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Mortar fire forces Kurdish fighters to scramble for safety

NORTHERN IRAQ—There are calm days when we sit in the trenches and drink hot, sweet tea with the anti-Saddam Kurdish fighters known as the Peshmerga—"those who face death."

It's rarely calm for long.

That's because of Ansar, a militant Kurdish Islamic group reportedly allied with al-Qaida.

Ansar al Islam (Supporters of Islam) is supported by Saddam Hussein and is fighting against the secular Kurds.

Most days, Ansar fires mortars toward the trenches. The first few are not a big deal because they're trying to find their range.

But once Ansar has homed in, you have 15 or 20 seconds to scramble for a trench or foxhole when you hear a mortar fired.

Some mortar barrages have lasted eight hours, and there are days when Ansar will fire two mortar rounds in three minutes and that's all.

The Peshmerga fight for the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, which controls this portion of northern Iraq. They are volunteers, well-educated, disciplined and determined to maintain their independence. They despise Saddam, who unleashed a chemical attack on the Kurdish town of Halabja in 1988, killing 5,000.

Most of the fighters have some university education.

Knight Ridder Washington Bureau reporter Jonathan Landay and I met a brigadier general in his early 50s named Robar who has been with the Peshmerga for 20 years and studies journalism at a local university.

It takes Robar about an hour and 45 minutes to travel from the university to the front lines, where he commands 300 fighters who are the Kurdish version of our special forces.

During the day, he splits his time between headquarters and the university. At night, he's out at the most forward and vulnerable village, Gomalar. When he arrives, he makes his initial rounds to check that his soldiers are well.

Then he goes into a small mud hut and does his homework.

In nearby Sulaimaniyah, where we've spent some time, there is a comfortable motel with televisions and showers.

In the stores we've found Cheetos and U.S.-made chunky peanut butter to supplement the local diet of lamb kebobs, rice and tomato soup, but here on the lines we sleep in a one-room mud hut with 10 or 15 guys.

At night, Ansar might fire as many as 60 mortar rounds, and both sides send small reconnaissance probes—five or six men—to the front lines.

That's when the fighting gets up close and ugly.


(Tom Pennington is a photographer for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.)


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.