Monday, March 31, 2003

Dave Riley asks whether ordinary Iraqis view the war as one of liberation or invasion. It’s a question we’ve been discussing every day.

We haven’t been able to speak to many Iraqis from Saddam’s side of the line for obvious reasons except for a few defectors – and their views were predictably anti-Saddam. The Kurds here in the north though are, almost to a man, supporters of the war. They’ve suffered for years from Saddam’s forced expulsions, chemical attacks and persecution. The day he’s toppled will be a day of celebration in Iraqi Kurdistan.

The most direct answer to the liberation vs invasion question I’ve had came from a 20 year old woman I interviewed in Sulaymaniyah a few days ago.

I asked her what she thought of the hundreds of thousands of people who’ve taken to the streets of London and elsewhere to oppose the war. “They don’t live in Iraq,” was her blunt reply. “If I was them I’d probably demonstrate too,” she said, “but they don’t know what Saddam is like. All our problems come from him. War is the only answer.”

This was a woman who, as a child, was forced to flee to Iran with her family because of Saddam’s persecution of the Kurds. For several months she lived in a refugee camp until it was safe to return home. On the day I spoke to her she was preparing to leave the city to stay with relatives in the country because she was afraid Saddam might drop chemical weapons on Sulaymaniyah.

My driver, Dana, says the Kurds’ alliance with the US is born of the philosophy that my enemy’s enemy is my friend. The Kurds have a single-minded, almost naïve, belief that America is their staunchest supporter and has their long-term interests at heart. I hope they’re not disappointed.

Discuss Northern Iraq Weblog

This article’s worth a look if you’re a gadgets geek:

Hold the Videophone -- Why the combat coverage from Iraq isn't live.

We’re using both the Talking Head and the Swe-dish (kindly loaned to us by our friends at ABC) here in the field.

Brendan Koener is right to draw attention to the limitations, although I think he’s a bit off-hand about just how far we’ve come in terms of the technology over the past decade. It wasn’t that long ago that I was editing radio reports with a piece of tape and a razor blade!

Given all the factors involved, sometimes I think it’s a miracle that we manage to get on air at all.

Discuss Northern Iraq Weblog

Sunday, March 30, 2003

A day spent behind the former Chamchamal front line towards Kirkuk, of which more tomorrow because it’s still a work in progress and we’re going back again tomorrow to take another look.

Over dinner with a senior PUK commander, Omar Fatah, we looked at the latest maps of Iraqi government positions in the north. They show that after abandoning their front line above Chamchamal, the Iraqis have peeled back to form a tight ring of troops around Kirkuk. The city would appear to be surrounded now by a single defensive line, although its strength and motivation to fight remains unclear.

Discuss Northern Iraq Weblog

Thanks to Adrian Weckler from Ireland's Sunday Business Post, who described this weblog as "brilliant" in this article. Stop it now -- you're making me blush!

While I'm on the subject of links, you can get an overview of what I've been up to from my partner in crime, Jim Muir, in the following article.

Jim Muir -- Tracking the Kurdish advance

Jim is a journalist of unrivalled integrity with an unsurpassed knowledge of the region, and I'm not just saying that because I've eaten, worked and slept (in separate beds, you understand) with him for the past six weeks. If you want an unbiased view of what's happening here -- he's the daddy.

Discuss Northern Iraq Weblog

My thoughts are with the family and friends of my Channel 4 colleague Gaby Rado, who died this morning here in Sulaymaniyah in what appears to have been a tragic accident. He is the second ITN correspondent to die in the current conflict. I only knew Gaby through his work but all of us working here in Northern Iraq have been shocked by his death.

ITV News -- Second correspondent dies
Channel 4 reporter dies in Iraq

Discuss Northern Iraq Weblog

Saturday, March 29, 2003

Here's roughly where we're at in terms of the overall picture, courtesy of BBC News Online.

The main developments in the Northern Front, my main focus:

* Kurdish forces in northern Iraq, supported by American special forces and air strikes, have overrun the main headquarters of the Islamic radical group, Ansar al-Islam. Elsewhere, the Kurdish-controlled town of Chamchamal has come under shellfire.

* Kurdish militiamen have crossed the front-line into Iraqi government-controlled territory, seizing a hilltop position guarding the advance to the city of Kirkuk, after Iraqi forces withdrew.

* The UN says up to 300,000 people in northern Iraq have fled their homes. The office of the UN humanitarian co-ordinator for Iraq says the people left northern Iraqi towns of Kirkuk, Irbil, Dahuk and Sulaymaniyah to seek refuge in the mountains.

Discuss Northern Iraq Weblog

An audioblog and, for those unable to download it, a transcript:

It’s about quarter past one in the afternoon and if I sound a bit shaken up it’s because I am.

We drove about 15 to 20km with an escort of journalists inside what was until a few days ago Iraqi territory. We crossed the ridge at Chamchamal where a few days ago Iraqi troops peeled back towards Kirkuk. Just as we stopped to take some pictures we heard a whistle and a zooming sound and a large artillery shell came down about 50 yards from us, forcing us to dive for cover. It was extremely close and extremely loud.

As soon it was clear it was just the one shell coming in we all jumped into the vehicles and drove back the way we came.

We’ve come back about 3km from where the shell went off and it seems quieter here.

As we were driving down through former Iraqi territory we saw a number of deserted villages – ghost towns really. One of them’s just in front of me; the walls are painted with anti-American slogans in Arabic. There’s a few murals of Saddam Hussein like the ones seen on TV, holding a gun aloft in a triumphant pose. It’s rather eerie to see these villages completely deserted.

One journalist told me that the Iraqi troops who peeled back from their frontline positions left the place in a spotless condition. They even swept out their barracks before they left and moved back towards Kirkuk….

Discuss Northern Iraq Weblog
Jim's written version of the story we worked on yesterday is online here. Needless to say, it's essential reading! The TV version is running on BBC World all day.

