Trying on Kurdish and Arab scarves in chilly Erbil, Iraq with my guide and friend Samir Barznjy

Trying on Kurdish and Arab scarves in chilly Erbil, Iraq with my guide and friend Samir Barznjy

I completed my research for “WAR: The Afterparty” with a trip to Iraq in January. While I found most of my lodging for my round the world journey through Expedia, Airbnb and Lonely Planet, I came across generous Couchsurfing hosts in Afghanistan and Vietnam. And that’s where I encountered Samir Barznjy, a 31-year old surgeon and businessman in Erbil, the Kurdish region of Iraq. He is visiting the U.S. this week and my old cable TV colleagues are hosting him for lodging and meals in Denver. Samir drove me through the region, from Halabja, site of the chemical bombardment n 1988, to the Citadel, the oldest continually occupied habitat in the world and to the ISIS front lines outside of Mosul. In honor of Samir’s visit to the States, and as Iraqi, Kurdish and U.S. forces mass to retake Mosul from ISIS, please enjoy the recounting of our visit to an Iraqi Army base from “WAR: The Afterparty.”

There Is No State”

ISIS-destroyed the bridge on our right so we went over the Peshmerga-built replacement to get to the army base.

ISIS destroyed the bridge on our right so we went over the Peshmerga-built replacement to get to the army base.

The ride from Erbil to the Iraqi Army base where Fakhradin’s brother serves takes less than an hour. Samir closely controls what sounds float out of the car radio while Fakhradin provides ongoing narration from the rear as we pass each military checkpoint. He points to a small village visible from my right side window. The former residents were no longer interested in being in the middle of periodic skirmishes.

That town is ISIS, abandoned, empty. Twenty days ago, Daesh came through these homes and Peshmerga fought them with the air force, and they retreated.

As we approach the Tigris River’s Greater Zab tributary, separating Erbil’s suburbs from Mosul’s provincial towns, Fakhradin points out a bridge blown up by Daesh and the smaller one which we will cross, built by Peshmerga.

Samir is in a jovial mood. “We are now past the last Peshmerga checkpoint,” he smiles, adding, “We thought we would bring you as a small gift for ISIS.” Funny.

Barznjy, Fakhradin, Gruber, Captain Shamsadin

“This is group number five in Iraqi Army, but they are all Kurdish,” Samir translates as we pass through Army security. Captain Shamsadin, Fakhradin’s brother, greets us in the base parking lot, a collection of buildings spread over a few hundred meters. Fakhradin wears Peshmerga fatigues, the others standard Army issue.

Shamsadin was born in 1979, the year of Saddam Hussein’s ascent to power, and attended the military academy in Kurdistan. After graduation, he joined a Kurdish group in the Iraqi army, becoming Peshmerga when Kurdistan fought for its autonomy from the Iraqi government in 1991. He fought with Peshmerga and U.S. forces in Mosul and Baghdad for the “liberation in 2003.” When the post-Saddam Iraqi Army was formed, he officially rejoined its Kurdish unit.

I confess to Samir that the distinction is confusing. Samir explains,

Iraqi Army Kurds report to Kurdish leaders. And they have told the Iraqi army, you are not permitted to enter Kurdistan. If you do, bad things will happen.

Shamsadin adds, for effect, “We will turn our guns towards the Iraqi army.”

I ask the Captain what was going through his mind when the U.S. invaded Iraq.

In the beginning, most Iraqi people think it will be a good thing for the U.S. to destroy Saddam, the Army and the Ba’athist Party. It was positive for us Kurds, negative for the south and middle of Iraq. Religious men found that some American soldiers had bad attitudes toward the people of Iraq, they used bad language, they hit people, took them away.

Samir adds that there were many reports of sexual harassment by U.S. soldiers, in addition to widely publicized incidents of torture of prisoners by U.S. guards in Iraqi prisons.

Did Shamsadin have mixed feelings fighting with a foreign army against Iraqis?

No, we used to fight Saddam, a dictator who used to oppress my people, destroyed our villages and killed our people with chemical bombardments.

What about the decision to fire the Army and members of the Ba’ath party?

My personal view is that it was a bad thing. Even the military forces did not like Saddam Hussein. When U.S. troops came, they did not fight and handed themselves over to U.S. soldiers. They liked democracy. Why did they send these soldiers home?

