As the first cruise missiles plunged into Baghdad on Thursday morning the conscripts of the 8th Division of the Iraqi army's 1st Corps hunkered down in their gunpits. During the bombardment hitting far to the south the Iraqis sat tight while below them the Kurdish villagers of Shorish waited hopefully for American bombs to rain down. But they did not come.
Dawn had already broken on an overcast day on the northern front. Throughout the attack the troops showed no signs of movement. It wasn't until mid-morning, after Saddam's I'm-still-here television address, that his soldiers appeared above ground. Soon dozens of men were walking in ant-like in single files along the ridge carrying packages that could not be made out through binoculars. A large military truck came over the rise, stopping at the major bunker before passing along between a number of smaller others, stopping at points and triggering great commotion. "This is very, very unusual," said Kurdish peshmerga (meaning "those who face death") Abdullah Sajit, who could not bear to turn his binoculars away for a moment.
About 40 Kurdish intelligence and security officials watches from a cinderblock house in Shorish no more than a quarter mile from the nearest Iraqi bunker. "We're waiting for any soldiers to come down and surrender," said one. Deserters had successfully made for this spot countless times in recent months, but none did so today. After a little more than an hour the welcoming committee left, leaving a handful of soldiers behind to patrol.
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At 10:30 a.m. a dozen Iraqi soldiers came halfway down the hill, congregating beside a small bunker. For ten minutes they met and seemed to huddle together. "Look, they're dancing," exclaimed one of the young peshmerga. The Iraqis had formed a small, tight circle and were kicking their legs and bouncing about. Laughter passed from one peshmerga to another until the lower voice of a veteran fighter said, "They're not dancing". Moments later the flash of a mortar firing came from the midst of the Iraqis. The peshmerga scrambled for cover. Seconds later the round detonated nearby.
A heavy machinegun, a 12.7mm DSHK chattered short bursts. Then another flash from the freshly-placed mortar pit and a second round came soaring in. This time it detonated above the ground in a filthy black cloud. Villagers and onlookers scattered and ran to their homes.
Around 11 a.m., just over a small rise out of sight from Shorish, another DSHK let loose in long streams for almost a minute. A young Iraqi conscript had attempted to desert and was cut down by his own men. It was the third deserter killed this way since Monday after months of almost free passage for fleeing soldiers. "The ones the other day were torn up and the Iraqis took one of their bodies away in a blanket. This one will not be different," said Sajit.
By lunchtime the front was returning to normal. On the Kuridsh front the
Iraqi's first reactions to the U.S. attack was over.
"There are no guarantees in Chamchamal"
In the frontline town of Chamchamal few families remain. This thriving border crossing between the Kurds' autonomous zone and Saddam's Iraq is now hauntingly still. Streets two days ago choked with taxis and crowded with stalls are empty. Shutters have closed on entire strips of shops like steel eyelids. The only kebab shop still operating in this community of 45,000 ran out of meat by 11 a.m. Six or seven grocers stood by their wooden carts half-heartedly selling leftover potatoes, tomatoes and some onions. Before the war there were hundreds of such men plying fresh produce.
Across the road the Noori family's house is all but empty. Crowded into a small room only seven members are left of an extended clan of more than twenty. Four men were chosen to stay behind to protect the building and watch over the family's elderly blind matriarch, too ill to move. The doors and windows are covered with plastic taped to the frames. A small yellow bird, like a finch, known locally as a "taral hob" or the bird of love, is kept in a cage just outside. "When it dies we know we might too," says one of the men, Ali Rauf Noori. "There are no guarantees here in Chamchamal, that's why everyone has evacuated." These men sent their wives and children away, but still they don't feel their loved ones will be safe. "Everywhere is like Chamchamal, Saddam could attack us wherever he likes," says brother Latif Rauf Noori.
The Noori family, like 30 per cent of those in Chamchamal, are from Kirkuk. They were driven out by Saddam's forces during an anti-Kurd pogrom, called the Anfal, in 1998 and 1999. The younger brothers would like nothing more than to push through the Iraqi lines encircling the city once they collapse and join what is expected to be a civilian uprising. "We want to fight with our lives," says Ali.
Older brother Latif was an Iraqi army conscript sent to Kuwait in 1990. He,
with the rest of his battalion, surrendered to U.S. forces at the first
opportunity. "Our senior officer told us before the war not to fight and to
surrender, and after sixteen hours of the war that's exactly what we did," he
says, insisting the conscripts overlooking his town would be looking to do the
same thing this time. He worries though that hardline intelligence and secret
police officers have been put into the units to ensure the men stay and try to
weather the U.S. onslaught. "Once it starts the first fight will be behind the
lines to see who wins the argument to surrender or not," he says.
War Panic and Hope
War panic really began in Erbil on Monday. That was when people started to close their shops, buy supplies and head to the hills. On Monday about 75 percent of shops were open; by Wednesday less than half were still doing business. People were buying gas and jerrycans, and plastic sheeting for windows in case of a chemical weapons attack. Gas went from 50 cents a gallon to $2, plastic sheeting from 25 cents a meter to 65 cents.
One shopkeeper, Mohammed Ibrahim, hired four laborers to build a brick wall around his photo developing shop for fear of looters taking his expensive equipment during the war. "I took some things home but some of it I had to leave," he said. "All these shops are closed and empty," he said, pointing down the street and shops that were indeed closed and empty. "We wish Saddam Hussein's heart would soften and he would go into exile instead of fighting with America. I'm not as worried about myself as much as about the people in Baghdad."
The roads out of Erbil to the north and west were filled with cars jammed to the gills, pickups loaded high. The family of Michael Ibrahim was stuffed into an Opel Vectra (11 people) and a beat up Nissan pickup (five in front, five small children perched on top of a mountain of the family's possessions tied down with yellow nylon rope in the back). A baby cradle was tied to the top of the truck. They were leaving Erbil and heading to the Duhok area. "We're afraid of [the Iraqis] using chemical weapons," he said. They were leaving only his brother behind, to protect the house, and he would come if there was emergency. He was confident, though, and predicted his family's flight would be "just one week."
In Kalak, a village right on the front line of the Kurdish and Iraqi troops, almost all the women and children had already left for safer ground. The men were worried; they couldn't buy plastic for their windows because it got too expensive, and they didn't have tents. "No one is coming to help us, to give us tents, to provide us food," said Karim Hussein. Shepherd Abdul Rahman Yuni dismissed theories that the Iraqis were ready to give up. "They will fight. America creates these rumors that they will run away, but they will fight."
By Wednesday night Kalak was nearly empty. The atmosphere in Erbil was different Thursday morning, somehow lighter. People were happy the war had started, though many of them were worried about people in Baghdad. "Nothing will happen to Erbil," said Ahmed Ali. "We're too far from Baghdad for them to attack us."
Many were suspicious about the Saddam that was on TV Thursday morning. "I don't think it was really him," said Dana Dilshad, who was running a juice shop. "When he speaks he talks out of one side of his mouth, but the man who spoke on TV moved his lips normally." Another guy, Kamel Ahmed, said "I'm suspicious. He's wearing glasses and his complexion is too light. There are three or four Saddam Husseins in Baghdad. There's also a copy of Uday, but he fled because he was afraid."