An invisible frontier cuts across the North of Iraq for hundreds of miles, from Syria in the west to Iran in the east. This border doesn’t conform to legal, ethnic or tribal boundaries; it ignores mountains, rivers and other natural barriers; it is not even a straight line, like the 36th parallel. The United States likes straight lines, but down on the ground, there aren’t any. The Kurds govern themselves north, not of the 36th parallel, but of the zigzag that sweeps down to take in Kurdish villages far to the south of American air protection, places like Kifri and Kalar. Yet other Kurdish population centres, notably Khanaqin and Kirkuk, are situated south of the frontier, because the Iraqi Army either held or reconquered them during the failed Kurdish uprising in 1991. The rambling area of the Kurdish Autonomous Region is itself divided between the Kurdistan Democratic Party’s administration in the north-west and that of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan in the south-east. Within the Region, despite the 1993-96 civil war between the KDP and PUK, which brought in both the Turkish and Iraqi Armies, the Kurds govern themselves with an admirable degree of fairness and efficiency.

Until now communications between the Kurdish-governed North and the Baathist South have been maintained, although with frequent interruptions, along the roads that once held Iraq together. Cars and old Toyota coaster buses carry passengers and goods between Kurdish Erbil and Iraqi Mosul, Kurdish Suleimania and Iraqi Kirkuk, Kurdish Kifri and Saddam Hussein’s capital. Traffic leaving Iraqi Government areas has increased since it became clear to all but the dead that the United States intend to bomb everything south of the line.

The roads boast checkpoints at which Kurdish and Iraqi soldiers, usually no more than a mile apart, can watch one another while they await the war. Among the beneficiaries of this arrangement have been smugglers, Kurdish and Arab, who trade in cigarettes, alcohol, cash, oil (both kinds), vegetables, meat, computers and most of the other products that fill the markets of cities in both the Saddam-ruled and Kurdish-ruled parts of the country. Some of these smugglers risk minefields to carry goods on their backs or by donkey. Others bribe Iraqi soldiers to allow them to bring contraband or people by car. Recently, Iraqi soldiers, as if to confirm the official American view of their leader’s brutality, punished a woman who attempted to smuggle a can of petrol to Chemchemal by pouring the petrol on her hands and feet and setting it alight. She is still in the emergency hospital in Suleimania.

In the deep south of the country, there is no international protection for Iraq’s Shiite Muslim majority. They remain under Saddam’s rule, and the only roadblocks in their region are those of Iraq’s Army and Security Services. The Kurds have been luckier. It was an act of cruelty on Turkey’s part that led to the creation of a Kurdish safe haven in 1991 and thus to the checkpoints beyond which Saddam Hussein’s Army does not venture. The Turkish military, whose abuse of Kurds is comparable only to Baghdad’s, refused them entry when they fled Saddam’s wrath after what they call their intifada. The Shiites were luckier at the end of the uprising, or so it seemed at the time. Iran let the Shiites in and gave them houses and food: Turkey, America’s ally, allowed the Kurds to die in the mountains of cold, disease and hunger rather than admit them in accordance with international law. The Kurds’ deal looked far worse, until television pictures of their plight embarrassed the Bush Administration. Bush had already been seen to betray them: on 15 February 1991 he called for an uprising; on 23 March he decided to allow Iraq to deploy the helicopter gunships that suppressed them and restored Baathist power to both North and South. Letting Turkey starve them to death was a betrayal too far. Hence the no-fly zone that the Kurds expanded down to today’s checkpoints. These are the most likely sites of confrontation in the war for the North that may have begun by the time these words are published. When battle begins, the checkpoints will disappear as quickly as the diplomatic checkpoints disappeared on Bush Junior’s relentless march to Baghdad.

Most of the several hundred journalists prowling Northern Iraq have familiarised themselves with these internal border posts over the last few weeks. They all plan to pass through them on their way to territory evacuated by a collapsing Iraqi Army. Some hope to witness the fall, or liberation, of Kirkuk. Others will go to Mosul, another oil centre that the Americans and the Turks do not want to fall into Kurdish hands. The Kurds are less likely to bother with Mosul, which even they admit does not have a Kurdish majority. The Kurds of both main factions, as well as of smaller tribal and political groups, intend to take advantage of the Iraqi Army’s defeat to expand Kurdish territory. Their leaders deny it. Their military commanders issue similar pro forma denials, promising to obey American orders not to enter Kirkuk. But the people tell a different story. Thousands of Kurds have been expelled from Kirkuk and its environs by the Iraqi Army to make way for Arab settlers – an Arab version of Zionism complete with government subsidies for settlement housing. The Kurds want their houses back. No Kurdish commander will be able to stop them, and they will resist America if it tries to do so. That would give the journalists here a story to tell.

