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AMONG THE KURDS
by Steve Mumford
 
Steve Mumford originally went to Baghdad in 2003 to work as a war artist, embedded with the U.S. military, both writing a journal and making drawings and watercolors of what he saw there. He has been back several times; the text that follows is a report from his current visit. The archive for Mumford’s original "Baghdad Journal" can be found here.

On a cool, sunny day in early April the helicopter I’m traveling in lands at Camp Marez in Mosul. Marez is a large base that houses the 3rd ACR, or Armored Cavalry Regiment, the oldest regiment in the army, constituted in 1846 for the Mexican-American War.

3rd Squadron, or "Thunder," is a battalion-sized unit devoted to Mosul itself. Major Gary Dangerfield, the public affairs officer, shows me the locations of the regiment’s many COPs (combat outposts), which have at least one platoon-sized element inside the city, backing up Iraqi army units. 3rd Squadron got here in late November, and concentrated on building the combat outposts in January and February.

Dangerfield tells me that the Army Corps of Engineers has been building a berm around the city known as Rhyad’s Line, named after the commander of all Iraqi forces in Mosul. It’s not tall, from 3 to 6 feet, but tall enough so helicopter crews can see if people are digging routes across it.

The next day I arrive at COP "Hotel," named for the towering luxury Hotel Mosul that sits on a bluff above us and is now empty and ransacked. This small combat outpost includes a villa overlooking the Tigris originally constructed by Saddam for one of his brothers, its architecture classic Saddam-style pastiche. The soldiers sleep here. It’s fronted by a small lawn, edged with spectacular rose bushes. To our left is a pear orchard leading down a bluff to a riverfront bungalow that’s now occupied by Col Dildar, who commands the reliable, mostly-Kurdish 7th Brigade. Beautiful as the river view is, it won’t last: 3rd ACR is planning blast walls for extra protection.

There’s another smaller building next to ours where Military Transition Team 372, "Team Shady," advises Col Dildar’s battalion. The MTTs were the army’s first attempt at a serious "Iraqization" of the war in 2005, embedding small teams of experienced U.S. soldiers to mentor and advise Iraqi units.

The platoons rotate in and out of the COP, enjoying between two and four days of its spartan conditions without showers or hot food.

These days the war in Mosul is one of bombs. A day doesn’t go by without at least one explosion so large that it can be heard wherever you are. Some are VBIDs (vehicle-borne explosive devices), usually driven by a suicide bomber and aimed at civilians or Iraqi checkpoints, but most are IEDs. These roadside bombs are never far from the soldiers’ minds, and any soldier can converse at length about the varieties of explosives, detonation and placement methods, likely effects to different vehicles and, of course, the army’s latest countermeasures.

On my second day seven explosions split the air, starting in the early morning and lasting until late at night. One or two are probably controlled explosions from Camp Marez. Many ambulances cross the nearby bridge, headed to the hospital. The Iraqi army and police units handle securing and cleaning up these tragedies unless extra assistance is needed.

In the early evening a big explosion goes off just beyond the hotel, followed by the insistent sounds of a firefight. Expecting a quick reaction force to be sent out, many of the soldiers suit up while the lieutenant listens for word from the command post. Everyone seems fired up, and one soldier shouts with little irony, "Let’s go out and pick us a fight!" However, a pair of helicopters has already checked out the scene and report no further action or enemy fighters visible. Apparently it was an Iraqi police station that was hit with a car bomb.

Another combat outpost, COP Inman, was destroyed by a huge car bomb on Easter, killing and wounding many Iraqis. However, in the week I’m at COP Hotel the platoons of Lighting Troop never leave the wire on patrols or quick reaction missions. From their perspective, the Iraqi army and police are handling the situation. "It’s their country," is a phrase you hear a lot from soldiers, with much the same fatalism as the Iraqis say "Insh’allah" -- God willing.

In the afternoon Military Transition Team commander Major Howell takes me to meet Lt. Col. Dildar (Jamil Mohammed Doesky). He’s got a bunch of armed guards outside his charming bungalow, which has a surprisingly dainty little lawn set, with chairs and a gaily painted swing. One often sees this affection for western-style kitsch with a Rococo flair among Iraqi men. Flowers, plastic or otherwise, are prized in home and office settings and the Kurdish troops next to us, who otherwise look very rough around the edges, dote on the rose garden, to the amusement of the U.S. soldiers.

Dildar is a personable fellow, his skin light and ruddy, with sandy hair and blue eyes (not uncommon among Iraqis) and the typical Iraqi heavy build. Regarding the loyalty of his Kurdish troops to the Iraqi republic, he says carefully, "No, we are not seeking our own country. Our neighbors would not tolerate it. We are content to be Iraqis for now."

I talk a great deal with the Iraqi army guys, who are all Kurds. They alternately interest, amuse and irritate me, the latter when they come ambling up like eager puppies every time they spot me drawing, and stand right up next to me to watch, as if I were doing it for their amusement. It’s particularly galling when they start to get bored and begin tapping their feet or sucking their teeth!

To a man they insist that Kurds are better, more industrious and more trustworthy than Arabs and declare that soon they’ll have their independence as a nation. In spite of what Col. Dildar says I have yet to meet the Kurd who sees his long-term future as being part of Iraq. This battalion did go to Baghdad as part of the surge, however, and performed well at enforcing some peace in the festering civil war last year. Both the Sunni and the Shia Arabs assumed that the Kurds would take or at least sympathize with their side, which gave them enough street cred to hammer out some workable deals.