Discuss Northern Iraq Weblog
The choice of TV channels on offer in the Sulaymaniyah Palace Hotel is appalling (apart from Fashion TV of course) but the Iranian News Network has to be the worst. Their English news bulletins are broadcast in a language similar to English yet somehow rendered incomprehensible. Take this excerpt from Thursday. What language is this? Dutch?

Iranian TV News Bulletin

Discuss Northern Iraq Weblog
Thanks to everyone who’s posted on the discussion board so far and for the kind words of encouragement from such diverse locations as El Salvador, Canada, Korea and the Royal Gwent Hospital in Newport (alright Simon!)

I was particularly struck by Jo Deane’s request:

“I would like to ask a silly(?) favour and wonder if you could take a picture of a real live flower or flowering plant. Not the paper/plastic stuff we see children wave on tv, but something real and pretty, even a wildflower growing somewhere.”

Jo, I don’t know where you’re writing from but it’s not a silly favour at all. In fact, the hills of Kurdistan are full of spring flowers at the moment. The mountains which mark the Iranian border are still dusted with fresh snow. This afternoon I watched them turn from white to orange to deep red as the sun set. The fields are ablaze with colour, the air is cold and clean and the light is sharp and rich. Whatever your politics, you can understand why the Peshmerga think this is a land worth fighting for.

When we were filming in Halabja a few days ago I took some photos of the flowers growing alongside the mass graveyard where many of the victims of the chemical weapons attack in 1988 are buried. Since you ask, here’s some pictures of them. I’ve no idea what they are – maybe you can enlighten me.

Halabja Flower 1
Halabja Flower 2

Discuss Northern Iraq Weblog

Friday, March 28, 2003

A few words of thanks are in order.
Yesterday's piece in the Guardian seems to have sparked interest elsewhere.
So, many thanks to:
The Washington Post
Panorama, Italy (by the way if anyone can do me a translation I'd love to read it)
Yahoo News
The Hockey Forum (Go Knights!)
for drawing attention to the blog. I'd encourage as many people as possible to spread the word about the site -- to friends, other bloggers and anyone who may be interested. For obvious reasons I can only check in once or twice a day but I'm really keen for the Discussion Board in particular to take off. I'll be following the debate avidly -- and contributing as often as possible.

Discuss Northern Iraq Weblog

1130: Our first sighting of US Special Forces. We've come across a convoy of 8 heavily armed Humvees near the village of Sayyid Sadiq. Villagers are waving at them and smiling as they speed along the road. The Specials seem to be heading towards the moutains above Halabja we visited earlier this week to spearhead the offensive against Ansar Al-Islam, the militant group allegedly linked to Al Qaeda. We’ve overtaken and are a few clicks ahead of them. We tried to stop and film them but were prevented from doing so by a Land Cruiser full of PUK Peshmerga.

1215: We’re creeping up a switchback near the Ansar Al Islam front line. Peshmerga on either side of the road are packing heavy machine guns, anti-aircraft rockets and mortars. The Thuraya satphone rings. It’s London, asking whether Jim can go live. I explain that our position is somewhat hairy. Stopping two jeeps with “TV” written on them in bright orange letters might not be such a good idea. I’ll call in when it’s safer. London’s tone suggests they’re put out, as though we’re being deliberately awkward. Welcome to the 24 hour news age.

1600: I’m sitting in the jeep in the village of Ahmed Awa, next to what remains of a former military headquarters for the Islamic group Komola. The Komola forces left yesterday and this morning PUK Peshmerga moved in. The Australian cameraman Paul Moran was killed at a checkpoint just a few hundred yards away, although when he was here the area was under Islamist control. Now, the Ansar and Komola fighters have moved further back into the hills behind me. They’re being pounded from the air and from the ground by PUK mortars. The valley is echoing with a steady boom. Every once in a while, Land Cruisers full of Peshmerga come down the mountain road, carrying their wounded. The Peshmerga are in celebratory mood, though. With the support of US planes and special forces they believe Ansar is doomed.

Discuss Northern Iraq Weblog

Thursday, March 27, 2003

Thursday was a momentous day for us. After almost two months in the region, the Northern Front – albeit a scaled down version of what was originally intended -- is finally open for business. For the moment at least we’re the centre of the story.

We were woken by the News Desk at 0730 and for the next 8 hours we barely drew breath. The Rolling News Monster had us in its grip and wasn’t going to let us go. Each hour was filled with lives for World TV, News 24, World Service, Radio 4, Five Live, you name it, interspersed with the odd rushed phone call to find out what was actually happening.

By about 4 o’clock I was suffering from Non Stop News Narcosis and needed to get out for an hour. Our translator, Rebeen, took us to the bazaar to buy some army surplus souvenirs, heartless War Tourists that we are. I came away with a rather natty Iraqi Army beret – perfect for those “Dress as your favourite despot” theme parties. Cameraman Kaveh bought a balaclava, which makes him look like an ETA terrorist. Jim was not impressed.

The mood in the bazaar was, ahem, bizarre. Since dawn the TV had been filled with images of paratroops jumping out of planes into the Bashur airfield (they could have quite easily landed on the runway but that wouldn’t look as good on TV, would it?) but in the market it as though the war was in another, distant country. Traders were shouting their wares, fruit and veg was piled high on stalls and chickens condemned to death pondered their fate. The only evidence of the war was on the TVs tuned to Al Jazeera in the tea shops and kebab joints, but most people didn’t seem to be paying much attention to the screens. It seemed strange that people were going about their business, seemingly oblivious to the conflict on their doorstep but I actually think it’s rather healthy. While war rages in their midst , many ordinary Kurds are going about their daily lives, buying fruit and veg, baking bread, drinking tea.

Discuss Northern Iraq Weblog

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery and having taken a look at Kevin Sites' weblog I saw he had a discussion option. I want one of those, I thought -- so here it is. Why didn't I know about this sooner?

Discuss Northern Iraq Weblog
Welcome new readers!

