shrapnel hit his backbone. He is now paralyzed. He’s in Sweden now.

We were surrounded. And we could defend ourselves and make heavy casualties among them. And we had…one person wounded.

MJT: Did Saddam’s soldiers ever surrender to you?

Salahdin: Yes, of course.

MJT: How were they treated?

Salahdin: We treated them like human beings. We did not treat them like…if they captured one of us they would kill him straight on the spot. Not only Saddam’s soldiers. We know they were sons of poor people. They were obliged to come and fight us. But we should defend ourselves, also.

Even when we captured the mercenaries, the Kurdish traitors, also we worked with them. When someone was wounded we took care of him. We had no jails. We kept him for a while, talked to him, talked to him about good things so when he goes back [he can say] good things about us. And we would release him.

We never killed anyone [who] surrendered or [that we captured], was wounded, or something like that.

There were some Arabs among us. Maybe they were soldiers and they stayed with us and became Peshmerga. Some Arab soldiers came. Many of them were killed in the battles with Saddam Hussein.

Abu Ghraib

Abu Ghraib prison is a very notorious prison. I think [unintelligible] was better than Abu Ghraib.

When we entered, we were about 100 prisoners going to Abu Ghraib. There were many hundreds of people standing in a row. When we reached them, all of them started beating us, kicking us. That was the welcome.

When they put you in the prison, in your ward, every day they came and made excuses to beat you. They ask you, what’s your problem, why are you in jail? If you say I am a political prisoner, they will take you to the office of the security there and hang you and torture you as they torture in the intelligence [offices]. You should say I am a terrorist. Not a political [prisoner].

One day during the Iran/Iraq war in 1979 when Iran was uprising against the Shah, I had small radio. I was listening to the BBC for news. The security officer for the jail came and said, what’s that you are listening to? I said it’s news from the BBC. He said why, we have no broadcasting stations, you are listening to BBC? Come with me.

He took me to the office and hanged me upside down and beat under my feet with thick cable until I became unconscious three times. They pour water on and you become conscious and they start beating you [again]. I fainted three times and later they took me back to my room.

They were capturing people, young people, from the cities, and taking them prisoner. Why? They wanted to frighten the people, to remind them every time, taking many people to jail and make them hungry and thirsty. When they came back they were only skin and bones. To frighten the people not to do anything against Saddam, not to say a bad thing against Saddam.

In Iraq, especially in the south of Iraq, in one family no one trusts…even inside one family the father doesn’t trust his son [enough] to say something bad against Saddam. Maybe his son will go and announce him to the authority of Saddam Hussein. It was a bad time. Even those who were loyal to Saddam Hussein could not say no to Saddam.

Weapon of Mass Destruction

The Kissinger Betrayal was in 1974. He mediated between the Shah of Iran and Saddam Hussein and…of course it made us very upset at America at that time. But in 2003 we forgot everything about the past. And we are thankful.

A big number of people criticize Mr. Bush that he attacked Iraq without reason, that there are no weapons of mass destruction here. Saddam Hussein himself was a weapon of mass destruction.

Mass destruction…what does a nuclear weapon do when it hits a country? Of course it kills hundreds of thousands of people, ruins the country, and makes the wilderness obliterated.

Saddam Hussein destroyed 5,000 villages in our country. He filled up the water springs and the wells with concrete. He even deprived the birds and wild animals from drinking water in our mountains. He dried the marshes and swamplands in the south of Iraq which was the source of life for the people of that area. I am not just talking about Halabja, I am talking about thousands of villages in the south and north of Iraq which were destroyed by Saddam. The infrastructure of the area was destroyed by Saddam Hussein. It was worse than a nuclear weapon. Saddam Hussein himself was a WMD.

Should Kurdistan Declare Independence?

If we declare our independence we need a superpower like the US to be backing us. But maybe they will back us for two or three years and later they go back and leave us alone. And at that time, do you know what will happen to us?

There are all around us enemies. The national Islamists in Turkey. The national Islamists in Iran. And the Arab Nationalists in 22 Arab countries. They will attack us. They could swallow us in one day.

The Arabs call us a Second Israel all the time. They instigate their people [and say we] want to make a Second Israel here in the middle of their area. We are not as strong as Israel to defend ourselves from our enemies all around.

I like working with Americans all the time. Our first aid, first help, was from the Americans. When President Bush declared the war on Iraq it was truly…we forgot all our bitter experience with America [in the] past.

MJT: What will happen if the United States withdraws from Iraq next year?

Salahdin: I don’t think they are withdrawing.

MJT: What will happen to Kurdistan if it happens?

Salahdin: If it happens, there will be a civil war in Iraq, especially in the south of Iraq. It will be very bad. It will affect us also.

Of course, we are not participating in that battle between the Shia and [Sunni]. Our religion…we are Muslims. Sunnis. And Shia also, there are Kurdish Shia. But we are Kurdish before we are Muslims. We don’t care about the argument between Sunni and Shia. That’s not our…I don’t think we participate in that. Never.

I ask [Americans] not to leave us. All the time we have been frustrated from the pledges and help from America as we saw in 1974, 1920, and…from 1920 until now we have been frustrated and disappointed from their pledges and promises. Eight times we have been disappointed. I ask the American people, not make it nine times.

Post-script: If you like what I publish, don’t forget to pay me. Travel in Iraq is expensive, and I am not able to do this job without your financial assistance. If you haven’t donated before, please consider donating now. If you have donated before (and a thousand thanks for doing that), please remember that my expenses are ongoing and my donations need to be ongoing too.

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If you would like to donate money for travel and equipment expenses and you don’t want to use Pay Pal, please consider sending a check or money order to:

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The View from the North

My colleague Patrick Lasswell and I interviewed on camera Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga Colonel Salahdin Ahmad Ameen in his office in Suleimaniya, Kurdistan, Northern Iraq.

Colonel Salahdin spoke to us about his experience as an anti-Baathist guerilla fighter during Saddam Hussein’s genocidal Anfal Campaign — when 200,000 people were killed and more than 5,000 villages were destroyed. In one fight he recounts for us, 300 Peshmerga beat an entire Iraqi brigade of slave soldiers in battle and suffered only one casualty.

He also told us about the notorious Abu Ghraib prison — where he was beaten and tortured by the agents of Saddam’s regime — about the Peshmerga’s doctrine of human rights during war time, Henry Kissinger’s betrayal in 1974, why the Kurds have not yet declared independence from Baghdad, and what may happen if the United States withdraws its armed forces from his country.

If you enjoy the interview, and if you learn something today, please consider a donation through Pay Pal. Help make it possible for me to bring you more material like this in the future. My travel expenses are ongoing. Donations need to be ongoing, too.

If you would like to donate money for travel and equipment expenses and you don’t want to use Pay Pal, please consider sending a check or money order to:

Michael Totten

P.O. Box 312

Portland, OR 97207-0312

Many thanks in advance.

Sandmonkey Shut Down

My Egyptian friend, the blogger who is known in public as the Sandmonkey, will no longer be able to write on his own Web site.

One of the chief reasons is the fact that there has been too much heat around me lately. I no longer believe that my anonymity is kept, especially with State Secuirty agents lurking around my street and asking questions about me since that day. I ignore that, the same way I ignored all the clicking noises that my phones started to exhibit all of a sudden, or the law suit filed by Judge Mourad on my friends, and instead grew bolder and more reckless at a time where everybody else started being more cautious. It took me a while to take note of the fear that has been gripping our little blogsphere and comprehend what it really means. The prospects for improvment, to put it slightly, look pretty grim. I was the model of caution, and believing in my invincipility by managing not to get arrested for the past 2 and a half years, I’ve grown reckless.

Hosni Mubarak’s Egyptian police state is supposedly “moderate,” and allegedly an American ally.

It is neither.

Sandmonkey, you will be missed.

Meet the Iraqi Police in Kirkuk

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This is the second in a two part article. Read Part One, Where Kurdistan Meets the Red Zone, here. Scroll down for video.

KIRKUK, IRAQ — Kirkuk, like Baghdad, is one of the most dangerous places in the world. Car bombs, suicide attacks, shootings, and massacres erupt somewhere in the city every day. It is ethnically divided between Arabs, Kurds, and Turkmens, and is a lightning rod for foreign powers (namely Turkey at this time) that interfere in the city’s politics in the hopes of staving off an ethnic unraveling of their own.

The city’s terrorists are mostly Baathists, not Islamists, and their racist ideology casts Kurds and Turkmens as enemies. They’re boxed in on all sides, though, and have a hard time operating outside their own neighborhoods. In their impotent rage they murder fellow Arabs by the dozens and hundreds. They have, in effect, strapped suicide belts around their entire community while the Kurds and Turkmens shudder and fight to keep the Baath in its box.

Kurdish and Turkmen neighborhoods are safer than the Arab quarter, but the city is out of control. Car bombs can and do explode anywhere at any time.

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Kirkuk, Iraq

I spent the day with Peshmerga General “Mam” (Uncle) Rostam and Kirkuk’s Chief of Police Major Sherzad at a house Mam Rostam uses a base in an old Arab neighborhood that now belongs to the Kurds. Just after lunch Major Sherzad’s walkie-talkie began urgently squawking.

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Kirkuk Police Chief Major Sherzad answers a call from the station

“There has been a shooting,” he said. “Two men on a motorcycle rode down the street and fired a gun at people walking on the sidewalk. One of the men was apprehended. They are bringing him here.”

For some reason I assumed when the chief said “here” he meant the police station. He did not. He meant Mam Rostam’s.

“They will be here in two minutes,” the chief said.

“Here?” I said. “They’re bringing him here? To the house?”

“They will bring him here before taking him down to the station,” he said. “I’ll interrogate him here. I’m not going to feel good until I slap him.”

An Iraqi Police truck pulled up in front of the house and slammed on the brakes.

“Here he is,” the chief said.

I grabbed my video camera, flipped the switch to on, and ran out the door.

Both Major Sherzad and Mam Rostam slapped the suspect around, rifled through his personal items, and discovered the astonishingly stupid excuse he and his friend had for shooting at people — an even dumber excuse than if they had been political terrorists.

It was a strange and surprising interruption in the middle of a relaxed interview — basically an episode of Cops in Iraq.

Watch the video. Don’t continue reading until after you’ve watched the video.

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The suspect was taken down to the station. Chief Sherzad went down there to interrogate the shooter — assuming the shooter actually turned himself in. Mam Rostam, my colleague Patrick Lasswell, our translator Hamid Shkak, and I returned to the porch and sat again in our plastic chairs.

“Where were we?” Mam Rostam said, as though nothing important had happened and we could return to our interview now. What else was there to talk about, though, aside from what had just happened? I still wasn’t sure who this guy was and why he and his friend were shooting at people.

“Those guys are not terrorists,” Mam Rostam said. “But they are troublemakers, young people messing around in the town. But we have to seize them and investigate them to find out why they are doing this. People think there are terrorists and that we are not taking care of it.”

“Well, what happened exactly?” I said. I obviously did not yet have an English-language transcript of the video. Our translator Hamid couldn’t hear everything that was said during the interrogation. “What makes you say he is not a terrorist? He was shooting at people.”

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Peshmerga General “Mam” Rostam

“This guy’s identification card in his clothes, in his luggage, shows that he belongs to the Kurdistan Democratic Party,” Mam Rostam said. “That doesn’t necessarily mean he’s not a terrorist, but he’s not a stranger, he’s from the city, he’s known by people who work with the Peshmerga [the Iraqi Kurdish army]. But there are still some questions to be answered as soon as we capture the other guy.”

“You hit him very exactly, it seemed,” Patrick said. “You knew exactly how hard to hit him. His face wasn’t damaged. I would have broken his nose.”

