By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
The grassy hills and lakeside pier of a sprawling park in Coppell have been transformed into a makeshift boot camp. It's a windy Saturday in December, and as the bullet-gray clouds grow heavy and drop low, newly enlisted soldiers march, read maps and learn rank symbols. One group stands in formation on the basketball court, stepping and turning in unison. "Use that heel!" calls a uniformed drill sergeant. "If you're gonna turn, use the bottom of the foot! This ain't no hip-hop show!"
Down the hill by the pier, seven teens stand in a line. At the front, a gangly kid in a yellow hoodie tries to locate a depression on a map."You're always wrong, right?" the sergeant yells, prompting a flock of gulls to push off the water and fly into the sky. "The drill sergeant's always right—you remember that, right?" The kid nods. When his turn is over, the next in line approaches, listens to the order, looks at the map. "That's what I'm talking 'bout! You 'bout to get trained!"
One enlistee at this "Future Soldier Event" is a Sudanese 20-something who joined the military as part of a specialized Middle Eastern translating program. A native Arabic speaker, he'll serve at least a year in Iraq, get certified as a linguist and spend a minimum of eight years in the U.S. Army, two active and six in the reserves.
The man who recruited him is Adnan Kirkuki, the Army's only Arabic-language interpreter-recruiter in the Dallas area. He is an Iraqi Kurd. An olive-skinned man with curly hair thinning on top, Kirkuki sits at a picnic table, a calm in the day's storm of shouted commands, taut formations and drumming feet. He gazes out over the water and contemplates the country he fled, the Farsi-, Arabic- and Kurdish-speaking youths he turns into soldiers, and his hopes that the military they're joining will defeat the chaos threatening to engulf Iraq and snuff out his countrymen's chance at a decent life.
Like many Kurds, he doesn't refer to the U.S. presence in Iraq as an occupation. "It's a real liberation for us," he says. The Kurds have been the Americans' strongest champions since the invasion, and now, as support for the war has sunk to an all-time low, they are some of the last.
When Kirkuki, now 40, was evacuated in 1996 with his wife and child, he became the only one of his immediate family to escape Iraq. So while his brothers, sisters and parents remain there amid the bombings and sectarian butchery, worry is a constant state for him—the buzzing tightness in the temples, the ever-present upset in the pit of his stomach. The dread.
Yet he and most of his fellow Kurds, whose suffering under Saddam was embodied in the 1988 killings of more than 5,000 by poison gas, do not regret the war. And they don't want U.S. troops to leave.
"Saddam's government treated us like second-class citizens," Kirkuki, who lives in Richardson, says in his accented English. "We were fighting the government for many years for freedom." He comes from a family of peshmerga, Kurdish fighters who for decades have struggled for independent rule for the Kurds, considered the world's largest ethnic group without a state. There are an estimated 30 to 40 million Kurds spread throughout Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey, with about 5 million in Northern Iraq.
Kirkuki, who returned to Iraq in 2003 as a civilian translator under contract with the U.S. Air Force, acknowledges the times the United States ignored the Kurds' suffering under Saddam or abandoned efforts to help them, as in 1991 when the United States encouraged the Shiite and Kurdish uprisings after the Gulf War, then left them to fend for themselves. But he says that history has been eclipsed by American support since 9/11. "We had no friends, and finally we got a good friend—the U.S. became our ally," he says. "We came to love the U.S., love the freedom the U.S. Army gives us. Now we have a powerful friend—the most powerful friend in the world."
The question, of course, is whether that power can make a difference in the fractious and brutal landscape of Iraq.