I checked the stats on the weblog this evening and nearly fell off my chair. They'd exploded twenty-fold! Something was definitely afoot.
Sure enough, no less an authority than The Guardian has dubbed this site "one of the best of the warblogs" and among "the sites you need to see" in this article:

Conflict of interest: the sites you need to see

Well if the Guardian says it, it MUST be true! Many thanks to Jane Perrone for taking notice and if you're visiting for the first time, you're most welcome and tell your friends.

I was interested to read that CNN's Kevin Sites had been asked to suspend his blog. I must admit the thought of a conflict of interest hadn't really occurred to me since I set this site up primarily to keep in touch with family and friends. Lest there be the slightest whiff of a breach of producer guidelines, though, I guess I should steal Kevin's disclaimer:

Stuart Hughes is a BBC journalist, but this is a personal website not affiliated with, endorsed by, or funded by the BBC. Archives of Stuart's work are available here, and at BBC News Online. Will that do?

Just as I was lamenting the absence of a Northern Front, hundreds of American troops parachute into the region to open up a new offensive. They dropped into an airfield near Arbil overnight, but troops are also coming into another airbase near here in Sulamaniyah. It means things are likely to get very busy for us as the Northern Front takes shape. Here's the latest map of who's where:

Wednesday, March 26, 2003

Day 7 of the war and “Operation Iraqi Freedom” doesn’t seem to be going too well. Not that the coalition would ever admit it. Just a few weeks ago, Pentagon sources were claiming the whole thing would be over in a week but sandstorms and what the Allies insist on calling “stiff resistance” have got in the way. As for the Northern Front – the part of the war we’re supposed to be covering – well, Turkey’s intrasigence has brought that to a standstill.

Meanwhile, Jim’s unswerving commitment to the journalistic “real thing” knows no bounds. While in theory that’s an admirable trait, in practice it’s damned uncomfortable. Jim’s pursuit of a story involves driving to the top of rugged snow-dusted mountains in the dark and sleeping on the cold stone floors of guard houses “just in case something happens.” My pursuit of a story involves sleeping underneath duvets in warm hotel rooms just in case something DOESN’T happen.

Mercifully, this evening’s planned excursion to the front line has been cancelled due to poor weather. Whenever anyone rings from London they assume we’re in the middle of a desert. In fact, it’s pissing down with rain. Even if we had gone to the mountains we wouldn’t have been able to see anything and we’d probably have died of pneumonia. It’s on days like this that I pity those poor peshmerga camped out on their hilltop positions. They must be having a desperate time.

Tuesday, March 25, 2003

This is a very useful map from the New York Times which illustrates exactly the areas and stories we're concentrating on.

Monday, March 24, 2003

Here's the report on the ABC cameraman who was staying here in the Sulaymaniyah Palace Hotel and who died in the suicide bombing on the weekend and here's the picture. Not good at all.

This assignment gets more Apocalypse Now-like by the day. We’re deep down the river and it can only be a matter of time before we come face to face with Colonel Kurtz.

After two days sleeping on the floor in Chamchamal, waiting for bombing raids that never materialised, we moved across to the mountains above Halabja, near the Iranian border, where Peshmerga fighters are battling with Ansar Al-Islam, the “terrorist” group allegedly linked to Al-Qaeda. It was a rather hairy trip. The day before Ansar carried out a suicide bomb attack at a checkpoint, in which an Australian cameraman was killed. Not surprisingly, most journalists moved away from Halabja after that. The hotel is very sombre and there are remembrance pictures of the dead guy pinned up in the lobby. Jim, though, has impeccable military contacts and arranged for an armed escort to take us in.

The Americans have begun bombing raids against Ansar positions in attempt to wipe out the group and we wanted to be there when they happened. At 2am we drove way up into the mountains overlooking Ansar territory and bedded down with the Peshmerga in one of their guard houses. We were woken at 4am by US planes coming over then the sky lit up with orange flashes as they dropped their payloads. The noise was deafening.

Unlike the night before, when the Americans dropped about a hundred missiles, the night we were there they only dropped a handful in quick succession. By the time we realised the raid had begun it was all over. To get the best vantage point we drove right to the top of the mountain – the Peshmerga front line. It was dark, unspeakably bleak and incredibly cold. The Peshmergas took us into their shelter and made us all hot, sweet tea.

I must have dozed off because by the time I came round it was light. As the sun rose, the mountains came to life and we all began to thaw out. The scene was just unreal.

The Peshmergas live in virtually medieval conditions – like St Kilda 200 years ago. They spend weeks or even months in huts and bunkers on the hilltops with no electricity, no hot water, nothing. Just cold water in a tank and a single kerosene stove. Their resilience is unbelievable, their belief in their cause unshakable. The hardships of their lives are plain to see – soldiers in their early 30s look 20 years older.

Here’s a selection of photos taken up there:

Two Peshmerga
Down The Barrel Of A Gun
Poised Peshmerga
Peshmerga With Radio
Peshmerga Smoking

One thing that always strikes me about the Peshmerga is their footwear. They’re all armed to the hilt, pledging to die for the liberation of Kurdistan, and yet they’re wearing trainers, hush puppies and dress shoes. One soldier, with a thick band of ammunition slung around his waist, was wearing a pair of pink sneakers with “My Little Pony” written on them.

Ansar sent a few mortars over as we did a succession of lives on the videophone – without doubt the most remote place I’ve ever done a broadcast from. The generator has earned its keep already.

The Peshmergas were – as always – great hosts; curious, polite and welcoming. Several of them spoke warmly about Tony Blair, asking us to thank him for taking a firm stand against Saddam Hussein. After posing for a group photo I gave them cigarettes and BBC stickers before heading back down the mountain, wondering what would become of them.

Friday, March 21, 2003

A strange, strange 24 hours. We took up position in Chamchamal, the end of the road in Kurdish administered Northern Iraq. From there, the checkpoint which marks the beginning of Baghdad-controlled territory is just a stone’s throw away. Looking at the mountains ahead through the binoculars you could see Iraqi government troops on the ridges. Occasionally, they let off a burst of gunfire.

