KALAK, Iraq _They are known as the peshmerga, those who face death, and in recent weeks they have been facing death alongside U.S. soldiers in northern Iraq.
They are tough and dedicated men, these Kurdish guerrilla fighters, with ready smiles and hands as rough as rope. Many are the sons and grandsons of former peshmerga. Their elders, armed with bolt-action rifles, began fighting the powers in Baghdad more than 50 years ago.
In the current conflict, some 70,000 peshmerga have aligned themselves with the U.S.-led coalition, and they obey their young commanders from the U.S. Special Forces. Together, they've crushed Iraqi units in big battles and small firefights all over the northern region, especially around Mosul, Iraq's third-largest city.
It remains to be seen whether the peshmerga, now straining at the bit, will be sent forth to besiege Mosul and the oil-rich city of Kirkuk.
The outgunned peshmerga have light weapons, few artillery pieces and no tanks. They move around battlefields in battered Toyota pickups. They don't have any gold braid, battle ribbons or snappy uniforms. Some of them go into battle wearing tennis shoes, although black slip-on loafers are more commonly seen.
Military fashion risks aside, the peshmerga certainly don't lack for nerve. On Tuesday afternoon outside Kalak, one veteran guerrilla wrapped himself in an old blanket, wiggled into a shallow trench in a wheat field, and napped his way through an Iraqi artillery attack.
The Americans have been much impressed by the endurance and fighting skills of the guerrillas.
"The pesh are incredible," a Green Beret sergeant said after a recent bloody battle. "Just awesome."
Their anger, too, is awesome, and it's well rooted in the Kurds' violent history. They have been fighting outsiders—or among themselves—since Biblical times.
The peshmerga's families have been gassed, tortured, executed and displaced across northern Iraq for decades. Their villages have been bulldozed, their sheep slaughtered, their wheat fields salted, their women raped. Of all the mightily oppressed peoples in Iraq, the Kurds may well have the loudest complaints. They certainly have unquiet hearts.
"I wish I could be a peshmerga again, but I'm too old," said Salah Mikhail Salih, 65, who first joined up as a guerrilla fighter in 1961. "I have 14 sons. One has already gone to martyrdom as a peshmerga and four more of my boys are fighting in this war.
"I am very proud they're peshmerga. I taught all of them how to use guns. I trained them myself."
With his single-shot, bolt-action rifle, Salih fought alongside the legendary Mulla Mustafa Barzani, the godfather of Kurdish nationalism. They used mules to carry antique artillery pieces through the steep northern mountains. They baked their own bread, fished in rivers with Russian hand grenades and used the cleaning rods from their rifles to make venison kebabs.
"It was misery," Salih said, "but it was necessary."
His son Kamal, a 34-year-old peshmerga, thinks the current fighting is just as necessary.
"My generation has never known a single day without war," said Kamal. "We had no childhoods. We were always being kicked from place to place by the Baghdad regime. They stole our land and our wealth, and then when they closed our schools, I realized they were stealing our futures.
"I was a young man at the time, but it became clear to me that I had to inherit my father's gun."
So Kamal took over his father's Russian-made Kalashnikov assault rifle—the one he had so hungrily learned on as a youngster—and became a peshmerga.
In 15 years of battles with Turkish insurgents, rival Kurdish factions and Iraqi troops, Kamal has been wounded five times: right ankle (bullet), right brow (grenade), lower back (shrapnel, artillery shell) and a couple places in his skull (shrapnel, bomb).
He makes a meager salary of 600 dinars a month, about $100, which is paid by the Kurdistan Democratic Party, one of the two dominant factions in the north.
Lately, Kamal has begun teaching his own four sons, aged 5 to 13, about weapons, wars and Kurdish history.
"But I teach them about the guns only when they're not studying," he said. "I want them to study hard, finish school and attend a military academy."
But later, when asked if he'd like his boys to become generals or professors, Kamal is quick to say, "No, no, not generals. Physicians."
The boys' grandfather still regales them with tales of his own exploits, and they sit around him goggle-eyed to hear about daring nighttime raids led by the revered Mulla Mustafa, whose portrait hangs in shops, restaurants, homes and offices all over the north.
Kamal's oldest son is Ra'ad, 13, a sixth grader, first in his class at the Kalak Primary School. He is a quiet, studious boy who favors geography, Arabic and English. He likes learning about his father's Kalashnikov, although he has never fired it.
"Sometimes my father and grandfather tell me their stories about fighting and their injuries," said Ra'ad, sporting his own adolescent injury—a red pimple—on the bridge of his nose. "I think war and fighting are disgusting. I wouldn't like to be a peshmerga."
His elders hear this, and they nod approvingly.
"The fate of our generation is sealed. We're doomed because we had to leave school to fight," said Kamal. "As peshmerga we are paving the way for future generations. We're fighting now to free our families from Saddam's prison, so our children can put away all the guns."
Kamal Salih lives with his family and his guns in the bare classroom of a former vocational school, crumbling now and long since abandoned. He knows nothing about the Beatles, the Nasdaq or the Final Four. He has never seen a credit card.
But he can fieldstrip a jammed Kalashnikov in the pitch black of a Kurdish night. He can disable an Iraqi tank with a single grenade, and he knows how to keep warm in the nearby Bare-naked Mountains. He knows what he needs to know, and he knows what he wants for his sons.
"I want them to study and learn about everything possible. I want them to be normal people, happy people, normal citizens of the world. I want them to speak English, not Kalashnikov."
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): peshmerga