Mam Rostam laughed. “He still seems like a teenager,” he said. “We have to fight them a little bit, to teach them not to do dangerous things, just to stop them where they are. They need to be adjusted more than they need to be punished. So we’re trying this stage with them first. If it doesn’t work, then there is another issue.”

“His teeth were still intact,” Patrick said.

Mam Rostam laughed again. “Those slaps were advice,” he said. “Because the city is unstable, we have to be a little bit violent with people to stop them. Otherwise they won’t be afraid to do many other evil actions. We have to be a little bit severe.”

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Everything in Kirkuk is severe.

“What do you think is going to happen in Kirkuk if the United States withdraws from Iraq next year?” I said, wondering if the city would become much severe very quickly.

“It will not be good,” Mam Rostam said. “Not for Iraq and especially not for Kirkuk. At a minimum there will be trouble with the neighbors, with Turkey and Iran. They will interfere.”

“They will interfere in Kirkuk in particular?” I said.

“Especially in Kirkuk,” Mam Rostam said. “Turkey is always interfering. But I believe the U.S. won’t leave Iraq until 2025. That’s my guess.”

“Even in 2025,” Patrick said, “you will ask us to stay longer for tea.”

Really. It’s hard to extract yourself from any kind of social event in the Middle East without being ordered to drink yet another tea.

“If America pulls out of Iraq, they will fail in Afghanistan,” Mam Rostam said.

Hardly anyone in Congress seems to consider that the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan might become much more severe if similar tactics are proven effective in Iraq.

“And they will fail with Iran,” he continued. “They will fail everywhere with all Eastern countries. The war between America and the terrorists will move from Iraq and Afghanistan to America itself. Do you think America will do that? The terrorists gather their agents in Afghanistan and Iraq and fight the Americans here. If you pull back, the terrorists will follow you there. They will try, at least. Then Iran will be the power in the Middle East. Iran is the biggest supporter of terrorism. They support Hezbollah, Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and Ansar Al Islam. You know what Iran will do with those elements if America goes away.”

I seriously doubt Iran would actually nuke Israel, as many fear, if the regime acquires nuclear weapons — although I’ll admit I’m a bit less certain of that than I am of, say, Britain and France not nuking Israel. The Iranian regime, most likely, wants an insurance policy against invasion and regime change. The ayatollahs will then be able to ramp up their imperial projects in Lebanon, Iraq, and the Gulf with impunity.

“Is Iran doing anything here with the Shia Arabs in Kirkuk?” I said. When Saddam Hussein ethnically cleansed Kurds from portions of Kirkuk he replaced many of them with Shia Arabs from Najaf and Karbala that he wished to be rid of. “And what about Moqtada al Sadr? Does he have a presence here?”

“Officially and obviously, no,” Mam Rostam said. “Neither the Iranians or Moqtada al Sadr exist here at all as far as we know. They might be here secretly. They probably are. But there is nothing official or apparent.”

Our encounter with the young punk of a Kurd notwithstanding, most of the violent troublemakers in Kirkuk are Arabs. Most of the victims of violence are Arabs, as well. While sitting a kilometer or so from Kirkuk’s Arab quarter I felt physically repulsed from the area. Going there without serious weapons and armor would be suicidal. What about average Arabs, though, in Kirkuk? They can’t all support the Baathists and Islamists.

“What do the Arabs who live here think of you?” I said to Mam Rostam. “And I mean the civilians, not the terrorist groups.”

General Rostam is well-known in Iraq as a formidable military leader and a genuine bad ass. His body is covered with battle scars, but he’s damn near invincible. He’s the last guy you want on your case if you work with Al Qaeda or the Baath.

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Major Sherzad (left), local tribal leader (center), Mam Rostam (right).

“I have good relations with them,” Mam Rostam said. “They come over to the house. Last time some of the Arab tribal leaders came over I took them to our headquarters in Suleimaniya. We enjoy our relations with them. We have no difficulties with them and no differences in our opinions.”

Don’t be surprised by his statement. Obviously he’s exaggerating to an extent. Somebody in that quarter doesn’t agree with his opinions or there wouldn’t be car bombs. But it’s only logical that a typical Arab in Kirkuk wishes to see an end to the insurgency and the terror campaign. Why wouldn’t they? Most of the bombs explode in their neighborhoods. Some of them kill hundreds of people. If the Kurds of Kirkuk live in fear of the bombs, imagine how most of the more-endangered Arabs must feel.

*

It was the end of the day and time for Patrick, our translator Hamid, and I to head back to the sanctity of the Kurdish autonomous region. There are no hotels in Kirkuk, and it would have been madness to spend the night in one if there were. Last year a reporter and a photographer from National Geographic were issued death threats by cell phone mere hours after they arrived in the city.

The three of us said our goodbyes to Mam Rostam after we finished our last glasses of tea. He told me to visit him again if I find myself in Kirkuk in the future while embedding with the American military.

“Do you know a safe way out of the city?” I said to Hamid, who was designated as permanent driver. “This is not the kind of place where we want to make a wrong turn and end up in the wrong neighborhood.”

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Hamid Shkak, driver and translator

We had nothing to worry about. Mam Rostam sent some of his men to guide us out of town in a convoy.

I kept snapping pictures on the way out. Kirkuk is unspeakably ugly. I felt gloomy and depressed just driving through in a car. It’s hard to believe people live in places like this and have to put up with its problems. The northern Kurdish cities of Dohuk, Erbil, and Suleimaniya are ramshackle and haywire compared with American cities, but they look like lovely Italian hill towns compared with Kirkuk. Perhaps it’s no surprise that some half-baked and immature individuals take to shooting at people on thrill rides to relieve the pressure.

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A typical view of Kirkuk, Iraq, in the central government region

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A typical view of Dohuk, Iraq, in the Kurdish autonomous region.

“If the Los Angeles chief of police were caught slapping a suspect on video,” I said to Hamid as he drove, “he would likely be fired.”

Hamid bristled with annoyance. “Do you think American police officers could handle a city like Kirkuk?”

Actually, yes. I thought of that famous line in Casablanca when the German Major Strasser asked Rick, Humphrey Bogart’s character, if he could imagine Nazi troops in New York. “There are certain sections of New York, Major, that I wouldn’t advise you to try to invade.”

But that’s not the real reason. The real reason is that no American officers would join the Baath or Al Qaeda. Far too many officers do in Iraq, which makes a secure environment nearly impossible.

“I don’t mean it as a value judgment,” I said to Hamid. “That’s just how it is. Americans don’t tolerate police violence, even against someone who might deserve it. And yes, I think American police could handle a place like Kirkuk. At least we can be certain the police won’t defect and side with the terrorists, as they often do there.”

We arrived in Erbil, the capital of safe and autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan, in less than an hour. Central government territory is just a few minutes drive south of the city. It’s surreal that Erbil suffers no terrorism while Kirkuk explodes every day. There is no formal border between them, and you could ride a bicycle from one to the other in just a few hours.

There might as well be a border between them. I visited Iraqi Kurdistan four times in fourteen months. But I never felt like I’ve been to Iraq until I went to Kirkuk.

Iraq isn’t a country. It is a geographic abstraction.

Post-script: Patrick Lasswell also wrote about the police smackdown in Kirkuk, and he spent more time on that subject than I did.

Post-script: If you like what I write, don’t forget to pay me. Travel in Iraq is expensive, and I am not able to do this job without your financial assistance. If you haven’t donated before, please consider donating now. If you have donated before (and a thousand thanks for doing that), please remember that my expenses are ongoing and my donations need to be ongoing too.

(Email address for Pay Pal is michaeltotten001 at gmail dot com)

If you would like to donate money for travel and equipment expenses and you don’t want to use Pay Pal, please consider sending a check or money order to:

Michael Totten

P.O. Box 312

Portland, OR 97207-0312

Many thanks in advance.

All photos and video copyright Michael J. Totten

Doesn’t Look Lost to Me

Part II of Where Kurdistan Meets the Red Zone is in the works. I needed a few days off, but I’m back to work now. Keep watching this space.

In the meantime, JD Johannes has been hanging out in Anbar Province and says the war doesn’t look lost to him. He makes a good case that the war is already over in much of that most-troubled province. Go read.

Where Kurdistan Meets the Red Zone

“If Turkey allows itself to interfere in the matter of Kirkuk, we will do the same…in Turkey.” — Kurdistan Regional Government President Massoud Barzani.

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KIRKUK, IRAQ — Just south of the Kurdish autonomous region in Iraq’s northernmost provinces lies the violence-stricken city of Kirkuk, the bleeding edge of Iraq’s “greater” Kurdistan, and the upper-most limit of the asymmetric battleground known as the Red Zone. Kirkuk is claimed and counterclaimed by Iraq’s warring factions and is a lightning rod for foreign powers — namely Turkey — that fear a violent ethnic unraveling of their own that could be triggered by any change in Kirkuk’s convulsive status quo.

I spent a day there with Member of Parliament and Peshmerga General “Mam” Rostam, Kirkuk’s Chief of Police Major Sherzad, my colleague Patrick Lasswell, and our driver Hamid Shkak. You could stay a month in Kirkuk hunkered down in a compound or a house and not see or hear signs of war. But violence erupts somewhere in Kirkuk several times every day. If you go there with a Kurdish army general, as we did, and spend your day with the city’s chief of police, as we also did, you will see violence or at least the aftermath of some violence. This isn’t a maybe. So I brought my video camera as well as my Nikon along.

From the safety of the Kurdish city of Suleimaniya — where the war is already over — Kirkuk looks like the mouth of Hell. It’s outside the safe fortress of the Kurdistan mountains and down in the hot and violent plains. The city doesn’t look much better up close, and you can feel the tension rise with the temperature in the car on the way down there.

Patrick and I woke Mam (“Uncle”) Rostam first thing in the morning at his house in Suleimaniya. He told us we could follow him to Kirkuk, where he works every day, so we hired a world class driver to do the job.

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World class driver Hamid Shkak

Hamid Shkak spent years driving foreigners around war zones in south and central Iraq. He has more experience than anyone I know steering clear of IEDs, barreling through ambush sites at 120 miles an hour, and veering around spontaneously exploding firefights. He was perfect for the job, and we had little choice but to trust him and Mam Rostam with our lives.

Hamid told us more than I really wanted to know about the limits of armored cars in a war zone. (Our car did not even have any armor.) “B7 and B8 cars are armored in the factory,” he said. “They put armor on top and below for IEDs. It provides a cage around the passengers. The whole car could explode, but you’ll be safe inside the cage. The only problem is the cage might get locked and sealed from the heat. Also, if four bullets strike the same place, the fourth will go through the armor. The companies will not tell you this.”

We followed Mam Rostam’s car through a Kurdish police checkpoint on our way outside the city of Suleimaniya. He got big smiles and waves all around from the police as they recognized the famous general and member of parliament on his way to work in the morning

Mam Rostam is a genuine bad ass, and he’s either famous or infamous depending on who you ask.

“He’s a nutter!” said an academic friend of mine in Washington who knows him well.

“He’s a show-off,” said another friend in Erbil. “He took some journalists to see the oil fields in Kirkuk and purposely drove down a street where he knew they would be shot at with mortars. The journalists screamed and cowered in the back while Mam Rostam laughed in the front seat. Tell him to roll up his pants and show you the scars on his leg.”

A few nights earlier Patrick and I had dinner at Judge Rizgar Mohammad Ameen’s house. Rizgar was the first of many judges in the trial of Saddam Hussein.

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Judge Rizgar, the first judge in the trial of Saddam Hussein

He told us that when he flew with Mam Rostam in a plane from Suleimaniya to Baghdad they were forced by the airport control tower to fly in circles for an hour and twenty minutes before they received permission to land. “They knew Mam Rostam was on the plane,” the judge joked. “They did not want him landing in their city.”