The whole town was knee deep in mud and virtually deserted. Most people had shut up shop and taken safety with their relatives out of town. Our main priority was to find somewhere to set up a base. We found a place to stay with Akram. His two room hovel was taken over by two journalists, a cameraman, driver and translator. His wife had left town but stayed behind to guard his possessions. He was the perfect host, cooking us all potato soup and rice on a kerosene stove. I could have misread the situation completely but he actually seemed quite pleased to have us there.

We did a succession of lives on the videophone and satellite gear before bedding down for the night on the floor in a kind of warzone slumber party. We all expected to be woken in the night by shelling but it stayed quiet and I slept like a log. We’ve had breakfast and are now heading back to Sulaymaniyah to get cleaned up. Then we’ll go back to Chamchamal again for another night on the floor.

Thursday, March 20, 2003

Wednesday morning update: Now the bombs have started falling in Baghdad we're going to move from Sulaymaniyah, nearer to the frontline with Kirkuk. I very much doubt we'll have internet access there. I'll update when I can.

The tone was set on Tuesday for the days ahead with an afternoon of tail-chasing.

We read this report from the AFP news agency and got very excited:

The thought of tens of thousands of people fleeing Saddam seemed like a good story, so we jumped into the trucks and drove the 70km to Chamchamal. It turned out to be complete bollocks. People were trickling across from Kirkuk but in the dozens rather than tens of thousands. The story was shite, pure and simple, and checking it out took three hours we couldn’t afford to spare. Added to that, we used up a tank of fuel at a time when petrol shortages are looming. The cost of fuel has already quadrupled here over the last couple of days, while the value of the Iraqi Dinar has slumped, down from 9.5 dinars to the dollar on Saturday to 6 today.

The mood of people is best summed up in the vox pops I did this morning for BBC news Online with people in the bazaar. Click on the Northern Iraq section.

Here’s 26 year old Selar Osman Rashid’s take on what’s happening:

In a sign of things to come we got sucked into a round of lives for 5 Live, World Service and BBC World. All the equipment seems to be working a treat, though – which is more than can be said for ABC News’s satellite dish. The dish has been travelling the world for weeks, creeping its way towards Sulaymaniyah, across timezones and international borders. It finally got here yesterday but got caught in the night by a gust of wind which blew it off the roof! ABC’s engineers have spent the day putting it back together again with sticky tape and chewing gum and, amazingly, it seems to be working again. A miracle of engineering.

Wednesday, March 19, 2003

People are on the move.

I’ve just been for a drive along Route 4, which leads from the oil-rich city of Kirkuk (controlled by Saddam) into Kurdish-controlled Iraq. Along the road was a steady stream of trucks and lorries, piled high with belongings, from bedding and clothing to cement mixers and furniture. People seem to be gathering up what they can and moving away from the frontline areas to towns further away from the hotspots. Kirkuk in particular is expected to be one of the key battlegrounds and people aren’t taking any chances. They’re afraid that a desperate Saddam will use chemical weapons and they’ll be caught in the middle.

It’s not a mass exodus. I’d say I saw about one vehicle every couple of minutes laden with possessions. Those I spoke to weren’t fleeing in panic. They just don’t want to be at the centre of the action when the bombs start falling so they’re getting out.

Here’s what they said:

Wahid Qadir Salih, 40

“I’m leaving with 7 members of my family because I’m afraid of Saddam Hussein.

“I’m afraid he’ll attack with chemical weapons.

“We’ll come back if Saddam Hussein is removed.

“I escaped before in 1991. I went across the border to Iran and stayed there for one or two months.

“My village is about 50 kilometres away. We’re too scared to stay there.”

Saman Ali, 22

“We’re just waiting to see what happens over the coming hours but we’re in a very bad situation and we’re scared. We’re going to go to the mountains to escape.

“We’re afraid because Saddam Hussein is a dictator. His regime has always tortured us and made us live in fear. He’s still doing it to us and to our innocent children.

“We’re afraid he might use chemical weapons on us. We just don’t know whether he has them or not.”

Monday, March 17, 2003

Here we go then. The smart money is on hostilities starting on Wednesday night. I’ll believe it when it happens but we need to be completely ready.

While the politicians engage on a final frantic round of diplomacy, here in Sulaymaniyah we’re engaging in a final frantic round of preparations. Today’s been a big logistics day – checking the generator and all the equipment, sorting out the safety gear, squinting at maps and discussing routes to Baghdad and Kirkuk, and ordering great big signs for the trucks with “TV” written on them in metre high letters so the Yanks don’t take a pop at us (or take aim at us, depending on what sort of mood they're in).

More importantly, I left without any music to listen to in the jeep and I can’t bear that Kurdish crap so I went to the bazaar to pick up some CDs. They had a shockingly poor selection of dodgy western copies, but I didn’t have any choice. It wouldn’t be my first choice of war zone tunes but I came away with Eminen, Madonna, Pink and – it gets worse – Shakira, Britney Spears and Craig David. 5 dinars – or 50p – each. I know it’s shite but it’s all they had.

I also took my life in my hands by visiting a Kurdish barber. I took Rabeen, the translator, with me so the hairdresser didn’t make a mistake and think I wanted a perm. There was the usual flurry of “Eeeeenglish – Michael Owen, Daveeeed Beckham” pleasantries when I went in. The old smoothy barber claimed that “I’ve only ever seen this style in the movies, I’ve never done one before.” Yeah, right. Fair play, he didn’t do a bad job….if a little short. And for 20 Dinar – two quid – I’m not going to complain.

Thanks to Ails for pointing this article out. Jason was on the same convoy from Turkey as us so his experiences are pretty much the same as ours.
Jason Burke -- Nine tenths logistics, one tenth everything else.

Also, here's another piece I wrote up with photos after going to Halabja on Friday.
Eyewitness: Halabja gas attack

Sunday, March 16, 2003

Jim's Online despatch on Halabja is here. The report also contains a link to a series of vox pops from Halabja, which I did.
Took this photo at the mosque in Halabja on Friday. I kind of like it.

