Erbil, Kurdistan, Iraq - Five years ago tonight I was desperately running around Erbil, de facto capital of the Kurdish autonomous region, looking for a translator. The war was due to start any minute and I had yet to find someone competent enough to do the job for me. My assignment was to follow the overthrow of Saddam through the eyes of someone who had suffered under the dictator for the public radio program Inside Out. That night I met Ahmad Shawkat who became my translator, then the subject of my documentary and ultimately my guide into the heart of Iraq. Ahmad, a kurdish native of Mosul, was living in internal exile in Erbil. There was no question I had for which he did not have a detailed and plausible answer.
Then he was murdered. Having survived a quarter of a century of Saddam's totalitarian regime and several visits to his torture chambers he started a weekly newspaper of political and cultural ideas in the new era and got gunned down for his trouble.
With his death I lost my source of answers to the questions that have piled up over the last few years. While in Erbil recently to do some anniversary reporting I found myself running through some of the questions that have come up over the last five years that I would have loved to ask him. Instead I ask them here, any answers gratefully received.
1. Everyone acknowledges that the situation in Iraq got completely out of control in the first week of April 2004 when, just as U.S. forces were getting ready to crack down on Moqtada al-Sadr, four Blackwater contractors were murdered in broad daylight in the center of Fallujah, their corpses mutilated and hung from a bridge. The Marines were sent in to the town and flattened it, but their tactical victory ended up being a strategic one for the insurgents because it forced them into other parts of the country and created images that became recruiting posters.
My question: what the hell were the Blackwater guys doing in Fallujah in the first place? And, as they are private contractors, why was it the Marines' job to avenge their deaths by destroying a city?
2. In the summer of 2006 Israel went to war with Hizbollah in southern Lebanon. The Bush administration used the war to blame Iran and Syria for arming Hizbollah. But how did all those Iranian missiles and other forms of mullah-made ordnance, some of it of a quite recent vintage get to Syria to be shipped on to southern Lebanon? A look at the map shows there is a rather large country called Iraq between the two.
My question: If we assume that the arms shipments weren't flown over Iraq -- because the U.S. Air Force would shoot down any Iranian plane in Iraqi air space -- does this mean that throughout the U.S. occupation large quantities of arms to be used against Israel were shipped by road from Iran to Syria under the noses of American troops?
3. The day Saddam's regime collapsed in Mosul, I returned with Ahmad Shawkat to his home town. He had been telling me for weeks how wonderful a place it was and promised to take me to a restaurant on the banks of the Tigris and have a fish lunch. Instead, we got caught up in a gun fight in Diwassa Square, the heart of downtown. The National Bank was being looted and Arabs and Kurds were shooting it out. Precisely a year later I went to the same place with my late friend's daughter, herself a journalist, to reminisce about that day. While we were talking, she pointed at a young man about ten feet away being rousted by the police. This youth suddenly reached into his pocket took out a grenade and threw it at the cops, the ensuing explosion followed by indiscriminate shooting could have been the end of us. We were lucky to escape unharmed. On this current trip when I saw my friend's daughter in Erbil I asked about going to Mosul. She told me that now no American civilian can walk in the streets of that city at all. This time there would be no near misses, death was certain.
My question: when will it be possible again for an American to walk through the streets of Mosul (or indeed any city in Iraq)? Will I live long enough to eat a fish lunch in memory of my friend on the banks of the Tigris?
Michael Goldfarb's radio documentary on Kurdistan today will air on the BBC World Service starting next Tuesday.