Abrupt Amnesty at Iraqi Prisons

John F. Burns | New York Times | October 25, 2002

No event in years has shaken Iraq like the amnesty with which President Saddam Hussein emptied Iraq’s jails on Sunday. Within minutes of the broadcast at noon, a crowd began gathering outside Abu Ghraib prison, 20 miles west of Baghdad, the grimmest in a gulag that has incarcerated tens of thousands of political prisoners. Soon, the gates were forced open and the mob stormed the cellblocks, liberating as many as 10,000 captives.

The freed men emerged squinting into the bright sunlight, pallid, dazed and weeping, before shouldering bedrolls and sacks of belongings and racing for the gates.

For many, though, it was a day of abysmal grief. Aging women in black wandered across the complex until darkness fell, searching for relatives who had disappeared into the prisons years ago, leaving no trace. Many were probably long since dead, victims of secret executions that have been chronicled in Western human rights reports. Hopes for a miracle flared, then died, as the missing fathers and brothers and sons failed to answer the names shouted into the gathering gloom.

At one cellblock, a crowd took iron bars and steel tubes to batter through the walls. Some guards helped; others stood their ground, beating the prisoners back. In the mad confusion, some prisoners were trampled, suffocating at the moment when liberty was within grasp. The wails of mothers and daughters could be heard into the night. Some dead prisoners left the prison on the shoulders of their loved ones; others remained where they fell.

Many prisoners thanked President Bush for their liberty, seeing it as the government’s response to Mr. Bush’s description of Mr. Hussein as a murdering tyrant. But the government described it as a gesture born of the “profound love” toward the 22 million Iraqis. “It is the act of a father forgiving his children,” one prison official said. What nobody could know was where the day’s turmoil would lead, but few who saw it believed that Mr. Hussein’s stifling autocracy would be the same again.

Copyright 2002 New York Times Company

Kurds, Secure in North Iraq, Are Cool to US Offensive

John F. Burns | New York Times | July 8, 2002

ERBIL, Iraq, July 6 ? As the United States considers ways of accomplishing President Bush’s call for an end to Saddam Hussein’s rule in Iraq, Washington’s goal of a “regime change” in Baghdad is running into strong reservations from Iraqi Kurdish leaders who would be crucial allies in any military campaign.

These leaders, interviewed in their strongholds in northern Iraq in the last week, say flatly that they would be reluctant to join American military operations that put Kurds at risk of an onslaught by Iraqi troops of the kind they suffered after the Persian Gulf war in 1991. A Kurdish uprising then that was encouraged by the first President Bush was brutally suppressed by Mr. Hussein, and American forces failed to intervene as thousands of Kurds were killed.

No group has suffered more from Mr. Hussein’s 23-year-old rule than the Kurds, who lost tens of thousands of lives to Iraqi offensives in the 1980’s and 90’s. The most brutal attacks, cited by the present President Bush recently as part of the justification for toppling the Iraqi ruler, involved Iraqi use of poison gas at Halabja and dozens of other towns and villages in the northern Kurdish districts during the eight-year Iran-Iraq war that ended in 1988.

Still, no Iraqis have benefited more from Western support in the last decade than the Kurds. Protected by a “safe haven” declared by the United Nations and a “no-flight zone” patrolled by American and British warplanes, the Kurds, with barely 40,000 troops and only light weapons, have built a 17,000-square-mile mini-state that arcs across a 500-mile stretch of Iraqi territory bordering Syria, Turkey and Iran.

The threat of Western airstrikes has kept Iraqi armored battalions immobilized to the south, often within artillery range of Kurdish strongholds like Erbil, a sprawling city of 750,000 people 250 miles north of Baghdad. In this “liberated area” of soaring mountains, fertile foothills and semi-desert, the Kurds have built a society with freedoms denied to the rest of Iraq’s population.

The Kurdish-controlled area has opposition parties and newspapers, satellite television and international telephone calls, and an absence of the repressive apparatus that has prompted international human rights organizations to brand Mr. Hussein’s Iraq a terror state.

The drawback is that all this exists outside international law, and could be made permanent only by a new government in Baghdad that embraced freedoms for all of Iraq.