Thirty minutes or so outside the city of Suleimaniya the mountains began to get smaller. Jagged snow-capped peaks were replaced with surreal rugged hills.

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We were on our way out of Kurdistan, I could see it. Hamid hurtled us down the road at 90 miles an hour. The temperature climbed, along with the tension in the car, as the air became hazy and dusty. Cows mooed and lumbered along the side of the road.

“Up ahead is a ridge,” Hamid said, “above Cham Chamal. Saddam’s Iraqi Army was perched on that ridge over the city until 2003 when the Americans came. Near there was the last Iraqi Army checkpoint before the first [Kurdish] Peshmerga checkpoint.”

You could have fooled me. Nothing indicated the area was recently a line of death imposed by the Baath. I saw only hills, trees, and fields of flowers where children ran and played. I hadn’t yet seen the hell of Kirkuk, but I knew that what lay ahead beyond the control of the Kurdistan Regional Government would not look like this.

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The low ridge overlooking the city of Cham Chamal, the northernmost limit of Saddam’s Iraqi Army before its destruction

“In between that ridge and the city was a no-man’s land,” Hamid continued. “Cham Chamal belonged to Kirkuk Province before 2003. But it’s entirely Kurdish, so it was added to Suleimaniya Province after the war.”

When we entered territory that was recently controlled by Saddam Hussein, I felt we had crossed an invisible barrier or through a ripple in the dimension. Everything looked and felt heavier and much more unstable. Kurdistan was behind us. We were surrounded by eerie rolling plains, vanishingly empty of people. The horizon was swallowed up by the hills. I could no longer see the mountains of Kurdistan.

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A Kurdish friend in Erbil emailed me that day: “[Kirkuk] lacks major services and is extremely ugly,” he wrote. “The reason for that is that Saddam Hussein never considered it part of his country. He knew one day it will be taken from him. I will not go to Kirkuk, especially not to the Arab parts at night. It is full of terrorists.”

There is no formal boundary, no road sign that says Welcome to War. There is no line, visible or otherwise, where you’re safe on one side and in peril on the other. Rather, each mile on the hour-long drive from Suleimaniya to Kirkuk is incrementally more dangerous than the last. When you reach the Arab parts of Kirkuk — if you make it that far — you’ll be in extreme and immediate danger if you’re a Westerner.

War-blasted rubble lined the side of the road.

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Which wave of destruction wiped out this village, I couldn’t say. It could have been Saddam’s genocidal Anfal Campaign in the late 1980s, or any number of other violent convulsions since then.

Black smoke rose in a plume on the horizon. I’ve seen smoke plenty of times in the northern Kurdistan governates, and I never assume it’s anything other than a smoke stack from a cement factory, a pile of burning trash, or burn-off from a newly discovered oil well. This new plume of smoke was in the Red Zone, and it could be anything.

*

The road into Kirkuk was nice and smooth even at 90 miles an hour. My ears popped from the increase in pressure as we finished our descent from the snowy peaks of Kurdistan toward the vast muddy plains of Mesopotamia.

The city appeared on the horizon. We had left the fortress of the Kurdish autonomous region and entered the war.

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Kirkuk, Iraq

“Kirkuk is the richest city in the world,” Hamid said, “and also the poorest.”

Indeed. Kirkuk, with all its resources, if properly managed, should be as prosperous as Kuwait and Dubai. Glittering bejeweled skyscrapers should make up the city center. Instead it is a sprawling catastrophe of a place ground down by decades of fascism and war.

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We drove to, and through, the Kurdish side of the city, which is considerably less dangerous than the Arab side of the city. But the Iraqi police at the checkpoints wore body armor, something I never once saw in the Kurdistan Regional Government territory where there is no insurgency and there hasn’t been a single suicide bomb for two years.

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The only public art of any kind I saw in Kirkuk

Kirkuk’s cars are old and beat up. Its buildings are shabby. The streets are utterly bereft of beauty and grace. Residents live behind walls. There are no trees to walk underneath, no social places to hang out in, no sights worth sighing at, and nothing to take pictures of. It induces agoraphobia and a powerful urge to get inside and hunker down somewhere safe.

Here is a short video I shot from the car.

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Nothing exploded anywhere near us as we drove through town. I just kept snapping pictures and video of this most broken of cities.

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A few people told me I’m brave because I went to Kirkuk. I appreciate what is meant as a compliment, but I am not brave. The Kurdish side of the city is only moderately dangerous, and besides…women live there.

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Children live there.

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They go about their lives as best they can in their shattered environment. Somehow they manage.

Are Iraq’s children brave?

*

Kirkuk is divided between Kurds, Turkmens (who are related to Turks in Anatolia, not Central Asia), and Arabs. The Arab quarter is extraordinarily violent. The Turkmen and Kurdish areas aren’t so much, although random acts of terrorism and mass murder can and do erupt anywhere at any time.

People in areas where the Baath Arabs live help terrorists plant bombs, Hamid explained as he drove. The Baathists have no support whatsoever in Kurdish and Turkmen neighborhoods. Terrorists have a much harder time operating in those places, so they don’t bother much. The available methods of killing are limited without local logistic support. Everyone knows everyone else. Strangers are instantly suspected, often searched, and apprehended if necessary.

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The Kurdistan flag painted on a wall, Kurdish quarter, Kirkuk, Iraq

Kirkuk’s terrorists are, my Kurdish hosts explained, mostly Baathists, not Islamists. Their racist ideology casts Kurds and Turkmens as the enemy. They’re boxed in on all sides, though, and in their impotent rage murder fellow Arabs by the dozens and hundreds. They have, in effect, strapped suicide belts around their entire community while their more peaceful Kurdish and Turkmen neighbors shudder and fight to keep the Baath in its box.

American readers may be uncomfortable by the explicitly racial nature of this description, but that’s just how it is in Kirkuk and I cannot apologize for it. Iraqis kill each other over race and religion and power. If you go there yourself you had better pay attention to who lives in which neighborhood and what they think of others. Otherwise you will not survive. I’m a bit awkwardly self-conscious about it, but race blindness is punished in Iraq with the death penalty.

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Kurdish neighborhood, Kirkuk

Not every Arab in Iraq is a terrorist, obviously. Most of the victims of terrorism in Iraq are Arabs, after all. And there is nothing at all about Arabs as Arabs that makes them dangerous or hostile to me as an American. I lived in a Sunni Arab neighborhood in West Beirut for six months. All my neighbors were lovely. Not a single one was a terrorist. Lebanese politics is unstable and at times deranged, but it’s nevertheless orders of magnitude more civilized and mature than politics in Iraq, poisoned as it has been by (as Fouad Ajami put it) Saddam’s legacy of iron and fire and bigotry.

*

Mam Rostam is a gruff man with a thin moustache and a thick forest of chest hair who does not wear a uniform. He has two official jobs; member of parliament and general in the Iraqi Kurdish army, the Peshmerga. Unofficially, he describes his job in Kirkuk as “the wild card.” He’s a jack-of-all-trades, a Mr. Fix It. He’s the guy you call when your forces are overwhelmed, when you don’t know what to do, and when somebody needs a swift kick in the ass.

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Mam Rostam

Patrick, Hamid, and I met up with him at a house on the Kurdish side of the city that he keeps as a base. He sat in the sun in a plastic chair on the porch, chain smoking, slamming cups of Arabic coffee, and constantly answering his phone while Patrick and I interviewed him.

“This place, where we are now,” he said, “was emptied of people, of residents. The government of Iraq brought Arab people to settle here. Those houses,” he said as gestured across the street, “were built for them. The majority are Kurds now. Many of the Arabs sold their houses and Kurds bought them.”

Kirkuk is historically a Kurdish and Turkmen city, but Saddam Hussein tried to Arabize it. He forced out as many Kurds and Turkmens as he could and resettled the neighborhoods with Arabs from the South. He hoped to use the Arabization campaign to solve two of his ethnic and sectarian problems at once. Most of the Arabs he placed in Kirkuk were undesirable Shias from Karbala and Najaf he wished to be rid of. The city is now torn, then, along racial and sectarian lines. The legacy of Stalinist politics will take a long time to die.

“Can you explain the main reasons why Saddam Hussein changed the makeup of this city?” I said. “Was it for the resources, because of the Baath ideology, or both?”

I heard a loud thump somewhere off in the distance and wrote “possible explosion” in my notebook. No one else seemed to notice it, though.

“It was for ethnic reasons,” Mam Rostam said. “The proof of this is that not only Kirkuk was involved. Suleimaniya and Erbil were also involved. They wanted to remove all the Kurds from everywhere in Iraq. They just destroyed whole villages and provinces and moved people into collective towns and concentration camps. Some of the Turkmen villages around here were demolished for the same reason. The point was to make it an Arab area, and no other. Saddam Hussein intended to be the leader of the Arab nation, the whole Arab world. He didn’t want anyone other than Arabs to exist around him. That was his policy.”

Saddam Hussein wasn’t content merely to force Kurds and Turkmens out of their homes so he could move Arabs in. He also smashed their villages and neighborhoods with air strikes, artillery, chemical weapons, and napalm.

Below are satellite images of a Kurdish neighborhood in Kirkuk in 1997 and 1998 before and after an ethnic cleansing bombardment.

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Kurdish neighborhood in Kirkuk before ethnic cleansing

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Kurdish neighborhood in Kirkuk after ethnic cleansing

“The Arabs use Islam as a cover for their aims,” Mam Rostam said. I hear this time and again from Kurds in Iraq who are just as Islamic — but much more liberal and democratic — as the residents of Fallujah.

“The Ottomans didn’t do this,” Patrick said. “They didn’t try to make everyone Turks.”

“Even when people gave birth here it was forbidden to give them Kurdish names,” Mam Rostam said. “They were only allowed to give their children Arabic names. If a Kurd wanted to purchase real estate he had to have it purchased in an Arab’s name. Otherwise he could not have it. During the Anfal operations they took young women and used them as sex slaves. Even when the Mongols invaded they didn’t do this. They just don’t like people who are not Arabs. Whoever is not an Arab is an enemy, and they use religion as an excuse for their evil goals.”

“What exactly are the people who bomb the Arab parts of the city trying to do?” I said. “Why are Arabs bombing other Arabs?”

“Most, if not all, the terrorists are the old Baath Party members,” Mam Rostam said. “They changed their names and became an Islamist party. But they are the same guys. They have unified with some Sunnis around the Southwest of Kirkuk because they are living in this area. They are making these attacks to make this democratic experiment after Saddam fail.”

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A child watches passing traffic from the roof of a house

I had heard much the same from members of the Kurdistan Regional Government in Suleimaniya. What frustrates them most about the U.S. military strategy is the American prioritization of Al Qaeda. The vast majority of the violence, according to my Kurdish sources, is committed by Baathists and old Baathists under new names. Failure to identify Iraq’s principal terrorist organizations and treat them accordingly is the number one reason why Iraq is such a catastrophe. At least this is what I have been told. Kurdish officials I’ve met who try to explain this to the Americans are dismissed out of hand and ignored utterly.

“So their goals are not local to Kirkuk,” I said. “They are for the whole of Iraq.”

“They want all of Iraq to fail,” Mam Rostam said. “They want the Americans to feel that they are not able to succeed in this area. They want to force the Americans to negotiate with the Baath Party.”

“So they aren’t necessarily targeting you or us,” I said.

“They are targeting anyone just to achieve instability,” Mam Rostam said.

“So there’s no plan other than violence,” Patrick said.

