Onward to Nineveh

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I spent last Saturday sitting on a hill in Kurdistan watching U.S. forces trying, unsuccessfully, to bomb the Iraqi army into oblivion. The Kurdish authorities had closed the road to the front-line village of Khazar, ostensibly for our safety but also perhaps because they had lost the village the night before. Reinforcements swept along the dusty road: we watched as noisy peshmerga, taciturn Special Forces, a top commander, the brother of the ruler of this part of Kurdistan, moved past in a convoy of Land Cruisers, waving regally. The next day we discovered that the Kurdish commander who waved courteously to us was badly injured by a U.S. air strike further along the front. Friendly fire.

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After the procession had passed, towards evening, something strange happened — as is often the case during wars, which is one of the attractions of this sort of journalism. Many journalists had left, and I was sitting on a small hill some distance from the remaining group, airing my feet and trying to do something about a faint but disturbing odor that had infiltrated my boots after a night spent sleeping in the mud a couple of weeks ago. A pickup drew up at the checkpoint and an official climbed up towards me to pray. When he was finished he came over and we shook hands — the Kurds are remarkably polite people.

I was tired of complaining to officials about being stopped here, and since my visitor seemed to understand some English, I asked about Nineveh — the ruins of the great Assyrian city, site of the world's first library, which lay a few miles down the road. I wondered whether it too was under fire from U.S. air power or Iraqi artillery — and I also wondered whether anybody cared.

Nineveh! He beamed with delight, "Assurbanipal," and we shook hands again as if King Assurbanipal (who died in 627 B.C.) was a close mutual friend. I never found out why he was so enthusiastic about the late king, as his knowledge of English did not allow for that breadth of discussion, but the mention of Nineveh had an immediate impact on my working day.

The Kurdish official indicated that I should meet him around the bend in the road, out of sight of the checkpoint. He drove around, picked me up and we barreled down the rutted road. The vigor with which he charged deep potholes make me fear for my neck and his axle, but the driving lasted only a short time. The Iraqis, apparently unimpressed by the U.S. bombing raids, opened up once again with mortars. My guide and I took cover behind and earthen bank. "Very good air strikes," he said with what I took to be irony.

When things quieted down, he continued down the road alone, and I hitched a ride back to my hillside with a truck. Nobody had noticed my absence.

When I took cover that afternoon, I thought for a moment that perhaps I should call the office. An idea like this would have occurred in previous wars, but this time is different, even for a technologically backward print journalist like myself. This is a war of Thurayas — the tiny satellite phones little bigger than a cell phone — and text messages. We correspondents are now joined, umbilical-like, to each other and the rest of the world. So we zoom up Kurdistan's mountain roads, messaging each other from our cars — no more stopping to assemble, swivel around and curse a satellite phone bigger than a laptop whose lid-cum-antenna have an irritating habit of dropping on your fingers.

Another new feature of the war in Kurdistan is that for a week or two journalists became designated targets. The risk of falling victim to friendly fire — or getting killed in a road accident because we are too cool to buckle our seatbelts — is a risk that comes with this sort of work. But for a while Ansar al-Islam, a fundamentalist group that carved out an armed camp near the Iranian border, pointed its suicide bombers in our direction and succeeded in killing one journalist. In theory Ansar al-Islam was routed ten days ago, though I have my doubts (they lost at most half their fighters, so I expect they will be back sooner or later). I spent a week trying to get into the head of this dour, brutal and often suicidal group of fighters. I did not succeed, although I did spend time looking over their bomb paraphernalia, was given my very own bomb timer, and wandered through a particularly sinister detention center.

But I did succeed in meeting the local Sufis. Unlike Wahhabis, who feel that the world has been going downhill since the seventh century, Sufis love life, poetry, cheerfully embrace other religions and distrust authority. Not surprisingly, they have a rough time when people like the Taliban, or Taliban clones like Ansar, are in power.

I made their acquaintance in the mountain village of Beyara, which is one of the main Ansar bases. Sufis from a nearby village had come to lend a hand clearing up the mosque, which has been rocketed by the U.S. on the grounds that it was an Ansar command post. None of the helpers looked a day under 70, and although they were picking and pulling at the mountain of rubble with vigor, they were not making much headway. They did not mind being interrupted.

"Sufis have been living here for 400 years," said one (I did not ask his name, as this was a chat, not an interview), "and we never killed a single person." When I asked how many Sufis lived in the area, the anarchist side emerged. "I don't know," my interlocutor answered, with a trace of exasperation. "We don't ask. We're not a political party, you know." I wandered off, but later dropped by again to see how they were doing. With the help of a passing translator I asked them what they thought of Ansar's approach to Islam. One of them stuck his bottom out, and his neighbor exploded with laughter.

Sensing another linguistic breakdown, I backtracked, checking how my question had been rendered into Kurdish, and whether the gesture had anything to do with the answer. In fact, the translation was right on, and the gesture was a succinct analysis of Ansar theology: They had approached Islam ass-forward. Ansar's philosophy, explained one Sufi, was one of "hate, hate, hate. No, no, no."