But while an American-led military campaign to topple Mr. Hussein holds out the possibility of making their freedoms more secure, the Kurdish leaders, backed by almost every Kurd who discussed the issue, said Washington would be asking them to put all they have gained from their decade of autonomy at risk of a fresh Iraqi offensive.

“We are not ready to take any risks, and if we are not sure of the outcome of any step, then we are not ready to take that step, because we are not sure of improving our circumstances,” Massoud Barzani, leader of one of the two main Kurdish political groups, the Kurdistan Democratic Party, said at his mountaintop headquarters outside Salahuddin, north of Erbil.

He added, alluding to the centuries of oppression Kurds suffered from Turks, Arabs and Persians, “This is a golden era for Iraqi Kurds.”

Their concerns are so deep that the Kurds have set aside political differences among themselves to speak with a common voice on the possibility of American action against Mr. Hussein. After a history of internecine strife, including a brief civil war in 1996, Mr. Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party and Jalal Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan have divided the northern territory into two separate areas, each with its own government and army.

But at their respective headquarter cities, Erbil and Sulaimaniya, the reluctance of the Kurds to support American moves against Mr. Hussein is expressed in virtually identical terms. Leaders in both cities said officials from the Pentagon, the State Department, the National Security Council and the Central Intelligence Agency visited the Kurdish territory this year to discuss American options, and had also met with Kurds in Washington and Europe.

At one meeting in Europe this spring, Kurdish officials in Sulaimaniya said, Mr. Barzani and Mr. Talabani, bitter rivals for years, sat down together to meet with American officials. Their main message, the Kurdish officials said, was that Washington should not expect Kurds to subordinate their own safety to American priorities. “Nobody has suffered more from Saddam than the Kurds,” one senior official said. “We told the Americans, `This time, the Kurds will put their own interests first, and last.’ ”

Although the Kurds’ fear of again being abandoned by the United States seemed real, the greater fear seemed to be of Mr. Hussein. An official in Erbil acknowledged that the Kurdish leaders, in publicly discouraging American military action, were signaling to the Iraqi leader that the Americans, not the Kurds, were his adversaries. “Saddam is our shadow,” the official said. “He’s always there, right behind us, and we don’t want him to think that we’re drawing the Americans in to overthrow him.”

Concern among the Kurds seems certain to increase with the failure in Vienna on Friday of the latest talks between the United Nations secretary general, Kofi Annan, and Iraqi officials aimed at resuming United Nations weapons inspections in Iraq. The inspections are to determine whether Baghdad is continuing efforts toward building nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, as Washington has charged, and to destroy any programs that are found.

Many United Nations members, including important American allies, see a resumption of weapons inspections, suspended after Mr. Hussein drove inspectors from Baghdad in 1998, as the only way of forestalling American military action. United Nations and Iraqi officials said talks would continue in Europe in coming months, but Washington viewed the Vienna meeting as a watershed. Iraqi officials placed blame for the talks’ failure on an “American plot” to prepare for a military attack.

In an American-led campaign, Kurdish territory would be a crucial platform for a ground assault.

In one plan discussed in Washington, American forces, with Kurdish and other Iraqi opposition fighters, would seek to replicate the war against the Taliban in Afghanistan, using the Kurdish-controlled areas and troops much as the territory and troops of the Afghan Northern Alliance were used.

But the Kurdish leaders, in the interviews, said they would resist any American actions aimed at toppling Mr. Hussein unless Washington gave “guarantees” in advance. They said these would include an undertaking that a future Iraqi government would adopt a democratic political system, with a federal structure that provided for wide-ranging Kurdish autonomy in the north.

In effect, this would require Washington to promise that Kurds would maintain effective control of the area they now rule. But it is far from certain that other Iraqi opposition groups drawing support from the country’s Arabs would agree, partly because of the Baghdad’s reliance on revenues from the north’s oil fields.

The Kurdish leaders spoke with a sharp edge of distrust for the United States, which they said had “betrayed” Iraqi Kurds at crucial moments in the past, most recently during the Iraqi onslaught against the Kurdish uprising in 1991. Mr. Barzani and other leaders also referred bitterly to events in 1975, when the United States encouraged Iraqi Kurds to ally themselves with Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi of Iran in a territorial dispute with Iraq, only to back a reconciliation between Iran and Iraq that left the Kurds exposed to a military crackdown by Baghdad.