Kirkuki piles a plate with kebabs, rice and vegetables at the buffet, then sits down to talk about growing up in Iraq. The oldest of eight children born to a construction worker and a housewife, Kirkuki was raised in a cement block house in Kirkuk. The city is traditionally Kurdish, but it lies outside the boundaries of Iraqi Kurdistan, the region in northeastern Iraq that operates as its own state, with its own prime minister, army and flag. Kirkuk is home to the largest oil reserves in Northern Iraq, and like many places blessed and cursed with the resource, it has long been a center of power struggles. The city would be economically vital to an independent Iraqi Kurdistan, and Kirkuki's father and uncles—peshmerga fighters—participated in the failed Kurdish revolution that lasted from the '60s through the mid-'70s. In the '80s and '90s, Saddam consolidated control over the city by expelling thousands of Kurdish families and bringing Arabs from the south to live in their homes.
"Since I was a kid, I hated the government; I always sympathized with the Kurdish revolution," Kirkuki says. So when it came time for his mandatory military service in Saddam's army, he refused to join and went into hiding, fearing the Republican Guard would execute him. Around that time, the now infamous Chemical Ali presided over mass killings of Kurds with chemical weapons. Three years later, Kirkuki thought his worries might be over. After the Gulf War, the United States urged the Kurds in the north and the Shiites in the south to rise up against Saddam. Kirkuki and his friends helped distribute fliers to spread the word. "Kurdish guerrillas came out from the mountains; I saw the peshmergas fighting the security forces—all the people came out of their homes and celebrated in the streets," he says. The liberation lasted just two weeks, until Saddam's army retook the city with tanks and choppers. Kirkuki fled toward Iran. He gained a new understanding of the old Kurdish saying, "The mountains are our only friends."
"We walked with thousands to the border, through the mountains—there was rain, mud, lots of people got sick," he says. The river along the border swelled with the rains, and a group of Iranian Kurds on the other side fashioned a rope bridge to help them cross. Many never made it. "I watched a mother and three kids try to cross and get swept away," he says. "When Bush [Senior] was celebrating after the Gulf War, 2 million people were suffering in the mountains—they'd encouraged people to rise up and then left them." Rather than return to territory controlled by Saddam, Kirkuki stayed in the mountains for six months, living in a makeshift tent and making money for food by buying and selling odds and ends at village bazaars.
Kirkuki's story is interrupted when a tall, dark-haired man walks up to the table and shakes his hand. "I have some questions for you," the man says. Their stream of Kurdish words is peppered with "Army reserves" and "soldier." Kirkuki pulls out one of his business cards and gives it to the man before he leaves. He's apparently interested in joining the Army translating program, though Kirkuki doubts he will because he worked as a translator in Iraq for Titan last year and made more money than he would as a soldier/interpreter. Interpreters can make six figures working for private firms, while soldiers earn a base salary of around $24,000 plus room and board. The Army translating program can be a tough sell since it's not nearly as lucrative as private-sector interpreting and requires an eight-year commitment. Nonetheless, since August 2005 Kirkuki has enlisted roughly a dozen interpreters of Middle Eastern origins. Most are Iraqi Kurds, but some are Arabs from Iraq and Sudan. Most join for the educational benefits, the fact that military service can speed up their citizenship and because they want to show patriotism for their new country. For the Iraqi Kurds, military service is a way to display gratitude to the United States and participate in the fate of their people.
Having explained all this, Kirkuki returns to his tale. After months of scrounging for food and freezing nights at high altitudes, he made his way to the city of Erbil, the capital of Kurdistan. He found a job at a nonprofit called Kurdistan Save the Children, met his wife, married and had a daughter. Then, in 1996, the Iraqi army invaded the city. Amid the explosions and rumbling tanks, a friend told him the U.S. State Department was evacuating Kurds with ties to U.S. aid programs. He and his wife hurriedly packed a few things, took the baby and set out for the border with Turkey. A few days later, they were in a refugee camp waiting with thousands of others to board a plane and start new lives in America.