Moving to Sulymaniyah was an excellent idea. Not only are the hotel and scenery better than Arbil, but the stories are a damn sight more interesting as well.

The downside is that we’ve been so busy that I’ve had little time to update the Blog.

An early start yesterday (Saturday) – not helped by the fact that we woke up to find that one of the 4x4s had a flat. No time to fix it straight away – luckily we’ve hired another vehicle so piled all our gear into that and drove to Darband-I-Khan, about an hour away. This map gives an idea of where we were:

There, a platoon from the Badr Brigades – a Shia militia backed by Iran -- were putting on a show of strength and pissing off the Americans by flexing their Iranian backed muscles.

The military parade was quite a sight – about a 1,000 soldiers being put through their paces and showinf off their hardware – mortar launchers, katyusha rockets, rocket propelled grenades. Flanked by the mountains, with the flags flying in the breeze and a military band playing, it was easy to get good pictures and audio.

Here's an audio snippet and here's a rather good article on the Badr Brigade.

We came back and cut quick pieces for World TV and World Service…..and a technological breakthrough…we fed the TV piece to London on a new piece of kit called “store and forward.” Basically you pump the pictures into the computer, compress them, and then uplink them onto the satellite through a dish that’s about the size of a laptop. London receives them like an e-mail, fiddles with them, and broadcasts them. It’s fairly slow – it takes a couple of hours to send a 2 minute piece, but the quality’s excellent, it’s cheap, and it means we can send stuff from anywhere in the world – even the balcony of a hotel room. I’ve not used it before – it was a bit fiddly but I was very impressed.

Another busy day today, sending our TV and radio piece on Halabja to mark the 15th anniversary. That should be out the way later this afternoon then I’m going on strike for 24 hours. I need a rest before the bombing starts.

Oh, and Assad the driver has been given his marching orders. Not only was he packing two guns and was blind as a bat and a shit driver but he was a lazy bastard as well. We sent him back to Arbil with a flea in his ear.

Saturday, March 15, 2003

The sign reads "A gift from Saddam for the people of Halabja."

Today (Friday) was probably the most rewarding day of my professional life. Sunday is the 15th anniversary of the chemical attack on the town of Halabja, which I’ve mentioned before. 5,000 people died and thousands more were disabled for life by Saddam’s forces.

We went to Halabja to film and do a radio piece to coincide with the anniversary. The setting is breath-taking – the town is on a plain beneath the mountains that mark the border between Iraq and Iran. Although, it’s getting noticeably warmer, the mountain tops are still covered in snow.

We started off at the mosque, filming friday prayers. Some of the faces there were just fantastic – mahogany skin, wrinkles like crumpled paper and crooked teeth stained yellow and brown. Everyone there had a tragic story of brothers, sisters and wives killed by poison gas. Some people said they didn’t want to talk to us. They’d shared their story with journalists before but said nothing had changed, nothing had improved. We found one man, though, who took us to the spot where the bombs dropped. Within hours 35 of his relatives were dead. I’m going to transcribe some of the interview we did with him and post it up.

After we’d finished in the town we drove up to the mountains, which was an eerie experience. The .Spring flowers were out and ageing Peshmerga fighters were sitting around chatting and lazing in the sun. Yet up on the higher ground is a graveyard, where many of those killed in Halabja are buried. They fled the town below when they realised they were being gassed. But the wind carried the poison towards them as they tried to escape, cutting them down along the road.

I’ve just had a quick look through the rushes we shot and they’re just great. Our cameraman, Kaveh, is a really talented guy – and great fun to boot. It’s going to make a fantastic piece.
Introducing my friends from the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, Halabja checkpoint. Watch where you're pointing those weapons, boys!!

Friday, March 14, 2003

Arrived late last night in Sulimaniyah in the rain. From what I’ve seen so far, it looks like a far more agreeable place than Arbil. The hotel is modern, spacious and – best of all – clean. Whereas the endless khaki coloured buildings and scrubland gave Arbil a drab feel, Suly has parkland and trees and is ringed by snow-capped mountains.

My main concern at the moment is Assad, my former KDP Peshmerga driver. He drives like a maniac and can’t see further than 10 yards in front of his face. More worrying still is the fact that he’s packing two weapons – a Kalishnikov and a pistol. When he’s inside his own territory, controlled by the KDP army, this is no bad thing. However, we’ve now crossed into an area controlled by the rival PUK. If we get stopped at a checkpoint and the guards find someone from a rival army with a machine gun in the trunk they’re likely to be more than a little pissed off. Such is the way of the tribal politics here. Assad may have to go.

Wednesday, March 12, 2003

John's article on Iraqi defectors is here -- with photos by Craig!
A whole new adventure could be just around the corner.

Spent the day working on logistics and strategies. The current thinking is that we split into two teams -- myself, Jim and team one way, John et al the other. It means we can cover the region more effectively and take different routes down to Baghdad if/when things get lively. Lots of planning to do this evening -- food, equipment, generators etc. Who knows what'll happen tomorrow? If I don't update for a day or two it'll be because I'm on the road and have no internet connection....

The story’s turning very volatile and even more difficult to predict. The mood of the team rises and falls with every development.

After Chile called for a 45 day deadline the mood darkened at the thought of another month and a half in this dump, waiting and waiting. We started thinking about how we’d get out of Iraq in the intervening period – and whether we’d be able to get back in again. Then Donald Rumsfeld said British troops might not take on a combat role, which was interpreted as meaning that the Americans could go it alone in the very near future. In an instant a 45 day pause turned into a possible imminent attack. Then, Washington and London try to clarify the situation and the whole thing becomes uncertain again.

Some of the team have booked holidays, weddings, home refurbishments in the coming weeks. No one can say whether they’ll have to cancel – or whether we’ll all be back home in a couple of weeks. Dragan’s girlfriend gave birth in Belgrade to his first daughter while we were on the bus from Turkey to Iraq. So far, e-mailed photos are the only contact he’s had with his child. He doesn’t know when he’ll be able to see her for the first time….although he’s hoping it’s before she starts university.