So far, covering the war has not been easy with no war going on. I’ve been here since 1 February, and some of my colleagues, such as Chris Chivers of the New York Times, came in September last year. Since then, the United States has pushed its deadline back further and further. The long interval, or phoney war, has left the media to do endless feature stories, human interest stories, political stories, stories about women and the environment and folklore, speculative stories about what might happen during the war. Now, after George Bush’s address to the universe that he governs (dubbed into Arabic for his Middle Eastern domains), we may, at last, have a story. Or stories.

If the journalists who came here for a war have been disappointed thus far, they may find more wars than they expected. On the main stage is the unequal struggle between the might of America and the remnants of Iraq’s obsolete Army. But the dressers are preparing other sets for the lesser acts in this absurdist vaudeville. The Turks, who left here under duress in 1917, may choose to do battle with their old nemesis, the Turkish Kurds of the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK). The PKK fled the free-fire zones of south-east Turkey for the tranquil hills of Iraqi Kurdistan and may flee again. Iraqi Kurdish secularists with the help of US Army Special Forces (the Green Berets) may annihilate the Muslim fanatics of Ansar al-Islam. Iran may require its Iraqi clients in the Shiite Muslim Badr Brigade to destroy the Mujahideen-e-Khalq. The Mujahideen are the mullahs’ old enemies from revolutionary days, who fled to Iraq and became Saddam’s accomplices in war crimes. The Badr Brigade, a few thousand strong, are camped far from their home ground in the Shiite South, but do pretty much what Iran asks.

These, believe me, are only a few of the armed factions in Iraq. The rest are the tribes, some of whom take money from Saddam and/or the CIA and/or Saudi Arabia and/or Iran, and lesser political groupings with the weapons and men to stake a claim in or make trouble for America’s new Iraq. The American Army may end up as traffic cop for a country in which it has removed all the red lights. For the gung-ho war reporters, it will have been worth the wait.

Daily press pilgrimages to Kurdish checkpoints at Chemchemal, Kifri, Kalar and Taqtaq seek observation posts from which to witness the bombardment of Kirkuk’s defences. Some of the journalists are renting houses along the front, even as their owners seek refuge in villages to avoid becoming victims of Iraqi artillery or America’s collateral damage. A few have hired armed men for protection, not that anything can protect them from American friendly fire. (CNN and Rupert Murdoch’s Fox Television seem to travel with private armies.) The press pack and television crews plan to enter Kirkuk, if its oil wells are not alight and spewing poisonous smoke, with the Kurds and ahead of the Americans. One PUK commander has, like Casanova, made promises to take so many journalists into Kirkuk that he may find it safer to go on his own.

After Kirkuk and Mosul fall, the road to Baghdad will open. Press convoys of fixers, drivers, translators, guards et al will sail south towards the liberation of Baghdad. Only American checkpoints can stop them. US forces coming from Kuwait via Basra may yet beat the Northern press corps to the city by the Tigris, but it should be a close run race. Since the evacuation from Baghdad of most of its foreign journalists, the Northern alliance of networks and newspapers are about the only independent media presence here. The others are embedded with US Forces and subject to the restrictions that implies. (Phillip Knightley should now prepare a new edition of The First Casualty. We’re going to need it.)

The journalists and the American Army are not the only runners racing to the Baghdad finishing line. Other contestants are Ahmed Chalabi’s Iraqi National Congress, some of its constituent members in the anti-Saddam opposition, dissident Iraqi Army officers, angry Shiite Muslims from the slums next to Baghdad, Muslim fundamentalists, tribal chiefs and freelance warlords. Each will raise its flag in the new Iraq. None wants to await the capricious favour of the American occupiers. The Americans will be free to designate thugs from the old regime, if they want. Donald Rumsfeld himself may still be on nodding terms with some of them from his early 1980s courtesy calls on Saddam’s entourage. The US may ask the soon-to-be ex-Baathists to share power with the innocent democrats who have thus far put their faith in America to deliver them to a free market nirvana. Between those who learned their craft at Saddam’s table and the democrats who are studying the American Bill of Rights, I have no doubt who will win.

Suleimania, 19 March

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