Finally, the invisible maze of dialed numbers and transcontinental phone lines rewarded him with the unmistakable sound of his brother's voice. Kirkuki peppered him with questions. What's going on? Are you OK? Why haven't you called?His brother sounded different, exhausted. I'm sorry, I wanted to hide it from you. I didn't want you to worry.In the three years that he's worked for the Army, Kirkuki's brother has been in more than a few scrapes. But one day in mid-October, he ran into an improvised explosive device that was more powerful than any he'd experienced before. He had accompanied a group of soldiers to the outskirts of Kirkuk to dismantle an IED, but when they got to the spot there was nothing there, so they turned around. He was sitting in the back seat of the Humvee next to the gunner as they wound their way through farmland when suddenly there was a resounding BOOM. Smoke filled the car. He was thrown from the vehicle. As he landed with a thump and felt pain envelop his body, he realized it must have been a trap. Someone had called in a false IED, and while they were checking it out, set up a real one. He couldn't move. The wrecked Humvee, split in half like a giant metal egg, sat on the other side of the road. A huge, gaping hole in the ground showed where the bomb must have been planted.
The two soldiers he'd been riding with had also survived, and they called for a helicopter. At the hospital, doctors stitched up gashes in his leg, chin and head and determined that his back was badly injured, though not broken. He and his other siblings didn't tell Kirkuki what happened because they didn't want to worry him. Violence had been on the upswing in Kirkuk as Arabs resisted Kurdish attempts to reclaim the city as part of an autonomous Kurdistan.
"I'm worried all the time, because what he's doing is very risky," Kirkuki says. "Not just for him, but for everyone—my sisters, my other brothers. He's working for the Americans, and if the bad guys find out..."
When Kirkuki helped his brother get the Army job three years ago, Northern Iraq was awash with optimism and zeal, and the violence that has become an everyday nightmare in Kirkuk hadn't yet taken root. After six years in Texas, Kirkuki had returned to Iraq in the wake of the invasion to work as an American military translator. When he arrived, his brother was working long hours as a clerk in a shoe store. He told Kirkuki he wanted to work for the Army too, and Kirkuki promised to help.
After all, in the years since he'd last seen his kid brother, Kirkuki had gone from a refugee foraging for food in the mountains to an American resident with a decent-paying job and a family of his own. He'd put so much distance between himself and his hometown that sometimes it seemed as if several lifetimes had passed. Other times, it felt like just weeks since he and his wife were placed in Dallas and began looking for an apartment with the help of a refugee organization. His first job was serving food at the Zale Lipshy University Hospital cafeteria. His wife found work at Wal-Mart. They learned English by reading and watching television news, he switched to a job as a quality control inspector at a telecommunications company, and they had two more children.
One evening in the spring of 2003, Kirkuki saw President Bush on television talking about the possibility of regime change in Iraq. "I started crying," he says. "I said, 'Is that true? They're going to topple Saddam Hussein?'" He heard the military was hiring linguists and applied for a position with the Air Force. That August, he left for the base in Kirkuk. After the years of Saddam's "Arabization" program and recent fighting, he hardly recognized the place. "It was devastating—it was no longer Kurdish," he says. "It had become an Arabic city." His family had never been very religious, but now his brother worshipped at the mosques and his sisters covered themselves with the hijab. "I said, 'God created us free, why would you hide yourself?'" he recalls.
In the beginning, the American base in Kirkuk was hit every few nights with mortars and rockets, but the IED explosions didn't become common for another six months. People were rebuilding structures that had languished under Saddam or were destroyed in fighting, and incomes were beginning to rise. His brother's new Army job paid around $500 a month, much more than the $60 a month he'd been making in the shoe store.
On a slow February morning at the Army recruiting station in Carrollton, Kirkuki dials a list of numbers. His brother, at home in Kirkuk, picks up the phone, and he puts him on speaker. The voice that comes through is incongruously jolly given his circumstances. Since the city provides only a few hours of electricity each day, he has power only because of a generator. He's still unable to work as he recovers from his injuries, but Allen says the accident is cause for gratitude. "If I'd been on the other side of the truck, I'm dead," he says. "I thank my God I'm still alive."