It’s not that we want a war. A nice, clean coup would do just fine. It’s just that the uncertainty leads to endless speculation and “what ifs.” Right now there must be tens of thousands of troops and hundreds of journalists doing exactly the same thing – waiting and wondering.
Especially for Sue, here's another couple of pictures of Craig out near the Iranian border filming Simpson's World. Enjoy!

Craig Gun
Craig Mountains

Tuesday, March 11, 2003

The 7 coachloads of journalists who came across the Turkish border with us are hard at work. Dozens of column inches are being written about Northern Iraq every day.

From the Qandil Mountains to the outskirts of Kirkuk, there seems to be a journalist hiding behind every tuft of grass. Most of the articles are variations on the same theme; Kurdish soldiers – known as Peshmergas – say they’ll fight to the death if Turkey enters the region. I'm sure, though, that once the war starts and everyone charges for Baghdad everyone will forget about the Kurds and their cause.

ABC/Reuters -- Iraqi Kurds See Swift Surrender of Saddam's Army
Star Tribune -- Saddam fortifies strategic northern city
Christian Science Monitor -- Kurds brush up on human rights
The Times -- Kurds will fight back if Turkey enters Iraq
Gulf News -- Kurdish militia trains to repel Turkish troops
Middle East Online -- Kurds mobilise on Turkish border
Daily Telegraph -- Kurdish rebels ready to fight to the death for their cause

The Simpson's World team have come back from filming near the Iranian border with some great pictures:
Peshmerga Post 1
Peshmerga Post 2
Filming Simpson's World

Things are getting serious in the poker lounge. The buttons – each worth half an Iraqi Dinar – are changing hands at a dizzying pace. Chief beneficiary is Serb Warlord Dragan Petrovic, whose prowess at the card table is unsurpassed. Afghan snapper and Baldrick looky-likey Abdullah is still in the hunt but the chips are slipping like water through the fingers of Californian cameraman Fred Scott. Overseeing proceedings is John “The Hustler” Simpson, who plays his cards very close to his ample chest and whose poker face gives little away.

Meanwhile, we’re stepping up our war planning. Events at the UN have made the schedule extremely difficult to predict. Will the US lose patience with the Security Council and go it alone? Will our operation in Baghdad be shut down, making a dash for Baghdad our main priority? What will happen in the key strategic cities of Mosul and Kirkuk? We just don’t know – and yet we have to prepare for every possibility. It’s impossible to predict whether military action will happen this week, this month or this year but we’re drawing up Plans A, B, C and D, factoring in the various possibilities in terms of personnel, equipment and story. There’s a real sense among the team that things are about to get very busy.

Monday, March 10, 2003

A busy day's editing for The World Tonight, so I'll update in full in the morning. Jim's News Online version of the Turkomen story is here.

Sunday, March 09, 2003

It's got nothing at all to do with Kurdistan or the War on Iraq but doesn't Ron Davies ever learn?
It's strangely comforting to know that while the Labour Party agonises over whether to support military action, Ron still manages to find time to pick up builders in lavatories.

There are no chickens in Arbil. They’ve all been rounded up and turned into kebabs. Here, the imams do the job of a crowing cockerel by waking up the neighbourhood at the crack of dawn.

Just from my hotel room window I can see at least four mosques. At 4:45 every morning they crank the speakers up to 11 and start wailing. It’s the Koran in Surround Sound.

This is what it sounds like.

I don’t mind people having the freedom to practice their religion. I just wish they’d do it quietly.

Saturday, March 08, 2003

Took a walk down a side street this afternoon and found a supermarket selling a whole host of treats. Sardines, cake, cheese triangles and….joy of joys…hot n spicy Pringles! I bought them all. Heaven!

The menu at the Arbil Tower Hotel is a total mystery. If menus were buildings it would have been condemned and bulldozed long ago. What, for example, is “tornado clamar”? Equally mystifying are “chicken creem chap,” “Poloniz spakity,” and “lamp ship.” Missing from the photo but also on offer is the tantalising “fatti meat,” which I presume is a plate of fatty meat. Yum!

In reality, the contents of the menu are largely irrelevant. A request for anything deviating from lamb or chicken kebab is met with a blank stare and a recommendation from the waiter that “maybeeee sirrrr he would like cheeken kabab. Is very good.” Our translator insists there’s an Italian restaurant somewhere in Arbil. I’m convinced it’s just a rumour.

And while I’m at it, why is the couple on the sign above the lift holding hands with a chimpanzee?

Friday, March 07, 2003

Some fine ululating from the Turkmen women:

Turkmen Wedding Music

Our piece on the Turkmen community took us today to a Turkmen wedding party across town. Never have I seen such a miserable bride and groom, although the fact that we kept shoving microphones and cameras in their faces might have had something to do with it. It was either that or they were in a state of shock after being greeted by a gaggle of ululating women, hollering at the top of their voices, Still, we got lots of good audio and pictures so hopefully they’ll realise that spoiling their big day is a small price to pay for the greater good of the BBC.

The male guests did plenty of the shruggy-shruggy dance that’s all the rage here. It basically involves holding hands in a circle, shuffling your feet and shrugging your shoulders vigorously – a kind of Turkmen hokey cokey.

For their part, the women sat stony-faced, watching their menfolk make fools of themselves. Turkmen chicks, it seems, don’t boogie.

Thursday, March 06, 2003

Went last night to a demo organised by a womens’ group against Turkish military intervention in Kurdistan. They’re afraid that Turkey will carry out atrocities against Kurds if they enter Northern Iraq -- and according to a new report from Human Rights Watch they have good reason to be concerned.

Many of the women carried photos and paintings of husbands, brothers and sons who disappeared during the Anfal, the campaign of military actions against the Kurds by Saddam Hussein in 1988, when he carried out a campaign of systematic destruction, designed to punish the Kurds for siding with Iran in the war with Iraq.

