An American special forces soldier appeared on a ridge and shouted down into the crowd of victorious Kurdish fighters and a few journalists: "Who is from the BBC? You've got a truck in the middle of the road, and we're trying to move wounded out of the way." A young Kurdish fighter was bleeding from the legs, wounded by a land mine or shrapnel. It was late Friday afternoon, and after several days of aerial bombardment and just 12 hours of fighting, thousands of Kurdish peshmerga and about 100 U.S. special forces troops had routed Ansar al-Islam, the extremist Islamic group that's been linked by the United States to al-Qaida, from its stronghold in the mountain hamlet of Beyara.
The commander in chief of the operation, Kosrat Rasoul Ali, showed up in his Land Cruiser cavalcade to inspect the liberated town. "Kak Kosrat," as he is known, is an old guerrilla and politician. He can hardly move anymore, thanks to a bullet lodged in his neck. One of his eyes seems to be glass. He was a tough and ruthless commander, but he's also a populist, and the peshmerga love him for his heroism. He complained to one of his commanders that the peshmerga were looting. He ordered his men to take every hill and mountaintop in view before dark descended.
Some peshmerga said they didn't dare enter the nearby village of Tawella, fearing the Ansars might infiltrate the houses at night. But one of Kak Kosrat's commanders said confidently, "We have an agreement with them. No Ansar should be sheltered in the houses; otherwise there'll be no choice but to call in American jets to bomb every house."
Ansar papers were scattered about the war-ravaged village among apples, burnt tea kettles, and lost shoes. One read: "This paper in your hand is a letter by which a Muslim can distinguish between his own religion and the great infidelity known as secularism in all its shapes. This letter is to cause the Muslim to avoid secularism and secularists and regard them as infidels, fight them, hate them, and do jihad against them no matter who they are: educated or uneducated, politician or leader, journalist or singer, actor or artist, theorist or government lawyer. ..."
Other letters encouraged the immigrant jihadis in Ansar's ranks. Slips of paper read, "The reward for any migrant depends on the distance they have migrated." Presumably these were encouragements to the more than 100 Muslims from Syria, Iran, Chechnya, Afghanistan, and Algeria who have taken up arms for Ansar in this strict Islamic enclave.
We walked down the road toward the mosque—destroyed by an American cruise missile. Some fighters ushered us down into a copse of thin trees where a young man lay on his back, having obviously died on the run. His arms were bent, frozen out in front of him in a gesture of eternal surrender. Some said he was a prisoner of Ansar. Another said: "No, look at his beard and his trousers. He's Ansar." Whoever he was, he was shot dead in the chest at close range as he tried to give up and save his life. Farther down the brook lay another dead man, this one a bit of a dandy. He lay on his back, also shot, but with his legs crossed as if in a moment of leisurely thought, and with his feet swathed in shiny, ruby-red lacquered loafers. The purple light of the setting sun flushed the snowy mountains, and mortar fire began to echo in the valleys behind the ridges as the peshmerga pressed on after the Ansar fighters into the Valley of the Caves bordering Iran.
Two days later, I met one of the Ansar boys. "You'll call this the story of the Lucky Boy," said the young man in his khaki jumpsuit and black cummerbund. We found him standing on the ramparts of an outpost on the outskirts of Halabja, not far from the Iranian border. He had been with Ansar but now belonged to Komal, an Islamic political group that had friendly relations with Ansar but was moderate enough to be part of the coalition Kurdish regional government. He discovered his lucky star at 12:33 a.m., March 21, when an American cruise missile crashed into the political headquarters of Komal in the town of Khormal. The American bombing killed approximately 60 members of Komal, but he was thrown out of the building, unconscious. After gathering his wits, he scrambled up the mountain gorge behind Khormal and slept in the rain for two days.
The American strikes were controversial. Komal had thought itself safe from American wrath. Kurdish leaders with the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan claim they warned Komal to differentiate itself more from Ansar or suffer the consequences.
Lucky (I use this name because he asked me not to use his real one) told me that he had been a translator for an Afghan weapons trainer whose alias was Ali Wali. They trained mostly in sabotage—planting land mines, making car bombs that can explode when the engine's turned on. His unit was called the "Salahuddin katibe," and it had 30 fighters, including Afghans, Arabs, Iranians, and Kurds. He learned to make suicide-belt bombs designed to detonate effortlessly in case the bomber hesitated—simple acts like taking off a shoe or opening a jacket could set off the explosion, he said.
And of course he knew well the young man who blew himself up on Saturday, March 22, at the crossroads checkpoint outside the village of Khormal, killing an Australian journalist, four Kurds, and injuring dozens of other Kurdish peshmerga and civilians. The bomber's name was Abu Hur ("father of the virgins"—the "huris" are the virgins that young men are promised they'll encounter if they enter paradise as martyrs). Abu Hur's father, a rich man in Baghdad, had sent money to get his son to come home. The boy spent it instead on TNT and other supplies for Ansar. Abu Hur's aim, Lucky told me, was to blow up as many PUK peshmerga as possible. "He didn't know journalists were there, but accidentally they were, and the meat was fatter," he said, evidently pleased with his joke. When his cousin Ayub, who brought me to meet Lucky, told him that he and I were both near the car when Abu Hur exploded himself, the young Ansari was unfazed—just a few more deaths on the way to establishing the emirate. "Our first plan," he said, "was to occupy Halabja, then Sulaymaniyah, and then Baghdad. We had a strong will, but the American planes spoiled everything."