We move to Shamsadin’s bedroom to talk further. A uniformed soldier serves tea in a paper cup; it’s very sweet and very hot. A pile of books is stacked by the bed; an automatic weapon leans against the wall. The room sports two portable heaters, one gas-fired, one electric, two metal lockers, a small white fridge and a TV. A rug covers part of the tiled floor. There are two clocks, one wall-mounted, another propped up on the fridge. I’m guessing the green can of Pringles is sour cream and onion. Shamsadin continues.

Chemical bombardment memorial display in Halabja.

Mass graves outside the Halabja memorial for the 5,000 dead and 20,000 injured in the 1988 chemical bombardment.

Most soldiers did not fight America. When they lost connection with high-level officers, they left the military bases and went back home. Only two groups fought: at Baghdad International Airport, relatives of Saddam Hussein. And special forces at Saddam residences. Only these two groups.

To what degree are Islamic State officers, leaders and soldiers connected to that event?

The captain folds his arms. His temperament is serene, polite, even gentle. Everyone I meet on the base seems relaxed and confident.

The number one reason for the creation of a terror group was, in Iraq in 2003, high-level colonels were sent home, lost their jobs and money and lost their dignity, became taxi drivers, sold things on the road. Because of this, they joined the terror groups and many years after that they created Daesh. The number one reason for terrorist group is sending these solders home.

The Iraqi Army base auto repair shop. During the ISIS assault three weeks before, a fighter sprayed graffiti which Samir translates as, "Only for cars of the Islamic State." Most ISIS attackers were later killed by a U.S. airstrike.

The Iraqi Army base auto repair shop. During the ISIS assault three weeks before, a fighter sprayed graffiti which Samir translates as, “Only for cars of the Islamic State.” Most ISIS attackers were later killed by a U.S. airstrike.

In Mosul, most of the wealthy were in the Army. After losing money, job, dignity, they sought an alternative to be back in a higher position. A lot of them went to the military academy, they were military engineers, so they were very experienced.

What was your experience in fighting ISIS in Mosul?

One week before ISIS came to Mosul, we had news that there is a group well-trained in Syria and they wanted to occupy Mosul province. They will come to break out 4,500 terrorists in prisons. They occupied two quarters, I was there fighting. If not for armored vehicles, we would have been killed. These groups, when they came, had new models of HILUX trucks. While Iraqi army had old-fashioned Hummers from the Americans. They’re called Egyptian Hummers. Not good because the weather is too hot for the vehicles. A lot were broken. We were obliged to use these old-fashioned Hummers because they were armored and terrorist groups used bombs. There were 1,500 Daesh fighters. The Iraqi army had much more than that, including army, civil police, anti-terror groups.

Later over shisha and tea, Samir relates the story that Kurdish President Barzani called Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki, and told him we must do something to protect Mosul before Daesh attacks it. Barzani was Peshmerga since he was 13 years old, fighting in the mountains with his father (Mullah Mustafa Barzani, founder of the Kurdistan Democratic Party, or KDP, in 1946). Maliki replied that you have nothing to do with Mosul. Take care of Kurdistan and leave Mosul for us. He called him again, three months later. Same answer.

Why could they not hold Mosul? Conspiracy theories I heard said Maliki ordered his leaders to abandon his troops. Shamsadin says he also wondered, was this Maliki’s order, how to find the exact cause?

When Daesh came to Mosul, they occupied only one or two quarters; then there was a meeting with high level officials in the Iraqi Army and they said at 4 a.m. they will go to attack Daesh and we will take them out. All of a sudden, at 2 a.m., the two most high-level leaders fled Mosul. After that, the low level leaders fled, then the others.

The feast served at the army canteen. Extraordinary hospitality shown a stranger.

Lunch is served at the army canteen for me, Samir and Fakhradin.

This is usual for Iraq. When Saddam Hussein was captured, a lot of small groups were fighting. But when they relayed that he was captured, they left their guns and did nothing. In Mosul, the same thing. Two commanders, left, then the others; one of the groups of the Iraqi army stayed and fought, and were brave, but only one group.

“Those were the Kurdish troops,” Samir interjects.

Fakhradin asks his brother for something. The captain pulls a roller suitcase from under the bed. He pulls out what looks like an ammo clip and gives it to his brother. It turns out to be a mobile device charger which Fakhradin uses to recharge his brother’s phone.