You can read more about the Anfal here, here and here.

The most notorious incident was the chemical weapons attack in March 1988 on the town of Halabja, near the Iranian border. At least five thousand people died and thousands more were disabled permanently.

More on Halabja.

A university student who survived the Halabja attack told me her story. Here’s an excerpt:

“When the attack happened in Halabja I was five years old.

“I was so young that at first I didn’t know they were attacking us.

“I remember that we were eating our food in the morning when the attack on Halabja began. We went into the underground bunker in the house for safety.

“Everyone was in a hurry and was very afraid. Even parents didn’t take their children. Some just ran away.

“I was left behind when my parents ran away. My dress got caught in barbed wire and I couldn’t run after them. A man came and helped me and I ran and managed to catch up with my mother and father.

“It was a rainy day and there was mud everywhere. We ran all the way to Iran without shoes on.”

Wednesday, March 05, 2003

This is probably the most comprehensive overview of the Kurdish issue I've read:
Washington Post -- Kurds Cling to Their Experiment

Distractions in Arbil are limited. In fact, they’re non-existent. No cinemas to speak of, no decent restaurants, certainly no bars except for the shitty one at the hotel – and there your evening’s likely to be wrecked by the caterwauling of the live Kurdish band. I find myself fantasising about a pint and a decent meal.

Like a cell full of prison inmates, we’re forced to make our own entertainment. Yesterday, we been down to the bazaar and bought a DVD player for $60 – a bargain. Amazingly, it works – although for how long remains to be seen. Dragan came back with a box full of buttons. I thought maybe he’d taken a sudden interest in sewing but no – he intends to use them as gambling chips for poker games over at the other hotel. I suspect that by the time we’re done some of the team will owe more money than they’ve earned.

For my part, I came back from the bazaar with a nargila. The thick plumes of smoke from the apple tobacco is already drawing complaints from the other occupants of the 8th floor but it’ll keep the mosquitoes away when the malaria season starts.

Oh, and by popular demand, here’s another picture of the Big Man taking a piss.
While we wait impatiently for the war to start we’re spending our days digging around on a few stories to keep us busy.

One of them….what the war will mean for the Turkmen? Who? The Turkmen are part of the tapestry of ethnic groups that make up Iraq and have close historical links with Turkey.

According to my notes….

“Turkmen began to settle in Mesopotamia in the 11th century and a number of communities were founded in Iraq in the 12th century.

“They number some 2.5 million, about 2% of the population.

“They live mainly in northern Iraq, south of the Kurdish Autonomous Region.

“Turkmen leaders say thousands of their community were forced into destitution in northern Iraq, while up to 20,000 made their way illegally into Europe throughout the 1990s.”

The reason they’re interesting is that in a post-Saddam era, there could be a struggle between the Turkmen and the Kurds over who has claim to key cities such as the oil-rich Kirkuk. Also the two parties representing the Turkmen community are divided. One works in co-operation with the Kurdish authorities, but the other is backed by Turkey who – as yesterday’s demo showed – the Kurds hate.

So, they’re a community being pulled in opposite directions – one towards their roots in Turkey, the other towards integration with Kurdistan. Also, Turkey wants to send troops into Kurdistan to protect the Turkmen, which would cause the most almighty shit storm.

Our research took us to the most fantastic antique shop, stuffed to the rafters with amazing maps, guns, pictures and rugs – including this delightful one of Saddam. I didn’t ask the price, although I may go back to see how much the owner wants for the stuffed bear.

Then we went on to the Citadel in Arbil, the history of which I need to look into (Vicky, I’m on the case and will report back).

We’d been warned that the Citadel was a den of thieves and bandits, but in fact the people there couldn’t have been more welcoming…curious, polite – and very photogenic.

Monday, March 03, 2003

An excellent article on the region from The Economist -- reprinted in full because it's only available on the website by subscription.

From The Economist print edition

JEALOUS neighbours—Arab, Persian and Turk—used to be able to sow discord among Iraq's fractious Kurds, seemingly at will. No longer: a new unity prevails. Since last autumn, when their regional parliament held its first full session in eight years, the two main Kurdish groups, the PUK and the KDP, have shown surprising pragmatism. Jalal Talabani, the PUK's leader, says that the two groups are even talking about unifying their administrations, and setting up a combined military command. With the prize of self-determination at last within their grasp, Mr Talabani and his former foe, the KDP's Massoud Barzani, have come together in their longing for a war of “liberation”.

Kurdish officials parrot some of the wilder statements of the American administration. Barham Salih, Mr Talabani's “prime minister”, laments that the UN is becoming an “irrelevance”, and repeats the improbable charge that Ansar al-Islam, a band of Kurdish Islamist assassins, has produced chemical weapons. Officials obligingly identify the Ansar's unlikely pairing of non-executive directors: Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein.

Kurdish unity is good for Kurds, but too much of it worries the non-Kurdish groups that America has designated, along with the KDP and the PUK, to be Iraq's visible opposition. In the run-up to a long-delayed conference of opposition parties, scheduled to start outside Arbil some time this week, some of the participants privately doubted whether the Kurds would join the other groups in strenuously opposing the American plan to entrust the running of Iraq to an American military governor. The Kurds, or so the others fear, will fight hard for a federal structure and for control over their internal affairs, but may give way on American proposals for a deliberately sluggish transition to democracy.

The groups that claim to represent Iraq's Shia Muslim majority are particularly perturbed by the prospect of an American military governorate that may incorporate former Baath party elements. Officials from the biggest of these groups, the Iran-based Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, pronounce themselves aghast. This may well reflect the apprehension of their paymasters in Tehran, who shudder at the thought of living next door to an American administration.

The Americans, concerned with finalising their military plans, are far less interested than the opposition parties are in drawing up a blueprint for postwar Iraq. This week, American, Kurdish and Turkish soldiers met on the border between Turkey and Iraq, no doubt to talk about the military intervention into northern Iraq that the Turks are insisting they will carry out in the event of war. Besides stemming an expected flood of refugees into Turkey, these troops will act as a reminder to Iraq's Kurds, whose current autonomy is eyed enviously by Turkish Kurds, not to grab more territory or privilege.