I asked him if the moderate Komal is any different from Ansar. "After the American missile attacks, I assure you the number of fundamentalists in Komal increased from anger." I asked him how he knew this, and he said: "Because I'm one of them. I very much would like to fight the Americans. I hate them, but in this case I can't. They have planes. If they have the same weapons I have, I would fight them. I will never give up the Islamists. If Komal puts down its weapons, I'll go to Afghanistan." He wasn't convinced, though, that Ansar had been routed. He said for the last eight months, he'd been preparing the caves up on the mountain ridges for just such an attack by the Americans. They'd cleaned them, reinforced them with sandbags and cement, and stored five months worth of food there.
The Americans, however, seem pretty convinced that they've eliminated most of the Ansar problem. "We have bombed every known and suspected location. The peshmerga went out to bomb cave entrances. As we find 'em, we're bombing them," said one American officer.
A few days after the Ansaris were out of Beyara, I stopped by the Halabja headquarters where the American special forces were camped out. Usually they don't like to talk, but perhaps given the swift success of the battle here compared to the U.S. difficulties in the south, someone may have decided it was good public relations.
With Turkey out of the picture, the American special forces had to fly from Jordan and over southern Iraq, between Baghdad and Tikrit, to reach the airport in northern Iraq. Forty-five minutes into the flight, said one special forces soldier I spoke to, the C-130 transport plane was "painted" by enemy radar, and the plane swung into evasive maneuvers. "Then suddenly everything went to hell. We were taking hits with anti-aircraft fire. One aircraft had an engine shot out," he said. "I looked over at my buddy and heard a 'tink tink tink' under the belly and a 'huh huh huh.' The shrapnel was going into the aircraft itself." Once on the ground, the team of about 100 special forces soldiers was welcomed and fed by the peshmerga.
At around 5 a.m. on Friday, March 28, they headed out to a peshmerga vantage point called Girda Drozna (Liar's Hill), near Halabja. Their job was to take three villages, including Beyara, from the Ansar. They set off on foot: 10,000 peshmerga, the special forces divided among them. They formed five prongs to squeeze out the Ansar al-Islam fighters in a pincer maneuver.
I started talking to a special forces soldier I had met in Beyara. He described the assault on Ansar in fighter's lingo. He was the son of missionaries from Montana and grew up in Guatemala and the Philippines. He has been with this special forces team since 1995, operating in Bosnia and later in Kosovo. This is what he saw during the Ansar fight: "In the first 40 minutes, we lost our first three guys [Kurds], who stepped on a land mine. We started taking direct fire. We dropped. The Kurds were so brave. They don't stop. Immediately after that, we engaged four AI [Ansar al-Islam] that tried to escape down the valley. We lit 'em up and took care of them." The real problem was not enemy troops but mines and trip wires. The Americans let the peshmerga guide them through the terrain. They hit their first Ansar village, but it had been deserted after heavy American bombardment. They rested for a few minutes.
"We were off again going east, and suddenly we started taking effective fire." What's that mean? "I actually felt the wind as the bullets were going by and rocks smashing onto my cheeks from the wall the bullets were hittin'," he said. "Me and my buddy took cover. We had a mortar round land 14 meters away." It was his first taste of real battle adrenaline. They moved on and watched about 40 Ansar fighters on a ridge about 2 kilometers away. "I started calling for mortar fires and CAS"—close air support—"but because there were so many battles going on the same time, we got stuck in priority," he said. In the meantime, the Ansar fighters rushed down the ridge "to try and flank us" but "we took them out." His commander was getting antsy. Then came the call that a pair of 2,000-pound bombs were dropping in one minute. One was a dud. The other hit below the ridge. The Ansar fighters retreated to the caves of Shiram mountain and into Iran. He and his team moved up the road dodging fire and finally made it into Beyara.
"We prepared for this mission for a year," he said, which was something of a surprising revelation. "We did a lot of training. We expected 72 hours of battle, and 12 hours later I was standing in Beyara, which shows you how brave these peshmerga were. They were warriors. Here we are, big bad American soldiers with 50 pounds of gear. The Kurds had a couple magazines and an AK." They barely kept up with the Kurds and were astonished at their courage. "When they started, it was a like a bomb took off. They just went right through. We would have stopped and put in for some CAS and done it in stages."
He was stunned when he saw one wounded soldier with a hole in his shoulder get patched up with cotton balls and Scotch tape and rush back off to the front line. "I was about to call in for a medic; the guy puts on his shirt again and takes off for the front."
We were sitting in the sun. He was taking a rest, gearing up for whatever was next. The special forces may all be moving toward the Kirkuk front line. But for now he looked up at the mountains and said, "My goal is I'll be retired up in Montana on a ranch, and I'd die to have some of this country in my ranch."
I asked one of his teammates how he felt about being here, fighting this small pocket of Ansar guys. "This is great," he said. "I'm loving it. It feels like we're contributing, that we're giving something back. I grew up in New Jersey with the New York skyline in my school window. Three days ago we were fighting them, and the next morning we were eating their food." You ate their food, I asked? "Oh yeah, we ate every last bit of it. We drank their tea, ate their rice. The peshmerga don't have much of a supply train so they get 'battlefield recovery.' It was a beautiful day like today on the roof, and we were eatin' rice and eggplant, and it was a beautiful feeling."