I often do enjoy the Kurds’ company, and they always invite me to their kitchen for hot meals, usually a soupy chicken or meat dish with rice and bread. The U.S. army guys have only junk food and self-heating food packages called Heater Meals Plus All the Fixings, which are even worse than their military counterparts, the MREs (Meals Ready to Eat). Heater Meals have garish packaging featuring the logos of the various fixings included in the box (Prize, Stauffers, Squeezers, Taste Pleasers) and somehow manage to make MREs seem modest and even healthy by comparison. MREs are in plain brown packaging and feature the least slick of graphics: ever since 2003 I’ve prized the instructions on the heating unit that advise diners to place the element diagonally against a "rock or something." Much time is spent denigrating MREs in the army, but these soldiers agree that Heater Meals are worse.

Besides Heater Meals, at the combat outpost you can have cereal to your heart’s content, Gatorade, chocolate and strawberry-flavored milk, pop tarts, potato chips, muffins, soda and an energy drink called Rip It, apparently so powerful it only comes in eight ounce cans. One of its ingredients was widely thought to be liquid nicotine until an investigative soul looked it up on the internet and found it to be a derivative of niacin.

I can’t help but notice that some of the guys are a bit hefty, perhaps due also to being tankers and sitting for long spells. Or maybe the terrifying weight of everything associated with Abrams tanks tends to self-select for weighty guys.

My Lawrence of Arabia fantasies of going native come to an abrupt end after a few days of eating with the Kurds: I get a nasty bout of diarrhea and fever. I take to my cot for two nights and a day, unable to eat or drink much more than water. When I emerge, my Kurdish friends merrily offer me more food. "No, no, thanks! I’m not used to Iraqi food -- very ill," I say, miming sickness, which seems to offend them. Jihad, the preening would-be movie idol, explains the phenomenon to the others this way: "He scared! He scared of our food!"

Since few of the Iraqi Kurds here speak much English I’ve gotten very familiar with the varieties of pidgin dialog that take place between us several times a day, always including the question, "Mister! You: bebe? You have?"

I’ve gotten tired of their incredulity when I say "no," so I simply lie. At first I said, yes, indeed, I have two babies, two boys. Their names? Why, Itchy and Scratchy! Later in the day I preferred the symmetry of a boy and a girl. The following day I had a miraculous four! It doesn’t seem to matter, as they don’t really seem to be closely following my narrative as much as just checking that I’m a regular guy. Or at least what they consider a regular guy, a guy who likes to hold hands with other regular guys, kiss on the cheeks and frequently smell the rose bushes in the garden.

A couple of days later I join a mission to escort a damaged Abrams tank to Camp Marez with White Platoon. We leave the COP about midday, following the tank at a snail’s pace, so slow that I’m able to draw the scene with little difficulty from the rear passenger area, a narrow cab with three soft seats on either side. I’m riding in an MRAP, the new mine-resistant vehicle that looks like a cross between an ambulance and a tractor-trailer cab covered in heavy armored plates. The suspension is atrociously hard so that bumps at any brisk speed literally send you flying, especially over the rear axle. You quickly learn to fasten the seat harness.

We wind our way along the city’s roads and highways without incident, except having to stop briefly for some emergency adjustment to the tank tread, which had been damaged previously in an IED attack. The roadside bomb accomplished pathetically little, damaging but not severing the tread. Probably it was meant for a humvee.

At Marez the grease monkeys eagerly get to work, lifting the tank with the winch and crane from an 88, while propping some tank wheels underneath the chassis. The mechanics are merrily banging away at the wheels with crowbars and sledgehammers as we leave.

Along with us in this mission is Mack, a sturdy older Kurd who looks a bit like Gorbachev. He’d been after me to do a portrait of him and finally I relented. As usual it turned into a performance in front of my critical Kurdish peanut gallery. Mack appeared happy with it, but then asked, "Mister, better with color?"

"You pay me $500 and I’ll put color!"

"That much?" he said, obviously impressed.

"Look, it’s like photography, some are better in black-and-white," I explained, and he seemed satisfied.

One mission merges into another, and now we’re headed to the Iraqi police station downtown to pick up buses with which to transport prisoners from the prison outside the city to a large military airstrip.

Our convoy of MRAPs and humvees is joined by four Iraqi buses and four nervous bus drivers. Some confusion ensues in trying to explain the order of the convoy to the Iraqis, but eventually we’re on our way. The ride to the prison, situated some distance outside of town is uneventful. The isolated prison appears well fortified against a breakout. We hang out with a U.S. artillery platoon stationed there and have dinner -- or the soldiers do; I’m still nursing an upset stomach.

Late at night we pull up to the landing strip. Looming in the distance is a huge C17 transport plane. The buses line up at the edge of the tarmac and are joined by others. The prisoners are brought out. They’re wearing jumpsuits and their legs are shackled. Blindfolded, they hold onto one another’s shoulders as they shuffle out onto the tarmac. Only the differences in their cheap sandals and the shapes of their heads and bodies distinguish one man from another. They’re made to kneel in formations according to the color of their jumpsuits. Hundreds of bodies huddle together, blanketed by the warm night air churned by the roaring propellers of the giant plane.

The plane’s belly opens and a vast ramp lowers; prisoners similarly shackled and blindfolded file out as the great exchange begins.

I’m close among them with my drawing pad; I don’t have much time and I’m not allowed to take photographs so I get as much information as I can. MPs and soldiers on the runway approach to watch. "That’s really cool! Can I get a copy of that? We’re not allowed to take photos."

In my haste I spill ink on the runway but there’s no time to worry, just to draw.


STEVE MUMFORD is a New York artist.