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“There is no plan,” Mam Rostam said. “It doesn’t matter where. It’s just random violence. Sometimes they bomb a kindergarten in their own neighborhood. Or a university. Or the civil office. Or a municipality. Or wherever. In these offices there are people of every nationality and religion. There is no way to say there are only Sunnis or whatever in these places. This is a multicultural country. Everyone is everywhere.”

Most Americans have soured on the war and want out. I was once optimistic myself, but I no longer am. I can’t help but notice, though, that those I’ve spoken to who actually live in Iraq are more confident and less fatalistic.

“The central government intends to send an army here, about 6,000 soldiers,” Mam Rostam said. “They have been chosen by them. They are not anyone from anywhere in particular. They are very clean. Those 6,000 soldiers will be working in Kirkuk to achieve stability in this city. We’re expecting after this, which is going to happen in a very short time, for the terrorism to be reduced 80 or 90 percent.”

“This is what you hope or expect?” I said.

“This is what we expect,” Mam Rostam said.

American military vehicles rumbled past the front of the house with their guns up.

“This is a big city,” he continued. “The police can’t control it by themselves. The police are not so many in number and they’re not that good in quality. We have our main central police departments which have been working by themselves and have chosen the elements to work in these locations. They are perfectly controlling their neighborhoods. But the others belong to the central government and other directorates. There are people from various places who work for them, so they’re not that trustworthy. There are some people who work with the terrorists who then apply to work with the police. So they go to the police stations, and instead of faithfully working with the police and the government they just transfer information — especially the sensitive information — to the terrorists. The problem is, the right person is not in the right place. Nobody is managing this in some places. On the Kurdish side, we have taken care of it and we’re stressing they do the same.”

“If we go outside this city,” I said, “are there more Arabs in the countryside in this province? Or are most of them in the city?”

“Around 100 years ago there were no Arabs around Kirkuk,” he said. “There are a few villages southeast of Kirkuk where there are Arabs, but the majority inside and outside the city are Kurds. If you take a ride around outside the city of Kirkuk you will notice that the names of all the places are Kurdish. It has been a Kurdish area for a long time, from the beginning. Even Kirkuk is a Kurdish name. The name of the place where they found oil for the first name came from a kid who was accompanying his father in the area. He noticed something was coming out of the ground. He tried to figure out what it was and found fire. He said Daddy, Daddy, fire, fire. And that became its name. But the governments and regimes that came from the beginning time until now wanted to change the city and the names. Sometimes for sheep, sometimes for salt, but always because the area is important and they wanted to remove the Kurds from here.”

“If there was a wise leader in this country,” he continued, “it would be the greatest country in the world. Because of our natural fortunes, not only the oil but also the other things. But the government has spent all the fortune on weapons and bombs. I know some countries that don’t have any resources at all, but when you go to the cities they look like crystals. You see now what Kirkuk looks like.”

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Physical beauty does not exist in Kirkuk

I asked about Kurdish and Turkmen relations.

“As Kurds we don’t have any problem with the Turkmens,” Mam Rostam said. “If you come back I will show you some villages where the Turkmens live and you will see how much they like us.”

As if on cue, two Turkmens came to the house and joined us on the front porch. They enthusiastically shook hands with Patrick and me, as if they were meeting rock stars. This kind of treatment always embarrasses me, but — believe it or not — that’s how it goes in parts of Iraq if you’re an American. Mam Rostam kissed both of them on their cheeks.

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Iraqi Turkmens in Kirkuk

After exchanging pleasantries with his Turkish guests, Mam Rostam steered back to the subject. Neither objected to what he said next.

“The Turkish government created a party here that makes problems for us and the Turkmens,” he said. “The Turkmens got their rights as soon as we started managing the area here, more than before when they were under the Baath Party authority. Now they have much more rights than before. If Turkey is honest and is actually helping the Turkmens, why didn’t they defend the Turkmens when the Baath Party demolished their villages? They are not interested in the Turkmens here. They are afraid of the Kurds living in Turkey. We have about 400,000 or 500,000 Turkmens here in Iraq. There are millions in Iran. Why doesn’t Turkey defend them?”

“What does Turkey do here to cause problems?” I said.

“In general the Turkmens are on our side,” Mam Rostam said. The two Turkmens who sat on the porch nodded in agreement. “The problem with this Turkish party is that they demonstrate against everything we ask for. They bring in Turkmens who are loyal to them and who don’t agree with the Turkmens here.”

The Iraqi Turkmens backed by Turkey insist Kirkuk is not a Kurdish-majority city and that it should not be formally attached to Iraqi Kurdistan and administered by the Kurdistan Regional Government. The residents of the city — Kurdish, Turkmen, and Arab — will all be asked later this year in a referendum whether or not Kirkuk should be administered from Kurdistan’s capital of Erbil or from Baghdad.

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Kirkuk, Iraq — one of the nastiest places I’ve ever seen

“They don’t want people here to be able to vote on letting Kirkuk be managed by the Kurdish authorities,” Mam Rostam said. “They are working against that. 85 percent of them want to join Kurdistan.” And why shouldn’t they? The Kurdistan Regional Government is the only authority in Iraq that has proven its ability to defeat terrorism, rise above racism and sectarianism, and govern effectively. “Only a small percentage of them are against this idea.”

“Why would any Turkmens rather be with Baghdad than Erbil?” I said, addressing no one in particular. The visiting Turkmens were invited to answer as much as Mam Rostam.

“It’s not about who manages Kirkuk,” Mam Rostam said. “It’s about Turkey. Turkey has got a problem with the Kurds. It’s not a problem for them if Kirkuk belongs to the central government of Iraq. They would still have problems with the Kurds in Erbil, though. They are against the existence of the Kurds.”

What Turkey really fears is that Kirkuk, which sits on top of as much of half the oil in Iraq, will be added to an independent and wealthy Kurdish state that will embolden the Kurds in Turkey to break from Ankara and attach themselves to Erbil and Kirkuk.

“In Hamburg, Germany, there was a restaurant opposite the Turkish Embassy,” Mam Rostam said. “That restaurant was named Kurdistan, and they flew the Kurdistan flag. The Turkish government sent a notification to the German government that said If you don’t remove that sign and that flag and that name from that restaurant, we are going to pull our embassy out of Germany. And they did it. The Germans removed it. If the Turkish government was smart they would know Kurdish rights is a good thing for them. They have to know this can be useful and beneficial for them. But they aren’t wise enough. They aren’t smart enough to understand this.”

“They’re afraid of losing the Kurdish portion of Turkey,” I said.

“When I was a member of the Kurdistan Parliament a guest from Turkey came,” Mam Rostam said. “He said they don’t have problems with the Arab nations, that only the Kurds are their enemies. I said to him, frankly, You’re an idiot. If we become a country, what harm are we going to cause you? All the Turkmens here are going to get good jobs. For sure. And they’re going to get most of their rights, if not all. Okay? And the other thing, we’re going to manage ourselves and sell our oil to Turkey. And they can set up some refineries that will be useful for them and for us. The Turkish government promised not to understand. They don’t understand today, and they won’t understand in the future.”

Just then Kirkuk’s chief of police arrived and introduced himself as Major Sherzad. He wore traditional Kurdish men’s clothes and carried a walkie-talkie that constantly squawked. I asked if I could take his picture.

“Yes, take my picture,” he said. “I am not afraid of terrorists.”

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Kirkuk’s Chief of Police Major Sherzad

Mam Rostam invited all of us, including the major and the visiting Turkmens, into the house for lunch. We ate chicken, rice, cucumbers, tomatoes, and soup. Liquid yogurt was served in tall drinking glasses.

“I am sorry for the quality of food for my guests,” Mam Rostam said. “This is what we had in the house.”

A portrait of a younger, less grizzled, Mam Rostam hung on the wall over the table.

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“The American troops based here refuse to eat outside their compounds,” said Major Sherzad. “Unless they are invited to Mam Rostam’s. Here they will eat.”

Patrick and I were in good hands, then. Mam Rostam may be a high value target for the Baathists and other troublemakers, but they have an exceptionally difficult time hitting their target.

After lunch we moved into the living room and sprawled on the couches. Piping hot tea with sugar was served.

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Mam Rostam upended his glass, poured the tea into the saucer, blew on it for two seconds, and downed it all in one gulp. Showoff. My glass was still too hot to even pick up.

Everyone but Patrick and me spoke to each other in Kurdish. I did not interrupt or ask for translation. Kirkuk’s security elite should not revolve around me. Instead I watched the TV. The channel was turned to Kurdsat, a highly professional Kurdish satellite station out of Suleimaniya.

The news was on, and I saw pictures of the war in Iraq. It felt so strange to watch the war in Iraq on TV from inside Iraq. It felt the same as when I watch the war in Iraq on TV in my house in the U.S. The violence and mayhem on the screen had nothing to do with me. I was in Iraq’s Red Zone. But sunlight slanted in through the windows. The grass outside was green. Flowers bloomed in the yard. Birds chirped. The neighborhood was at peace, at least at that moment.

Iraq is a big place. It is more or less the size of California. If a car bomb were to go off in San Diego, it wouldn’t disturb people who live in San Francisco. They would watch the aftermath from safety on TV just as I watched scenes of carnage from safety at Mam Rostam’s in Kirkuk. The war was far away…or at least around a couple of corners. Iraq looks scarier from far away than it does up close and in person…even when you’re in the Red Zone. How much danger you’re in depends on where you are in Iraq. The Red Zone is not one shade of crimson. The war, for the most part, is concentrated mostly in very specific areas. On any given day you might see something violent, but you probably won’t. This fact is completely lost in the breathless media coverage of the carnage, the mayhem, and the bang-bang.

But I was lounging around with the chief of police. Any illusion that Kirkuk might have been safe couldn’t last long with him in the room. My feelings of detached security were but a passing moment. The chief’s walkie-talkie urgently squawked and he had to answer. The room was silent as he listened grimly.

“There has been a shooting,” he said. “Two men on a motorcycle rode down the street and fired a gun at people walking on the sidewalk. One of the men was apprehended. They are bringing him here.”

For some reason I assumed when the chief said “here” he meant the police station. He did not. He meant Mam Rostam’s.

“They will be here in two minutes,” he said.

“Here?” I said. “They’re bringing him here? To the house?”

“They will bring him here before taking him down to the station,” the chief said. “I’ll interrogate him here. I’m not going to feel good until I slap him.”

An Iraqi Police truck pulled up in front of the house and slammed on the brakes.

“Here he is,” the chief said.

I grabbed my video camera, flipped the switch to on, and ran out the door.

To be continued…

Post-script: If you like what I write, don’t forget to pay me. Travel in Iraq is expensive, and I am not able to do this job without your financial assistance. If you haven’t donated before, please consider donating now. If you have donated before (and a thousand thanks for doing that), please remember that my expenses are ongoing and my donations need to be ongoing too.

(Email address for Pay Pal is michaeltotten001 at gmail dot com)

If you would like to donate money for travel and equipment expenses and you don’t want to use Pay Pal, please consider sending a check or money order to:

Michael Totten

P.O. Box 312

Portland, OR 97207-0312

Many thanks in advance.

Also, don’t forget to visit Patrick Lasswell’s blog Moderate Risk. He, too, wrote about our trip to Kirkuk.

All photos and video except “Before” and “After” satellite pictures copyright Michael J. Totten

Moderate Risk Video

I’m working on a long two-part essay from the terror-wracked city of Kirkuk in Iraq’s Red Zone outside the Kurdistan safe area. While you’re waiting in the meantime, head on over to Moderate Risk where my colleague Patrick Lasswell has some truly original video from Iraq that you have never seen before and that will never be featured in the mainstream media. Don’t miss it.