Mr. Barzani coupled this bitterness with a reminder that Washington’s hawkishness on Iraq is led by a president whose father, many Iraqi Kurds contend, let them down in 1991.

After American troops liberated Kuwait, then stopped at Iraq’s southern border, the first President Bush encouraged Kurds in northern Iraq and Shiite Muslims in the south to “take matters into their own hands.” He then withheld American military support when their uprisings drew savage retribution from Baghdad.

When they discuss American plans, the Kurdish leaders reserve their harshest condemnation for any attempt to topple Mr. Hussein by C.I.A.-led covert action, possibly by fomenting a military coup. Reports from Washington have said Mr. Bush this year strengthened a presidential directive authorizing the C.I.A. to mount covert operations inside Iraq with the aim of toppling Mr. Hussein, and authorized American agents to kill him if necessary in self-defense.

But Barham Salih, who heads the government in the eastern half of the Kurdish territory under the authority of Mr. Talabani, said American officials had been told bluntly that the Kurds would oppose any attempt to topple Mr. Hussein by a coup. “We are not interested in exchanging one dictator for another,” Mr. Salih said. “We want a democratic, pluralistic, responsible government in Iraq, and that cannot come from a coup.”

Copyright 2002 New York Times Company

In Kabul, Musharraf Spurns U.S. Aid in Hunting Qaeda

John F. Burns | New York Times | April 2, 2002

KABUL, Afghanistan, April 2 – President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan made a surprise visit to Afghanistan today, trying to mend fences but also rejecting any future American military operations against Al Qaeda or Taliban forces who have fled to Pakistani tribal areas adjoining Afghanistan.

He said the job of hunting the fighters inside Pakistan could be accomplished by Pakistani troops alone, despite American commanders’ concerns that Pakistan has become a sanctuary for troops seeking to regroup for a new guerrilla war in Afghanistan.

In a brief visit under close guard by American troops, the Pakistani leader sought to bind up wounds inflicted during the years when Pakistan, under General Musharraf and other leaders, supported the Taliban, and even maintained covert contacts through its military intelligence agency with Al Qaeda. Those policies were abandoned under American pressure after Sept. 11, when Pakistan became America’s most important regional ally in the war against terrorism.

Meeting with Hamid Karzai, chairman of the interim Afghan government, General Musharraf came close to apologizing for having backed the Taliban during the years when it imposed a harsh system of Islamic rule on Afghanistan’s 20 million people. He embraced leaders of the Northern Alliance, the only force to have resisted the Taliban, which now forms the core of the Karzai government, and whose leaders have frequently excoriated Pakistan and General Musharraf for having helped sustain the Taliban.

Now, he said at a news conference with Mr. Karzai in the old royal palace, Pakistan had no agenda of its own in Afghanistan, only a wish to support the interim government, and to make sure that neither country again becomes a sanctuary for terrorists seeking to harm the other.

As for Pakistan’s military intelligence agency, regarded by many Afghans as the alter ego of the Taliban, General Musharraf said that it was firmly under his control and that it would not be allowed to meddle in Afghanistan again.

“I made it absolutely clear to my brother here,” he said, gesturing toward Mr. Karzai, “that Pakistan has only one aim, to assist Afghanistan in whatever he wants to do. His plan is our plan.”

But General Musharraf, the first Pakistani leader to visit the country’s western neighbor for 10 years, showed a prickliness over the issue that has moved to the center of American commanders’ concerns – the use of the largely lawless Pakistani tribal areas abutting Afghanistan as safe havens by Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters who survived after Taliban rule collapsed in November under American bombing.

In response to questions, he assertively rejected suggestions that the absence of effective Pakistani controls along the 1,400-mile border, especially in a mountainous area around the Afghan city of Khost about 100 miles south of Kabul, had allowed Al Qaeda and Taliban remnants to regroup.