It is also unbelievable and strange for us. We were ready to fight and all of a sudden they fled. We didn’t believe it when we first heard.

In this region there is one group of Iraqi army which is totally Kurdish. Usually, little collaboration, but when Daesh came to Mosul, only this group remained and they joined Peshmerga to fight. Because of this, they can keep the territories (the area between Erbil and Mosul we drove through).

Here on the front line, you see them first hand, you fought them. What is the solution for defeating the Islamic State?

Fakhradin raises the wooden slat blinders and puts aside the yellow daisy curtains, allowing sunlight to stream into the room. The lower left windowpane is cracked. A tree and a sand-colored building are visible, perhaps 50 meters away.

You, as an American, you know better than us, Sunni and Shia will never collaborate with each other. Maybe they talk on TV or in newspapers, but only talk, and nothing will happen in reality. Iraqi people have lost their dignity, this is the main reason Shia and Sunni will never unite. Even if you want to try to keep it united, any simple thing may make it explode, so it will be only temporary.

This civil war that happened in 2007 in the middle and south of Iraq, a lot of people died and were injured and left a lot of scars in their minds and they will never forget this. So they will never unite. A lot of collaboration between great countries against Daesh, but as we know there is only one in reality, Peshmerga, that on the ground in reality fights Daesh. A lot of countries that says we are allies but in reality they don’t fight. Maybe they are helping Daesh in other ways.

If you and Syrian Kurds get all you need, the Islamic State is finished?

With the support of air force, it will be like a piece of cake.

Shamsadin excuses himself to make a phone call. He says the area commander would like to meet me.

The four of us head to lunch in one of the barracks. Plate after plate is put in front of us, chicken, beans in a tomato-base sauce, vegetables, Kurdish flatbread, hot tea and soft drinks. As soon as I polish off one bowl, another is put in front of me. “I can’t . . .” is ignored.

A tour of the base perimeter. It is an Iraqi Army base; all soldiers are Kurdish.

A tour of the front lines

After lunch, Samir and the captain casually mention that it’s time for Friday afternoon prayers and we walk back to Shamsadin’s bedroom/ office/ meeting room. A green prayer mat is unrolled next to the bed, and, one at a time, they perform their prayers. I am curious how comfortable they seem with this Jewish American civilian stranger sitting and watching.

When prayers are completed, we load into a car for a short ride of a few hundred meters to the sandbag and gun-laden line of defense. The constant refrain of Kurds that their weapons are old, that they are under-equipped is plainly true. We tour the bunkers as accounts of a recent attack is related. Shamsadin pointed to places where Daesh fighters penetrated the perimeter, and where U.S. air strikes incinerated 85 of them. A building with a “Motopool” sign in English and Kurdish has Arabic graffiti sprayed across the front wall. Samir translates: “Only For Vehicles of the Islamic State.” Not anymore.

“With binoculars, we can see the Daesh flags there,” Samir translates guidance from a soldier. A small column of white smoke appears, perhaps two kilometers to our right. A second appears, closer, this time 10 o’clock to our left. Samir asks if I know what that is. I have no idea, maybe small fires, maybe even the results of an air strike. “ISIS,” he says. “Let’s go.”

Iraqi Army Major Luqman Chaw Sheen meets us outside of a larger building housing his office. Chaw Sheen translates as “Blue Eyes,” a nickname, not a family name. He is the Commander of the front line base. He is older and more war-weary than his younger charges.

He understands why many Sunnis have embraced Daesh.

If I am a Sunni who doesn’t want Daesh, what do I do? What is my alternative? Daesh is their only answer. The way to destroy or weaken Daesh is for Sunni people to fight them.

A lot of Sunni IDP (internally displaced persons) live in Kurdistan provinces and they fled Daesh. The problem is that when Iraq was ruled by Sunni, they were very bad toward the Shia and Kurds. Now all political rules are under Shia, they have in their mind to get revenge against Sunni. And they will continue to the end.

A lot of former Iraqi officers joined Daesh with a lot of jihadis from Pakistan, Afghanistan. They have been deceived by religion. Seventy percent of Iraqi officers were from Mosul. They are experts in making rockets and bombs. They say you cannot find this experience now in the Iraqi army.

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