Gone Without a Trace

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Where did they go? Mam Rostam, the Kurdish Peshmerga commander on the Chamchamal front, was almost levitating with delight. A 17-mile stretch of the Iraqi front line near this town in northeast Iraq had, on Thursday afternoon, evaporated. Some 3,000 Iraqi troops left in the space of an hour, taking with them everything except some mortars and small arms, and pulling back 11 miles.

Nicely done, he admitted, though he seemed unsure just why they had done it. As journalists clambered through Iraqi bunkers and locals helped themselves to the more useful bits of the trench reinforcements, Mam Rostam headed back to headquarters. So did I, where I found him again, still ebullient, chain smoking and complaining of a sore throat, but happy to talk. The withdrawal, the Kurdish commander said, was likely to set off a panic when the next Iraqi line suddenly sees 3,000 of their own put it in reverse. They'll keep retreating, he predicted.

As we talked, couriers on motorbikes kept putting into the courtyard bearing fresh news. The Iraqis aren't even at their new front line. "There's no one there," said one scout. "They have pulled back several kilometers more, behind a big ditch," another said. "The line will be on the city limits by morning." The city is Kirkuk, just west of here, a major Kurdish city controlled by Iraq.

"What did the American Special Forces think about the events?" I asked him.

"American forces?" He avoided the question, as if he did not quite understand what I was talking about. An aide whispered something, and Mam Rostam said he was tired and a little hungry. He swept out of the courtyard with his entourage, and the journalists outside the compound dispersed. His mood change seemed suspicious, so I decided to spend the night in my car, parked within the compound. About 15 minutes later Mam Rostam swept back in followed by a gleaming Mercedes, a Land Cruiser and another luxury vehicle, each accompanied by 10 to 15 bodyguards. The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan's top brass—and the Kirkuk governor in exile—were assembling for a council of war. The yard was soon crammed with excited, jostling, heavily armed men talking loudly about the need to get to Kirkuk fast, while the Iraqis were off balance.

A group of silent men in uniforms without insignia weaved purposefully through the crowd. Their uniforms and weapons were not Kurdish, though the new headscarves they had wrapped around their faces were. My interpreter and I looked at each other and giggled. Americans. They were accompanying an older American in the same style of uniform who smiled vaguely as he went into the building. Metal doors clanged shut behind him. The rest of the visitor's security detail did not try to hide their identity. Half a dozen Special Forces men drove pickups into the yard, parking next to me. All wore combat gear, one a night-vision device on his helmet. They settled into the darkest corner of the courtyard and spoke quietly on satphones, trying to maintain a low profile.

"Don't go outside," their commander appealed to a couple of them who seemed ready to wander off. My own attempt at low-profile maintenance foundered soon after. Our four-wheel-drive with "TV" written on the roof and hood didn't help. One of the Americans swore quietly, and I was invited to leave. I parked across the road.

The Special Forces obviously wanted a fast read of what happened. They may also have wanted to cool the Peshmerga ardor. Toward the end of the meeting, some of the Peshmerga military cadre were doing precisely that—circulating in the yard hugging the most passionate fighters, whispering orders and telling jokes. Later, when most of the cars (but not the Special Forces) had left, I asked to see Mam Rostam. "Come back tomorrow," I was told. "He seems to have lost his voice."