“I’m very proud of our forces; they are very capable of taking actions against intruders into our country,” General Musharraf said. As for suggestions that American forces might eventually need to mount “hot-pursuit” raids into Pakistan, he added: “I don’t think that doing this is in the coalition’s interest, or in Pakistan’s interest.”

As evidence of Pakistan’s vigilance in the hunt for terrorists, he cited the arrests last week of “40 or 50” suspected Taliban and Al Qaeda members in a swoop by Pakistani and American agents in three cities in Pakistan’s central province of Punjab. He also cited earlier arrests of Al Qaeda fugitives in Pakistan’s tribal areas.

The White House confirmed today that one of those seized in the raids last week was Abu Zubaydah, said to have become the operational commander of Al Qaeda after the collapse of Taliban rule forced many of the group’s fighters to flee to Pakistan.

The arrests, although a coup for the Musharraf government in its relations with Washington, had the effect of validating American military commanders’ concerns about the porousness of the border. These concerns became acute in the wake of the 11-day battle American troops fought last month against a Taliban and Al Qaeda force in the Shah-i-Kot valley, barely 25 miles northwest of the closest crossing point into the Pakistani tribal area of Waziristan.

Although American commanders declared Shah-i-Kot a victory, many signs since the battle have indicated that they learned that they would have to prevent these fighters from going back and forth into Pakistan to achieve their aim of eliminating Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters who have threatened to mount a guerrilla war against American forces and Mr. Karzai’s American-backed government in Kabul.

Concerns about Taliban and Al Qaeda cells still active in Afghanistan were evident in the tight security cordon around General Musharraf. He arrived only 36 hours after troops of the international security force in Kabul arrested two men driving a Pakistan-registered vehicle carrying 32 Kalashnikov rifles. A British military spokesman said the rifles were destined for an underground group in Kabul linked to one of Pakistan’s most powerful Islamic militant groups, Jamiat Ulema-e-Pakistan.

The spokesman did not say any link had been made to General Musharraf’s visit, which took place without prior public announcement. But arrangements for General Musharraf showed the high level of concern.

For General Musharraf, the visit marked a way station in his transformation of Pakistan from a country whose government nurtured the Taliban and sheltered Islamic extremist groups.

In many ways, the Pakistani leader seemed to have come here to wash away the past. Mr. Karzai has close ties with Pakistan, having lived there during the periods of Communist and Taliban rule in Afghanistan. But there is no such affinity among the Northern Alliance men who hold major positions in the interim government.

At the news conference, General Musharraf acknowledged that there were “bitter memories” to be overcome, but said they should be viewed in the broader context of a relationship sustained for centuries by a common Muslim faith, a common culture and a shared geography. He said the days of Pakistani interference in Afghan affairs were over.

He handed Mr. Karzai a $10 million check as a gift from Pakistan.

But a hint that hard feelings may not be altogether assuaged came from Mr. Karzai’s account of the wavering by Gen. Muhammad Fahim, the Northern Alliance military commander who serves as defense minister, about attending the airport arrival ceremony.

“He called me this morning and said, `I’m going to Kandahar,’ and I said, `Fine, go ahead,’ ” Mr. Karzai said. “And then he said, `Don’t you think I should be at the airport to greet General Musharraf?’ and I said, `That’s a wonderful idea,’ so he delayed his trip.”

But if General Musharraf regarded this as a mixed compliment, he showed no sign of it. Referring to General Fahim, who spoke excoriatingly of General Musharraf and Pakistan in the weeks leading up to the collapse of the Taliban, the Pakistani leader said that in their airport embrace, “He called me a brother, and I called him a brother, and I said, `I mean every word of it.’ ”

Copyright 2002 New York Times Company

After Battle, Injured Foes Are Treated With Allies

By John F. Burns | New York Times | March 10, 2002

BAGRAM AIR BASE, Afghanistan, March 9 – Perhaps the most striking thing about the field hospital run by the United States Army at this old Soviet airfield is that wounded Americans lie side by side with Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters.

These are all men injured in the biggest land battle of the five-month war in Afghanistan, combat that started eight days ago and has so far seen about 90 American and other allied casualties admitted here. There are “not many” Taliban and Qaeda injured, according to Lt. Col. Ronald Smith, the 40-year-old surgeon in overall command of the American hospital and two similar surgical units run by the British and Spanish Armies.