Blogger of the Year

The Week magazine announced its annual Blogger of the Year award and I won it, along with cartoonist Josh Fruhlinger of Wonkette. There must be some glitch in the universe because somehow I beat Michael Yon who also was nominated. If I were a judge I would have picked Yon over myself, but this is not a complaint, nor is it false modesty.

Many sincere thanks to the panel of judges in my category– Glenn Reynolds, Jeff Jarvis, Nick Gillespie, and Alex Pareene.

Thanks also to my wife, family, and friends for putting up with my long absences. And thanks especially to you, my readers, for donating expense money through Pay Pal. Without you I would not be able to do this.

I’ll have more dispatches from Northern Iraq shortly. Then I’m off to Kuwait and Baghdad with the United States military.

Video Coming Soonish

I have a fair amount of video from Iraqi Kurdistan shot with my new HD (high definition) camera, but I can’t edit or publish it until I get home and have access to a more powerful computer.

In the meantime, my colleague Patrick Lasswell shot some video using a less high-tech camera, and he is able to post that from here. Talk a walk with him through the souk in Suleimaniya.

Published in the Jerusalem Post

Don’t miss my feature article in the Jerusalem Post’s weekend magazine: Welcome to Hezbollahland.

(A different version of this material appeared on the blog a few months ago, but if you didn’t read it then you can read it now in the magazine.)

Hope Over Hate: A Lebanon Diary

My American friend Noah Pollak visited Beirut and South Lebanon with me on my last trip.

He flew to Beirut from Jerusalem (via Amman.)

His long-awaiting essay has now been published in Azure Magazine. Here is an except:

From Israel, Lebanon has a way of appearing as a monolith. Its entire southern border is a Hezbollah stronghold, from which the organization, since Israel’s withdrawal in 2000, has been building a sophisticated battlefield infrastructure, stockpiling weapons, and planning the abduction and killing of Jews. It is thus easy to view Lebanon as a country in which the masses have gladly assented to the establishment of an Iranian forward operating base within its borders. Hezbollah is particularly good at using its territory to attempt to provoke and demoralize Israel; it put up a billboard on the border, facing into Israel, which shows the severed head of an IDF soldier, captioned: Sharon, don’t forget. Your soldiers are still in Lebanon. If you tell an Israeli that you have visited Lebanon, you will typically be met with a guileless stare of worry and astonishment.

But there is a Lebanon that exists in the distance, too far away to see from Israel’s northern border, and too difficult to discern through the opaque and fevered people camped in the South. It is the Lebanon of the Christians, the moderate Sunnis, and the Druze, the Lebanon that earned Beirut the moniker of the Paris of the Middle East. This Lebanon looks West for inspiration and support, not East, and sustains a loathing for Hezbollah (and the Palestinians) that rivals Israel’s. This is the Lebanon of East and West Beirut, of outstanding restaurants, nightlife, beaches, tourism, and Mediterranean joie de vivre. These Lebanese share two vital things with Israel: An aspiration to live in a liberal, democratic society, and a fervent wish to rid their nation of the Islamic extremists who are the perpetual cause of bloodshed, instability, and warfare. Israel and Lebanon, in this regard, are more similar to each other than either of them is to any other nation in the region. In the 1980s, a Lebanese Christian leader declared that “the Western world should either defend us, or change its name.” Israel is a member in high standing of the Western world, and should not exempt itself from sympathizing with such pleas.

Read the whole thing.

Meet Iran’s Revolutionary Liberals

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Abdullah Mohtadi, Secretary General of the reformed and mainstream Iranian Komala Party

SULEIMANIYA PROVINCE, NORTHERN IRAQ — One of the roads leading out of the city of Suleimaniya in Iraqi Kurdistan might as well be renamed Revolutionary Road. Two armed compounds inhabited by exiled revolutionary Iranian leftists were built less than a mile away from each other. My colleague Patrick Lasswell and I accidentally found ourselves in the armed camp of the military wing of the Communist faction of the Komalah Party when we intended to meet with the more moderate social democrats up the street. A few days later we returned to the area and met with the right people.

The Communists hosted us warmly and kindly gave us a tour of their camp. But the liberals who split with them in the late 1980s proved to be far and away their intellectual and political superiors.

(UPDATED TO CLARIFY: There are two separate Iranian parties here who both call themselves Komala. One is communist, the other is liberal. The people interviewed in this article are the ex-communists. The people interviewed in the previous article are still communists.)

Secretary General Abdullah Mohtadi and Political Bureau member Abu Baker Modarresi sent two men to pick us up from our hotel — just to make sure we made it to the right place. They drove us to their safe house under armed guard less than an hour away from the Iranian border. We met over coffee and cigarettes.

MJT: You are both from Iran?

Mohtadi: Yes, yes we are.

MJT: How long have you been here?

Mohtadi: The first time our headquarters came inside Iraqi Kurdistan was in late 1983, when we lost the last liberated area in Iranian Kurdistan. So we moved our headquarters to Iraqi Kurdistan at that time, which was under Saddam Hussein. For some months they were reluctant to accept us, but they realized, okay, we are against the Islamic regime.

MJT: Did you ever have any problems with Saddam’s government?

Mohtadi: Yes. They shelled us. Also, we are the only Kurdish Iranian party that has been gassed by Saddam Hussein.

MJT: Really. Were you gassed here?

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The Komala Party Compound

Mohtadi: Twice. Not at this place, twice we were at different places at that time. Near Halabja. And also in our previous camp. We lost 72 people near Halabja on the banks of the River Siwan. The second time we lost 23 people. They were gassed by Saddam’s airplanes.

MJT: Was this during the Anfal Campaign? [The Anfal Campaign was Saddam’s attempt in 1988 and 1989 to utterly destroy the Kurds of Northern Iraq. 200,000 people were killed, and 95 percent of the villages were destroyed.]

Mohtadi: Yes, it was. Because they were suspicious — rightly — that we were dealing with the Anfal victims. We also had good relations with the Kurdish fighters, with the Peshmerga — of course, clandestinely. Thus they punished us for that.

And apart from that, we were shelled several times and we lost several people. It was not just once or by accident or as part of the large Anfal Campaign. No, they singled us out and hit us.

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An armed guard watches the compound

MJT: Which regime was more oppressive to you?

Mohtadi: The Iranians.

MJT: Worse than Saddam?

Mohtadi: Yes, of course. To Iranian Kurds, yes.

MJT: Tell us something about this. Very few Americans, including me, know very much about what the Iranian government has done to the Kurds in Iran.

Mohtadi: That’s exactly our problem. So many people in the West and in the world know that Kurds had problems in Iraq, they have problems in Turkey. But very few people know that Kurds are under oppression in Iran, as well.

MJT: They are oppressed more than the Persians?

Mohtadi: More than the Persians and the Azeris, yes. I am not saying that it’s something like the Anfal Campaign or genocide has been taking place in Iran. Nevertheless, there have been lots of oppression and killings and torture and expelling people from their land and sending them to internal exile in Iran and shelling the cities and all kinds of oppression.

MJT: Why is the Iranian government doing this? Is it a religious war, an ethnic war, or is it political?

Lasswell: Or a combination?

Mohtadi: It is a combination but first of all political, and ethnic and religious as well.

There are three main religions in Kurdistan. Most of the Kurdish people are Sunnis in Iranian Kurdistan. But there is a considerable Shia minority in Iranian Kurdistan.

MJT: How many people are we talking about?

Mohtadi: At least 30 percent.

Kurds live in four different provinces. Only one of them is called Kurdistan in Iran. The first one, from top to bottom, is Western Azerbaijan, which is shared by Azeris and Kurds.

Mahabad is located in Western Azerbaijan. Mahabad, as you know, was the capital of the short-lived Kurdish Republic from 1945 to 1946. Then is the province of Kurdistan. Then is the province of Kermanshan. Then is the province if Ilam.

So we have four provinces in Western and in Northwestern Iran which are inhabited by Kurds. We also have Kurds — millions — how many, I really don’t know. There are no reliable statistics on that. We have Kurds in the Eastern part of Iran. There were Kurds who were sent to exile during the Middle Ages by Safavids, by Khajars, even by Pahlevis — the first Pahlevi, not the second one. Because they thought Kurds were troublemakers. They confiscated Kurdish lands. They expelled them from their lands.

And also because Kurds were supposed to be good warriors. Iran was — every time in its history except for the Arab invasion — it was invaded from the Northeast by the Turks. So they sent Kurds to the eastern part of Iran, to the northeastern part of Iran and settled them there to defend Iran from there.

MJT: How many Kurds are in Iran now?

Mohtadi: In these four provinces, 12 million.

MJT: That’s quite a bit more than here.

Mohtadi: It is. According to our sources in the Ministry of Budget and Planning in Iran, 35 percent of the whole internal Iranian water resources are located in Kurdistan. Apart from that, Kurdistan is very rich in terms of oil and minerals and all that.

Two places have been explored. We have gold mines. One of them was explored by the British and then the British went out of the contract, I don’t know why. Perhaps for political reasons. All kinds of minerals — Kurdistan is very rich agriculturally, for the grain and all kinds of…it’s a kind of grain house for Iran.

MJT: What do Kurds in Iran think of joining a Greater Kurdistan. We don’t hear anything about this because journalists don’t go to Iranian Kurdistan.

Mohtadi: It’s a dream. People consider it a right, but Kurdish mainstream politics in Iranian Kurdistan is not for secession.

MJT: What is it for then?

Mohtadi: For a democratic, secular, federal Iran in which Kurds have their own rights.

MJT: Is this taken as a pragmatic position, or is this what people really want? If they had the option, would they choose a democratic federal Iran, or would they choose Greater Kurdistan?

Mohtadi: You can imagine this, but options have to be real. There is no real option for a Greater Kurdistan. When it becomes a real option people can choose between them. But the only feasible option that is there is Kurdish rights within Iran.

But I must add that historically there have been good relations between different parts of Kurdistan together. They have a great impact on each other, especially Iraqi Kurdistan and Iranian Kurdistan. They speak almost the same dialects. So they are very near. Politically they feel very close to each other. They are relatives to each other. You have families. Part of the family lives in Iran and part of the family lives in Iraq.

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Komala Party Political Bureau member Abu Baker Modaressi

Modarresi: They are a safe haven for each other.

Mohtadi: Yes, exactly. In 1978-79 the revolution broke out in Iran. It was a huge opportunity for the PUK [Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, the secular leftist party in charge of Iraq’s Suleimaniya Province] and Iraqi Kurds who were fighting against Saddam. In fact it saved them from annihilation.

Lasswell: And again in 1991.

Mohtadi: Of course. And from 1991 Iraqi Kurdistan, with all its shortcomings of course, it is still a source of inspiration for Iranian Kurds.

For example, when the law about federalism in Iraq was adopted in the national assembly in Iraq there were huge demonstrations in most cities and towns in Iranian Kurdistan. When [Kurdish PUK party chief in Northern Iraq] Jalal Talibani became President of Iraq there were huge demonstrations and clashes between police forces and people in Iran.

The same was true in 1945 and 1946 when a republic was established in Iranian Kurdistan, the Kurdish Republic. Also the Kurdish Iranian movement in 1979. It had a huge cultural and political effect on Iraqi Kurds. It brought with itself new concepts and new horizons for the Kurdish cause. A very close cooperation between Iranian and Iraqi Kurds and their parties began.

So whenever it becomes a real option that we can choose, we can decide. But right now it is just a dream, a right, an abstract right. But who knows, perhaps the time will come.

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Two Komala Party members have lunch on the grass outside the compound

Lasswell: I suspect that if all of Kurdistan joins, they will have one language and it will be English.

Mohtadi: [Laughs.]

MJT: Well, how different are the dialects?