The opposition conference is considered something of a distraction by the Americans, as they bargain with Turkey over the price Turkey is exacting for an American military thrust into northern Iraq. Zalmay Khalilzad, Mr Bush's envoy, is determined not to let the groups draw up the “leadership structure” that they say they want in place by the time the war starts. And since Turkish observers will be on hand at the conference, the Kurds will be on their best behaviour.

Moreover, unless Mr Hussein mounts a pre-emptive strike against the KDP or the PUK, the Kurdish warriors have been ordered by America to stay put in any coming war. This may go against the grain for a martial race, but it represents a victory for the new Kurdish pragmatism.

This really is choice.
A group of idiots decide they want to travel to Baghdad to be Human Shields -- then turn around when they get there and say it's too dangerous. It's like someone going to Antarctica and then complaining that it's too cold. What the hell were they expecting? They're a bunch of well-intentioned idiots who should have stayed at home knitting blankets out of museli for orphans.

Spent the morning with Jim Muir at the "spontaneous" demo we were told was happening two days ago against Turkish intervention in Kurdistan. The number of people there was impossible to estimate – all I know is that it was big and it was very smelly.

The Kurds need to work on their political sloganeering. The banners carried by the demonstrators ranged from the frankly bizarre (“Kurdistan is a land of co-existence & Fraternity & Turkish forces want to be able to destroy the brotherhood relation between the Kurds & Turks – Arbil Youth”) to the more direct (“Fuck the Turks.”)

Here’s how Reuters reported the demo:

Thousands of Iraqi Kurds March Against Turkey
Mon March 03, 2003 05:35 AM ET

By Sebastian Alison
ARBIL, Iraq (Reuters) - Thousands of Iraqi Kurds took to the streets on Monday to protest against Turkish plans for military intervention in Kurdish-administered northern Iraq, but police said the demonstration passed off peacefully.

"Anti-Turkish feeling is very high," traffic policeman Rajab Ali Kakel told Reuters at the march in Arbil, where several Turkish flags were burned. "There's never been a protest of this size here," he added.

Kakel and his colleagues put the number of marchers at up to half a million, although this could not be independently verified and other estimates put the figure below 100,000.

Turkey plans to send an unspecified number of troops across its border into the free Kurdish area of northern Iraq during any U.S.-led invasion to oust Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

But U.S. plans have been thrown into confusion by the refusal of Ankara's parliament to allow U.S. troops into Turkey.

Turkey has a large Kurdish minority of its own and has a deep-seated fear of Kurds seeking an independent homeland.

Although Turkish officials say they plan only to protect Kurdistan's Turkmen minority and prevent a flood of refugees entering Turkey, the Iraqi Kurds see a threat to their nascent democracy and freedoms.

The three largely Kurdish Iraqi provinces of Arbil, Sulaymaniyah and Dohuk have been out of the reach of Saddam's government since the end of the Gulf War in 1991, under the protection of a U.S.- and British-patrolled no-fly-zone.

"For a long time we suffered too much for this freedom," said Aram Khalid, an artist on the march. "Now the Turks are going to intervene and we don't like it."

Marchers held up banners in Kurdish, Arabic and English. "Kurdistan -- cemetery of the Turkish army," read one. "USA has an obligation to protect the Kurd," read another, although the U.S. says it wants Turkey to join an anti-Saddam coalition and that it would have a role in Iraq.

The march, on a mild spring morning, was good natured and peaceful, but passions ran deep.

"For many years we've lived in peace and we don't want to live under the control of another country," said Karwan, a sculptor.
Affaf, a woman in her twenties marching the four km (2-1/2 mile) route with a friend, expressed the mood of many when she said: "We are angry, but in a peaceful way."

The sight of a microphone got the crowd into a good natured if chaotic frenzy . We came back with a piece for the World Service and the PM programme, so all in all a productive morning’s work.

Sunday, March 02, 2003

Our colleagues from Fox News, down on the 4th floor, have lost the plot. What's new, you may ask -- and it's a fair point. But this time they've REALLY lost the plot.

Much commotion at the crack of dawn after a large truck pulled up outside the hotel, piled high with sandbags. A team of Kurdish peasants spend the day climbing up and down the stairs with the bags on their backs.

It emerges that our Foxy Friends have spent $5000 to fortify their offices. Every window and door has been sandbagged. The 4th floor is now Fortress Fox and they're ready for anything. It looks like a giant First World War trench. I keep expecting Siegfried Sassoon to appear from behind a pile of hessian sacks.

Quite what they'll do if someone decides to drop a bomb on the roof rather than through the window remains unclear. We and the other journalists in the Arbil Tower simply look on with bemusement and the wide-boy hotel owner who subcontracted the job to the peasants rubs his hands and dreams of retiring to the Caribbean once the war is over.
Thanks for all the birthday e-mails, guys! I was overwhelmed. I've stuck them all up on the wall of my hotel room -- I'll take a picture tomorrow.
The Arbil Tower Hotel may not be the most salbrious venue for a birthday bash but under the circumstances it was just the job. In Charge Oggy even organised cakes and a candle. Photographic evidence below. One question, though. Why did the waiters prop up the candle in its holder with goat's cheese?

Blowing out the Candle
Group Photo
Popping My Cork

Saturday, March 01, 2003

I think I've been here too long because I'm actually stating to quite like this stuff. And remember, this record is not available in the shops.

Live at the Arbil Tower Hotel

Let me introduce my new best friends, Mohammed and Ahmed.
For my birthday they bought me....a Kalashnikov!
Thanks guys, it's just what I always wanted.....but are you sure I'll get it through customs?

Especially for Sue Summers, some pictures of her handsome husband, Craig. Ain't he gorgeous?!

Craig at Statue
Grocery Shopping