After the controversy stirred by arrangements made for captured Taliban and Qaeda fighters at the prison set up at the United States military base at Guant·namo Bay, the idea of American and Qaeda fighters lying in the same wards after battling each other furiously in the mountains 100 miles southeast of here seemed, to an outsider at least, the last thing one might expect.

To Colonel Smith, who revealed the treatment of wounded Taliban and Qaeda fighters only when asked by reporters, the arrangement has been unexceptional. The limited space available in the field units and the ethics of combat surgery as practiced by American forces in previous wars simply require it, he said.

“Once they’re no longer a threat, we have a responsibility to keep them alive,” Colonel Smith said. These patients, he noted, were subject to “special security,” meaning round-the-clock guards.

But hasn’t having them alongside American and other allied wounded been difficult for the American doctors and nurses to accept? “Of course it has,” the colonel replied. “They have attacked our nation, and they’ve attacked this nation, Afghanistan, and that’s created very hard feelings. So it’s a very hard thing. But we value life, that’s what our nation values, so we treat all our patients just the same.”

Despite the ferocity of the combat of the past week, none of the casualties admitted here so far – either American, allied or Afghan – has died, Colonel Smith said. “It’s been very much a miracle,” he said.

For the third day running today, the intensity of the battle appeared lowered by bad weather, with low cloud and intermittent periods of driving rain. In the United States, military officials said the weather was not slowing operations in any significant way, and that Al Qaeda resistance had lessened markedly.

But there was certainly less bombing, all of which has been conducted from high altitudes. Predator drones, which provide real-time intelligence by circling at low speed, and low altitude, provide the best images in clear weather, allowing American commanders to pick out even individual enemy fighters.

At the Bagram base, 30 miles north of Kabul, which has served as headquarters for the operation, American commanders seemed frustrated, but still confident of an early conclusion to the battle.

Maj. Bryan Hilferty, spokesman for the operation, said the coalition forces had continued “search and attack” missions in the Shah-i-Kot valley throughout Friday and into Saturday, concentrating on clearing out caves and bunkers on the steep slopes of the 11,500-foot mountains.

American troops, along with about 200 combat soldiers from other western nations, have carried most of the fighting while a force of about 1,000 Afghan soldiers have mainly taken on support duties such as blocking trails leading to the battlefield.

American officers returning from the battlefield struggle for the appropriate word when describing their foes, reluctant to convey anything resembling admiration.

But they are clearly amazed that men who lack the technological advantages enjoyed by the Americans, who are surrounded and outnumbered now by perhaps 5 or even 10 to 1, have shown no willingness to fly the white flag.

“I don’t know what it is that drives them, a desire to protect some top leader or a deep yearning to become martyrs, but whatever it is, it’s something that a rational mind finds hard to fathom,” one officer said.

Colonel Smith, the command surgeon, seemed to have noticed something similar.

“They are very dedicated to their cause, to be fighting with one limb, and with all the other injuries they have suffered over the years,” he said, adding that his patients have not been hostile.

“I think they’re scared,” he said. “You have an environment that is unfamiliar to them. They haven’t struck out at the medical care providers, and they haven’t cursed or sworn.”

Copyright 2002 New York Times Company

Karzai Blames Fellow Officials in Assassination

John F. Burns | New York Times | February 15, 2002

Afghanistan’s interim leader Hamid Karzai says killing of aviation and tourism minister Abdul Rahman was personal vendetta carried out by other senior government officials, including intelligence chief, Gen Abdullah Jan Tawhidi and senior defense official, Gen Qalander Beg; both men are believed to be in Saudi Arabia; they are senior figures in dominant political faction in Northern Alliance, anti-Taliban coalition that forms core of Karzai government; Karzai says he has asked Saudi government to arrest them; assassination of Rahman, followed by outbreak of violence in Kabul, seems likely to stir new anxiety about fragile situation facing government; fear is that government itself could be torn apart by old enmities based on ethnic, tribal and political divisions that underlay miseries of past.

Copyright 2002 New York Times Company