Mohtadi: They aren’t dialects.

MJT: Is it more a question of accents?

Mohtadi: It’s more than just accents. With two of them, it is more than just accents. The one which is called Standard Kurdish Sorani, which is spoken and written in Iranian Kurdistan and Iraqi Kurdistan. The other which is spoken and written illegally in Turkey and Syria.

MJT: Is it still illegal in Turkey? I understand the Turks have changed most of these laws.

Mohtadi: Yes, there is a process of change in Turkey. But they still have a long way to go.

MJT: I know they do. Last year I was in Turkish Kurdistan. It’s not a nice place. There is still fighting going on there. And the economy is at zero.

Mohtadi: To be honest it’s like…when we go to Istanbul and Ankara there are different parts if you look at Kurdistan. It’s like a colony. You can feel that they have been exploited by colonialism and oppressed. It’s not like 20th Century or 21st.

Lasswell: Or even the 19th. I think it would have been better under the Ottomans.

MJT: It probably was better under the Ottomans.

Mohtadi: It was. I mean, we have a famous Kurdish historian, Mohammad Amin Zaki. He was a very high-ranking official in the Ottoman Empire. And he tells us how he became aware of his Kurdishness. He says: Nobody said we are Turks. Everybody said we are Ottomans. And we were alright. It was alright for us. Then people started to say we are Turks. And I realized I was not a Turk. So I realized I was a Kurd.

They Turkified everything in Turkey. So there was no place for “others.” And that was the beginning of…

Modarresi: …the awakening.

Mohtadi: Yes, the Kurdish awakening.

MJT: Turkish Nationalism and Arab Nationalism are very similar in the way they are implemented.

Mohtadi: The British, the British colonialists ruled those areas and those countries. But they had nothing against ethnic origin. They had nothing against people’s ethnicity. But in Turkey they want to deny our ethnicity, our identity. So it’s more…it’s more deep. The oppression is more deep. Colonialism is a kind of oppression, but it’s from top to bottom. It’s from above. It doesn’t go to the texture of the society.

Lasswell: You sound very educated. Where did you study?

Mohtadi: [Laughs] Well, I’m not that educated. I studied in Tehran. I speak Farsi almost like my mother tongue. My father was a member of the forerunner to KDPI of Iran which established the Kurdish Republic of Mahabad. He was a minister in the cabinet of Ghazi Mohammad. Ghazi Mohammad was the President of the Kurdish Republic.

He was then hanged. He did not escape. He thought it was better to remain perhaps in order to prevent the Iranian authorities and the Shah from suppression. So he remained in the city of Mahabad and they hanged him along with two of his brothers and a cousin in 1946.

He was at that time supported, but also oppressed, by the Soviet Union.

Lasswell: They did not give support without strings attached. Perhaps “cables” would be a better description.

Mohtadi: That’s true.

His Komala, it was not our party, that Komala Party of Iranian Kurdistan, which was established in 1942. At that time, when the Allied Forces decided to occupy Iran and make it a bridge to send help from the United States and Great Britain and Western Allies to the Soviet Union and Stalin to defend against Hitler…when they occupied Iran they ousted Reza Shah, the father of Mohammad Reza Shah, the second Pahlevi who was toppled by the revolution in 1979.

Modarresi: Because of his good relationship with Hitler.

Mohtadi: Yes. He had started to make contacts with Hitler. He was a kind of — it was very strange, anyway — he had contacts with Hitler and tried to distance himself from Britain and make propaganda for Aryans and against the British.

So then they ousted him. 1941 to 1953 was the golden era of democracy in Iran. That’s the only period when the Iranian people had a constitutional monarchy. It was at that time that the first modern Kurdish party, called Komala JK — Komala, which means Organization or Party, of the Revival of Kurds. That was the name of the party.

MJT: You had a split with the Komalah Party down the road at some point. We know about that because, as you know, we accidentally met them a few days ago instead of you.

Mohtadi: That Komalah Party was established as an underground organization in 1969, under the Shah. We were a leftist organization. It was the 60s and 70s. It was a struggle against the Shah, against oppression, dictatorship, for social justice, and against…the United States. Sorry. [Laughs.]

MJT: Well, that’s alright.

Lasswell: My father was working pretty vigorously against aspects of the United States at the same time.

Mohtadi: We were also inspired by the anti-war movement in the 70s.

MJT: We wouldn’t expect you to have any other position. You’re a leftist, so…

Mohtadi: Yeah, ok. So, members of Komalah were arrested several times. Every other political dissident in Iran…there was no political freedom, especially in the 1970s. A system of very harsh and brutal torture was carried out in Iran, in the prisons. The dictatorship intensified. The Shah paved the way for his overthrow.

So many organizations in Iran were crushed and disintegrated. Komalah was not. We survived.

MJT: How did you survive?

Mohtadi: First of all, we were unlike other leftist organizations. We had real, real connections with people, with real people. We were a real movement. And that has been our characteristic for decades now.

MJT: How did that mean you were able to survive oppression from the state? Did you have more safe houses, things like that?

Mohtadi: We were among people. That was our safe house. We were among, for example, workers. Peasants. Teachers. Students. Different families. Neighborhoods.

We were against the guerilla warfare movement that swept the world in the 1970s. We had our theories against that. We believed in political work, raising awareness, organizing people. We said that was the real fortress. That was the real safe house.

MJT: You participated in the revolution of 1979, I assume.

Mohtadi: I did. He [referring to Modarresi] was arrested…twice, I suppose?

Modarresi: Yes.

Mohtadi: He was sent twice to prison under the Shah. Myself, three times. He spent three years?

Modarresi: Four years.

Mohtadi: I spent about three years in prison. Then in 1977 and 1978 we reorganized Komalah and we took part very actively in the revolution. At that time the KDPI of Iran were exiled. They didn’t have connections, real connections with people, for two decades. We were the real activists who took part in the revolution. We were behind the demonstrations. We organized people. We gave speeches. We led people on different occasions. Because we had that network inside the society most intact under the Shah we were able to control the movement in almost every city and town in Iranian Kurdistan.

Lasswell: Do you think it helped that you didn’t endorse the people who were committing violence?

Mohtadi: Let me clarify. We were not against revolution. We were not against overthrowing the regime of the Shah. What we were against was violence by small groups of guerillas who were separated from the mass movement. We put our emphasis on mass movements, on organizing them. We thought it was the people who had to do something about our fate.

MJT: Who did you have in mind, specifically at that time, of guerillas who were disassociated from a people’s movement?

Mohtadi: The Fedayan. And also the Mujahideen Khalq.

MJT: Ok.

Mohtadi: There were two different groups, religious and secular leftist guerilla groups who were influential at that time. People thought they were the way out of the dictatorship. Many many intellectuals and students and political activists joined them. But we wrote different pamphlets criticizing their methods. And that made us people who had something, a kind of political theory for a movement.

MJT: What do you think of PJAK? [The Iranian wing of the Marxist-Leninist Kurdistan Worker’s Party, the PKK, from Turkey.] Are they the kind of people you just described? Or are they more…popular than that?

Mohtadi: No, no, no, they are not popular. They are part of the PKK. When they cross the border [from Turkey] they change their name.

The problem with the PKK…I mean, the Kurdish toilers have every right to fight for their rights and their freedom. But the PKK as an organization is not reliable. They are very fanatic in their nationalism. They are very undemocratic in nature. They have no principles. I mean, they can deal with Satan. They can fight the Kurds.

MJT: They have fought the Kurds.

Mohtadi: Yes, they have fought the Kurds. They have fought the Kurds much more than they have fought the Turks. When you study the history of the PKK, you find out that they have been against every single Kurdish movement in every part of Kurdistan. At the same time they have had good friendly relations with all the states where the Kurds live, where the oppressed live.

They have been friends with Hafez al-Assad [in Syria]. They have been friends with the Khomeini regime. And they supported Saddam in 1996.

MJT: So, really, Turkey is the only country they haven’t had good relations with.

Mohtadi: Yes.

Lasswell: But they’ve used everyone else to maintain their power.

Mohtadi: Yes. They are very greedy.

Lasswell: The people down the road [referring to the estranged and unreconstructed Communist faction of the Komalah Party] said the PKK has a lot of money.

Mohtadi: They do.

MJT: Where do they get this money? Do they get it from these other regimes?

Mohtadi: The Kurdish-Turkish community in Europe is a huge community, unlike the Iraqi Kurds who are a few thousand or tens of thousands. They are millions. And they tax people. They impose taxes on people, on every business that Kurds have in Europe. They cannot fail to pay.

MJT: So it’s basically a mafia now. In Europe.

Mohtadi: I think so, yes. Unfortunately, they are. They also have bases on the border between Iran and Turkey. They help people smuggle drugs and they tax them. It is a huge source of raising money.

PKK ideology is a mixture of Stalinism, Kurdish tribalism, patriarchalism.

MJT: I thought they were opposed to tribalism.

Mohtadi: They exploit the tribal culture. They have mobile phones, walkie talkies, satellite stations, but I don’t consider them to be a modern party in the real sense of the word. Like the mafia. The mafia was modern in a sense, but they exploited the medieval culture that was there in Italy, the family connections, the family loyalties. The PKK did not start the struggle against Turkey until they had eliminated other Kurdish groups and achieved a monopoly of the Kurdish movement.

MJT: Do you have any relations with them at all?

Mohtadi: We had. We supported them in a sense, but we always had reservations. At some times they were under pressure by Iraqi Kurds. We tried to mediate between them. We even helped them in some respects. But we found out that they are unreliable. They have no principles, no friendship, no contracts, no values. Perhaps it’s a harsh judgment I’m making, but…

MJT: Well, I agree with your judgement. So I’m not going to say it’s harsh. It may not be kind, but I think it’s true.

Modarresi: They never believed in pluralism.

Mohtadi: In the name of the Kurdish movement, they eliminate everybody.

MJT: It sounds to me like they’re a mafia, but they have the reputation of being a leftist group.

Mohtadi: They got some ideas and some organizational methods from the left, but just as a tool. They don’t have the real genuine leftist values. I mean, you have to be…there are values.

MJT: I know.

Lasswell: In the United States the primary organizer of the anti-war movement is a group called ANSWER — Act Now to Stop War and End Racism.

MJT: They lost all the left values, as well. They support North Korea, for God’s sake.

Mohtadi: How could they support North Korea! It’s not Marxist, it’s a kind of secular religion.

Lasswell: It’s a Starvation Monarchy.

Mohtadi: [Laughs.] Yes, exactly. In 1983 we took part in the Communist Party of Iran, but after some years we realized it was a mistake. We criticized that and split from them. It took some years, of course. It was not just like that. [Snaps fingers.]

MJT: You split with them over what, precisely?

Mohtadi: Over so many things.

MJT: Are you referring to the party down the road here?

Mohtadi: Yes. [Laughs.] It’s a lousy party now. It was not like that always.

Lasswell: They seem very ideologically controlled. They are very fixed in their belief structure. Do you feel you outgrew them?

Mohtadi: Yes, they are very dogmatic. They are very sectarian.

MJT: You mean ideologically sectarian.

Mohtadi: Ideologically sectarian. They have lost contact with the realities of the society. They’re against the Kurdish movements. They aren’t enemies of the Kurdish movement, but they have no sympathy for it. They have no sympathy for the democratic movement in Iran. We think the time for that kind of left is over. It was our belief in the late 1980s and the beginning of the 1990s, and that was the real cause of our split.

We revived the Komala Party of Iranian Kurdistan, and we are now more affiliated with European social democracy.

MJT: Are you a member of the Socialist International?

Mohtadi: Not a full member, no. We have applied for that, and we are a member of the Kurdish Group of the Socialist International.

MJT: If I describe you as social democrats, is that accurate?

Modarresi: We won’t be angry. [Laughs.]

Mohtadi: We haven’t decided to take that name or not. But we are for democratic values. We are for political freedoms, religious freedoms, secularism, pluralism, federalism, equality of men and women, Kurdish rights, social justice. We are for a good labor law, labor unions. There is an element of the left in our political program.

MJT: You sound like the mainstream left.

Mohtadi: But as a leftist and as a Kurd I thought the left discredited itself by associating itself with Saddam Hussein and with the political Islamist groups. The left, the genuine left, should have been the real defenders of democracy, of political rights, of political freedoms, of overthrowing dictators, no matter if the United States government is or is not against them.

To be continued…

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All photos copyright Michael J. Totten

The Iranian Revolution in Iraq

KOMALAH COMPOUND, NORTHERN IRAQ — They were supposed to be social democrats, the people Patrick Lasswell and I met yesterday in a compound outside the city of Suleimaniya, the cultural capital of Northern Iraqi Kurdistan. We had it all set up. We were to meet Abu Bakr Mudarisy and his associates for lunch at 11:00 A.M. and learn what we could about the anti-government resistance a few miles away in the Islamic Republic of Iran. Our driver Yusef misunderstood and took us to the wrong place. He did drop us off where we met left-wing dissidents from Iran. But these weren’t the moderate English-speaking leftist intellectuals we were looking for. Instead we found ourselves in an armed camp of the military wing of the Iranian Communist Party.

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They call themselves the Komalah Party, which is some kind of acronym for the Kurdish Organization of the Iranian Communist Party. Patrick and I were deposited, along with our translator Aso, at the guard house at the gate on the way into the camp.

Aso introduced us to the man whom we later would know as Kamal. Kamal dutifully logged our names in the guest book and said we were welcome to talk to the party leaders. We hadn’t yet figured out we were in the wrong place. That would take us a while. But apparently it’s perfectly normal, or at least acceptable, to show up unannounced and without an appointment even at this kind of place around here. Unreformed Communists may not be our cup of tea — and bourgeoisies citizens of the American Empire may not be theirs — but this is the Middle East at the end of the day. Pretty much everyone except the violent jihadists takes the cultural requirement for hospitality seriously.

Marx and Engels hung on the wall of the guard house, and I asked Kamal if I could take a picture.

“Of course, of course,” he said. So I took a picture.

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In the corner was a photograph of the founder of the party who was assassinated by Iranian Revolutionary Guards. I took his picture too.

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I noticed the not-so-vague resemblance to Josef Stalin (it’s the moustache, I guess), and I did wonder why supposedly moderate leftists hadn’t junked Marx yet. But hey, I thought. Maybe they just simply honored the man who inspired them in the first place. No big thing.

Kamal set up a plastic table and chairs in a pleasant courtyard surrounded by a high wall across the road from a small mosque. I asked if I could tape our conversation, and he said no problem. It wasn’t much of a conversation, however. Kamal was all about the pre-prepared boilerplate monologue.

“We are the opposition to the Iranian government party,” he said without being prompted. “Our goal is to save, or liberate, all the Iranian people. We are a Communist party, an international party. Our action is for those people who are toilers and workers in Iran.”

An armed guard sat down behind me and Patrick. He did not say a word, and he shrugged when I asked if I could take his picture.

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The Silent Armed Guard

I wondered where our English-speaking guy Abu Bakr Mudarisy was, but I didn’t mind a briefing by Kamal about who we were dealing with.

“We announced our hostility to the Iranian regime 28 years ago,” he continued. “Before that we didn’t announce our party. We saw that many people were persecuted under the Iranian regime so we began our struggle against that regime in order to liberate the people. At that time Khomeini was in power and he waged a campaign against Kurdistan — a jihadi campaign. The Iranian regime said Kurdish people are blasphemous and deserve to be killed.”

“Is this because the Kurdish people are Sunni and not Shia?” I said. The fitna, or civil war within Islam, between Sunni and Shia Muslims is so ancient and fierce it makes the Arab-Israeli conflict look like a recent and passing phenomenon. The Iranian theocracy is Shia, and the overwhelming majority of Kurds are Sunni Muslims.

“That is part of it,” Kamal said. “There were many violations of human rights at the time.” He spoke more intensely now, and with a fast staccato voice. “Our party did not want to see people under torture and persecution, so we started struggling against the government. We bear our arms in order to defend ourselves, our human rights and other rights in Iran. We don’t want to kill people. We just want to defend ourselves. The Iranian regime waged a campaign against the Kurdish people, including arresting us and burning the villages and houses of our people and bringing our people under torture. There are many internally displaced people in Iran, people who were involved in political parties, opposition. The Iranian government sent them into exile. They became internally displaced people in Iran.”

Neither Patrick nor I needed to ask him anything to get him to talk.

“There are many many sectors of the government that persecute people in Iran,” he continued, “like the intelligence agents. They spy on people. There is no freedom of speech or freedom of the press. Many of the newspapers have been closed. If you go to Iran now, they will not take you to the places where people are persecuted. They will show you their own parties and their own places. Would you like some tea?”

“Yes, please,” both Patrick and I said. Everyone offers us tea in Iraqi Kurdistan.

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Some buildings in the Komalah Party compound

“Many of the people in Kurdistan especially have been deprived of education because of the regime,” Kamal continued. “All the people are under the rule of the Islamic Republic. If someone wants to go abroad from Iran, everything they do will be spied on. If you are a political man in Iran, what frightens you is the prison. Taking drugs is a widespread phenomenon. The one who is responsible is the Iranian regime. They want people to not care about anything, just to take drugs and things like that. It’s a part of the story. It’s a small part of the story.”

Two women sat down at the table. I assumed they wanted to join the conversation. I offered them cigarettes, the only vaguely hospitable gesture a guest is really allowed in the Middle East.

“No,” said the first. She wore a floral print shirt, the kind you might expect to see in the tropics. She looked like everyone’s mom.

“Merci,” said the second as she declined. She actually looked a bit like a communist, and she had the French to go with it.

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Her short hair, drab gray clothes, and vaguely masculine demeanor set her a ways apart from most women in Iraqi Kurdistan who tend to be submissive and quiet.

“Our struggle has been announced internationally,” Kamal went on. “We don’t only want to work for the Kurdish people in Iran. We work for all the country in order to get their rights and in order to make the regime stop persecuting people and torturing people. We don’t bear arms in order to kill people. We only want to defend ourselves. Again, you are very welcome. I am happy to see you here.”

I had only asked one single question. Patrick hadn’t said anything yet. Kamal didn’t know the first thing about us. He larded his speech with more arcane information about when and where his party was founded. I wanted to get to something more interesting.

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The Komalah Party compound.

“Some of the Communists in Iran were a part of the 1979 revolution,” I said. “Were you a part of that revolution?”

“Yes,” Kamal said. “We were. We were supported by people who were workers and poor people. You should remember that the Komalah Party was the first party that brought women equality. Komalah still wants women to have the same rights that men do.”

“How long did your Party have good relations with the government after the revolution?” I said.

I’m not sure if he dodged my question or if it was lost in translation.

“We have 3,000 martyrs,” he said. “We have hope and we have struggled for many years. We have activities everywhere.”

The problem with the 1979 revolution in Iran is that it, like so many others, devoured its children. It was broad-based and popular at the beginning. Liberals allied with leftists, and leftists allied with Islamists. It wasn’t a cocktail for fascism, but that’s what they got. The Islamists came out on top and then they liquidated the liberals and leftists. Kamal didn’t get a chance to talk about any of that because another man showed up at the table and abruptly dismissed him.

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The new guy’s name was Hassan Rahman Panah, and he is a member of the party’s Central Committee. He told me we weren’t allowed to publish anything Kamal had just told us even though Kamal gave me permission to quote him. I like Hassan Rahman as a person, and I sincerely appreciate his hospitality. But I can’t let a Communist Party Commissar tell me I can’t publish quotes that were given to me on the record. Hassan did not even know what Kamal had said. He was asserting his authority and reaching for information control.

“How long have you been here in Northern Iraq?” I said.

“Since 1988,” Hassan said.

“Are you here because it’s safer, or because the Iranian regime exiled you?” I said.

“We are in opposition to the Iranian regime,” he said. “We are political men.”

If I were working in Iran I would have a hell of time finding someone like him to interview. People like him exist, of course, but the regime tightly controls who journalists can talk to and what the interview subjects can say. It is extraordinarily difficult to file reports from Iran that don’t mirror the state’s propaganda. There is a violent insurgency against the Revolutionary Guards in Iranian Kurdistan, but journalists in Iran can’t get any details.

“I know there is an insurgency in Iran, in the Kurdistan region of Iran,” I said. “What do you know about it?”

“We have details about the events that happen every day in Iranian Kurdistan,” Hassan said.

“Events happen every day?” I said.

“The struggle is going on,” he said. “It’s not every day, but it’s going on.”

“What kind of action is taken against the regime in Iran?” I said.

“Our activities include political and civil activities,” he said. “Struggles for women and workers and education. There are also struggles inside the education system.”

“How do you feel about Iran getting nuclear weapons?” Patrick said.

Aso translated the question and I whispered to Patrick: I want to steer him back to the insurgency. The diversion may have been for the best, though. Neither of us wanted Hassan to feel like we were too aggressively pumping him for information.

“It is a dangerous thing,” Hassan said, regarding Iranian nuclear weapons. “We see that it is not in favor of the people in Iran in general. We see two goals behind that phenomenon. The first is to better rule the Iranian people. The second goal is they want themselves to be known as a strong nation in the Middle East. Before, when the Shah was in power, Iran was a strong country in the Middle East. Now they want such power again.”

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The muezzin sang the call to prayer from the minaret of the small local mosque.

No one paid any attention to the call to prayer. No one ever does in Iraqi Kurdistan unless they are already in the mosque, nor does anyone in any other Muslim country I’ve been to. Many Westerners I know assume Muslims stop what they are doing and pray five times a day. The Koran may tell them to do this, but that’s not even remotely how Muslims live in the real world — especially not in an armed Communist camp.

The cows, however, wasted little time before they started mooing in annoyance at the muezzin’s call to prayer.

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Apparently they are Communist cows who are no more religious than I am.

“Do you think that if the mullahs get nuclear weapons they will further oppress their own people?” Patrick said.

“Sure,” Hassan said. “Of course. They will have a stronger authority. People think that if the state has nuclear power, struggling against it will be more difficult. Making a coup d’etat against it will be difficult. So it spreads fear and panic among the people of Iran.”

“[Iranian President] Achmadinejad says that he wants to use — well, sometimes he says this and sometimes he doesn’t — that he wants to use a nuclear weapon against Israel,” I said. “Do you think he is serious, or is he just trying to gain political support from the Arabs?”

“They want to use the Palestine issue as a tool to get support from the Arab countries,” Hassan said. “Achmadinejad knows that Israel has nuclear weapons. It’s not a realistic threat. If they want to attack Israel with a nuclear weapon they know very well that Americans will attack them with a nuclear weapon. American and Israeli governments want to use the issue to strengthen themselves in the region. Mr. Bush’s administration wants to make some trouble outside America to cover or oppress the issues that exist inside the country.”

“Inside America?” I said.

“Yes, inside America,” he said. Hassan Rahman Panah may sound like a neoconservative on the question of the Iranian mullahs, but he can’t seem to resist the coffeeshop foreign policy analysis.

“So do you think American foreign policy is wrong?” I said.

“Yes, it is,” he said.

“What do you think it should be then?” I said.

“The best thing is for America not to interfere with the situation in the world,” he said. “Wherever they meddle they spoil the region — from Afghanistan to Iraq.”

“Was Afghanistan better off under the Taliban?” Patrick said.

“I don’t think it was better,” Hassan said. “But the Taliban was a party established by Americans. They helped them against the Soviet Union at that time.”

Lord only knows how long it will take for this leftist canard to die. The Taliban didn’t exist until long after the Americans left Afghanistan and forgot all about it. Serious analysts of the Middle East know the Taliban was created with Saudi money by Pakistan’s ISI — its intelligence agency — and from the very beginning was an enemy of the United States. But this was an interview, not an argument, so I left him alone about it.

“Ok, so what do you think of the Soviet Union?” I said. I thought perhaps he was angry about the American support for the mujahadeen (not the Taliban) against Soviet imperialism. Maybe he liked the Soviet Union. He is a Communist, after all.

“The Soviet Union was an imperialist country. We were never in favor of the Soviet Union.”

“If the United States wanted to help the people of Iran struggle against the dictatorship,” I said, “would you welcome that assistance, or would you rather the Americans stay out?”

“We think meddling in Iranian affairs is a bad thing,” he said. “There is already the reality of a struggle against the regime. There are many people who are already against the Iranian regime. Let them do what they want to do.”

“Do you think the Iranian people are strong enough to change the regime by themselves?” I said.

“If the other countries in the world stop supporting the Iranian regime,” he said, “it will be very easy for people to topple or oust the regime. All the weapons the Iranian regime uses against the people, where did those weapons come from?”

“The Iranian regime is an enemy of the United States,” I said. “The Iranian regime is also your enemy. Do you really think it would be better for us not to work together since we have the same enemy?”

“We have different interests in such a conflict,” I said.

“Yes, I agree,” I said.

“We are in a struggle for the Iranian people,” Hassan said. “There is nothing which brings us together. There will be a kind of compromise between America and the Iranian regime. If the Iranians accept the demands of the Americans, Americans will no longer have a struggle against them. We have problems with all the systems that exist in Iran — the education, the Islamic system.”

He does, I think, correctly understand the limits of renascent American “realism,” the foreign policy school both Republicans and Democrats (especially Democrats) are swooning over again. Regime-change is no longer what moves most of us, but that is what the Iranian dissidents want. Hassan seems to fear that if the regime capitulates the American government might give it the diplomatic cover it needs to survive.

“We want to have a revolution like the revolution that happened in 1979.”

Red Flag Komalah.jpg

The red Communist flag flies over the Komalah compound

“So you want armed revolution,” I said. “Is that right?”

“We want the ordinary people to rise up against the government,” he said. “But in a situation where everyone has a gun, you have to have a gun to defend yourself. We want protests inside factories and a closing of the market. We want a general strike against the regime in universities, in the market, everywhere.”

“Do you see signs of a collapse similar to the Shah’s government happening now to the mullahs?” Patrick said.

“Yes, I think so,” Hassan said. “In Iran things are going in that direction.”

It was time to steer him back to the insurgency.

“I know that in Iranian Kurdistan,” I said, “and in the areas where the Azeris live, there is a violent insurgency against the government. Which groups are behind this?”

“There are many armed groups in Kurdistan,” he said. “We are an armed force. And there are other groups and forces in Iranian Kurdistan which are armed. One of the Kurdish groups is responsible.”

“Which group?” I said.

“PJAK,” he said. “It belongs to the PKK.”

The PKK (or Kurdistan Worker’s Party) was established in the 1980s as a Marxist-Leninist party and militia in Eastern Turkey. A terrible civil war raged in Turkish Kurdistan for many years until PKK founder Abdullah Öcalan was captured in 1999 in Nairobi, Kenya. Since then the war in the Kurdish region of Turkey has been reduced to a simmer.

According to an Iraqi Kurdish friend, the PKK says they are now more moderate “social democrats,” rather than Marxist totalitarians, but they still carry out campaigns of terrorism against Kurdish and Turkish civilians, as well as the Turkish army, in Turkish Kurdistan. Recently they created a new branch of the party in Iran — PJAK, which is an acronym for the Kurdistan Restoration and Freedom Party. If indeed PJAK is the only group behind the anti-regime insurgency in Iranian Kurdistan, it doesn’t bode well for the liberals and moderates in that region.

“Do you have any idea where they are getting money?” Patrick said.

“PJAK cooperates with PKK,” Hassan said, “and PKK is a rich party.”

“Is your party friends with PJAK?” I said.

“We have a relationship with all the Kurdish groups in Iran, he said, “except the Islamic groups.”

“You mean like Ansar Al Islam?” I said.

“Ansar as of a few days ago started calling themselves Al Qaeda in Kurdistan,” Patrick said.

“Even if they didn’t announce that,” Hassan said, “we know they are part of Al Qaeda. They have a close relationship with Iran. After the Americans attacked them in Biara and Tawela [in Northern Iraq], they went to Iran. Now they have camps there. We know where they are, around the town of Mariwan. The Iranian government hires them as mercenaries. I would like to invite you for lunch.”

“That would be lovely,” I said. “Thank you so much.”

Lunch Komalah.jpg

Our translator Aso prepares to enjoy his meal of soup, chicken, and rice.

The young woman with the earrings brought us food. She looked like a strong-willed woman when Hassan, her boss, wasn’t around. Now that he sat at the table she reverted to the usual subservient role women tend to assume in this part of the world. This supposedly leftist secular party didn’t live up to its ideals as much as it could. Hassan did not, for example, invite our driver to eat with us. Yusef — the only working class man around — sat on the curb next to his car the whole time.

Aso’s phone rang and he spoke to the caller in Kurdish.

“It is Abu Bakr Mudarisy,” he said. “He said he has been waiting for us for over an hour. We came to the wrong place.”

So that explained why these leftists weren’t as moderate as I expected. Yusef drove Patrick, Aso, and I to the wrong leftist compound. There are two Iranian “Komalah” parties in Iraqi Kurdistan — the moderate splinter faction and the unreconstructed Communists. We ended up with the old school.

I laughed to myself and was abstractly relieved. Finding ourselves in the armed camp of the wrong Communist party is a lot less iffy than finding ourselves in the armed camp of the wrong Islamist party. Say what you will about Stalin (and you’re probably right). I’m a lot more comfortable around the armed radical left in the Middle East than I am around the armed radical right.

“How do you know about Mudarisy!” Hassan said.

“From Aso,” I said.

“Not from me,” Aso said and held up his open hands.

“Oh, that’s right,” I said. “We know about him from Aso’s friend Alan. Do you have good relations with Mudarisy?”

“No,” Hassan said. “We do not speak to each other.”

Sigh. Radical left parties all over the world follow the same pattern, it seems. Even in Iraq and Iran they fracture and retreat to mutually loathing camps. The moderates are always hated by the radicals as sellouts, capitalist roaders, neoconservatives, or what have you. So it turns out Hassan wasn’t being completely straight with us when he said his party has relations with every Kurdish group in Iran except the Islamists. The moderate leftists are shunned just the same.

“He will send a car and pick you up at your hotel next week,” Aso said, referring to Mudarisy from the Komalah party splinter faction. That was convenient. And of course Mudarisy would do this. The moderates can’t let their ideological foes be the only ones who get to speak on the record to journalists. I didn’t mind being used as a tool in a sectarian leftist squabble if it would get me information and access.

We ate our chicken, socialized amiably, and I asked a few more questions while I had the chance.

“Do you get any support from the Kurdistan Regional Government [of Iraq]?” I said. It would be news to me if the Iraqi Kurdistan government has any connection to armed groups opposed to the state in Iran.

“Yes,” Hassan said. “From the PUK.”

The PUK is the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, the secular leftist political party in charge of Suleimaniya Province.

“Only PUK,” Hassan added.

Iraqi Kurdistan’s other major political party, the Kurdistan Democratic Party, is more conservative, tribal, and has no interest in leftism, international or otherwise.

“What kind of support do you get from the PUK?” I said. “Is it political support, or also financial support?”

“Financial support,” Hassan said.

It may not be strictly accurate to say armed Iranian Communists are supported by the [Iraqi] Kurdistan Regional Government, but they are (according to Hassan Rahman Panah) supported by at least part of that government.

We finished our lunch and Hassan offered to show Patrick and I around their armed camp. He told us we were welcome to take pictures, so of course we did.

*

Kurds in this part of the world have nicknames for all major vehicles. Land Cruisers are “Monicas” because (supposedly, but I am not seeing it) they somewhat resemble Monica Lewinsky.

“We will bring a car,” Hassan said. “We can’t go up to the mountain in your car.”

“We would have brought a Monica,” Patrick said, “but it seemed inappropriate to bring a Monica to a Communist Compound.”

“We have Monicas,” Hassan said and laughed. “Capitalism is not bad in every way.”

So we hopped in a Communist Monica and drove up the mountain behind the compound.

Monica Komalah.jpg

I was slightly surprised they showed us around. Patrick, Aso, and I could have been anyone, really. They obviously trusted us, or at least their abilities to defend themselves if we decided to try something — which, of course, we would not. They are apparently secure, as well, with photographs of their camp being published. I clicked away at will and no one said boo.

We drove past a watch tower on the left inside the compound.

Watchtower Komalah.jpg

Beyond the compound was a moderately rough road that branched into two. One road winded its way up a valley and the other forged straight ahead to the top of a mountain.

Mountains Looking Up Komalah.jpg

The view on the road up the mountain was spectacular. The mountain inside the camp was shorter than the others, but it was high enough that it provided the illusion of looking evenly across to the tops of the other mountains.

Kurdistan Mountains from Komalah Bunker.jpg

Near the top of the mountain is a bunker. You would not want to try to take that bunker and mountain by force. The Komalah Party can hurl some real pain down on anybody who tries.

Machine Gun Komalah.jpg

Just below the top of the mountain in an area beyond a barbed wire fence lay a mine field.

Minefield Komalah.jpg

“Who are you protecting yourselves from, exactly?” I said. “Islamists?”

“Iranian regime,” Hassan said. I was thinking of the Iraqi Islamists, but of course the Iranians are much stronger and more serious enemies.

Hassan Rahman Panah Mountain Bunker.jpg

“Recently one of our men was killed on the road down below by Iranian intelligence agents,” he said. “They are always coming after us. We need weapons to protect ourselves.”

The area did not look like a camp used to train guerillas for a military aggression, but Hassan did not take us on the road that led up the valley. The party controls that area, too, and just about anything could be up and back there.

A gaggle of young Iranian Communists came out of the bunker when they heard some Americans had arrived. These guys are politically anti-American, yet the looks on their faces made me think of teenagers meeting rock stars. I guess they don’t get too many visitors at the fort.

When they posed for the photo below, most forced themselves to stop smiling and look stern like good Communists should.

Group Photo Komalah.jpg

Whatever they think of our politics, they know very well that we are not enemies. Their enemies rule in Tehran, as do ours. 3,000 members of the Komalah Party are “martyrs,” as Kamal had earlier put it, and not one of them was killed by an American.

These unreconstructed Communists are among the least pro-American of the Iranian opposition. They do not want and will not accept American help in the ouster of the totalitarian Islamist regime. I have little doubt, though, that if at some time in the future they become a part of a post-Khomeinist coalition government in Tehran it will be orders of magnitude easier to work with them civilly and diplomatically than it is right now with the murderous fascists of the Islamic Republic.

Post-script: See my colleague Patrick Lasswell’s blog Moderate Risk. He wrote about the same experience in a different way and from another angle.

Post-post-script: I met with the moderate left “splitters” up the road yesterday, and wrote about them here. The moderates are far and away the intellectual and political superiors of the Communists.

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All photos copyright Michael J. Totten

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