Kirkuk hasn't been nearly as bloody as Baghdad or other cities to the south, but Allen's Humvee blast came at the beginning of a sharp rise in violence. A vote is scheduled to take place by the end of the year on an article in the Iraqi constitution that would "normalize" the city, meaning that the Kurdish families who were expelled during the dictatorship would be allowed to return to their homes while the Arabs living in them would be compensated by the government and forced to leave. Arab leaders are none too happy about the prospect, and Kurds claim Sunni Arabs with al-Qaida links are behind the bombings, though Arabs and Turkomen (a third ethnic group that, like the Arabs, opposes the normalization referendum) have also been targeted. In early February, there were between six and nine car bombings throughout the city in a single day. "In northern Iraq, another war—Kurd vs. Arab—looms," reads a recent Associated Press headline.
Working for the Americans is especially risky—Allen tells people he's a teacher—but even so, he loves the job. "It's the first time I've learned a new language, and it's a new culture for me," he says over the phone, describing how he's become close to a number of the American soldiers he's worked with. One even gave him a falcon tattoo on his arm. The memory makes him laugh. But he wishes he could follow them home at the end of their one-year tours.
"When my soldiers leave, I say, 'You're gonna leave me here?'" he says. "They say, 'We can't take you.' I say, 'Can you put me in your bag?'" He often asks his older brother if he can help him and his wife get out of Iraq. "I try to explain," Kirkuki says. "My hands are tied." The United States accepted only 202 Iraqi refugees last year, bringing the total since the invasion to 466. Recently, after congressional criticism that the United States had done little to aid the estimated 3 million Iraqis displaced by the war, the State Department announced plans to interview 7,000 Iraqis for possible U.S. resettlement. The likelihood that Kirkuki's brother will be one of them is slim. For now, he's focusing on his recovery so he can return to work. And, like his older brother, he holds his optimism close. His hope? "To live together as one family," he says. "Kurd, Arab and Turkoman."
While driving one recent morning to visit an old friend who's introduced him to several recruits, he talks about President Bush and his plan for a troop surge. "He took responsibility for the mistakes he made—he's an honest person," he says. "What's happening in Iraq is chaos. I didn't expect that. I thought once people got free, they'd try to rebuild the country." The best thing to do at this point, he adds, is to separate the country into Shiite-, Sunni- and Kurdish-controlled areas. As Kirkuki turns onto Audelia Road, a melancholy Kurdish song gives way to an upbeat Farsi one and a strand of beads swings from the rearview mirror. The blue glass is painted with the eyes that are believed in many parts of the Middle East to ward off evil.
Catholic Charities of Dallas isn't just a place where Kirkuki goes to look for potential soldiers. The organization helped him and his wife find work and a place to live when they arrived from Iraq. When he walks into the office on Walnut Hill Lane, the waiting area is about half-full. Across from a World Refugee Day poster, an African family sits, the parents helping their little girl with her homework. After a minute, a tall, broad man in a blue shirt and navy sweater vest appears and greets Kirkuki with a hug. His name is Mohamed Salim, and he was Kirkuki's case manager.
"I met Adnan in 1998—he was very dedicated, always on time for appointments, focused on taking care of his family and educating himself," says Salim, himself a former refugee who fled the African country of Eritrea 14 years ago during its war with neighboring Ethiopia. In the 18 months that Kirkuki has been recruiting for the Army translating program, he's met five recruits through Salim, and two became soldiers. Most were Sudanese refugees. "They come to the U.S., they get freedom, and if they're interested in the military, they meet with Adnan," says Salim, who is obviously proud of what Kirkuki has achieved since he arrived in Dallas with close to nothing a decade ago. "The goal is for the client to be self-sufficient. Lots of people have businesses now, and they came as refugees." He doesn't know of any new arrivals interested in joining the Army today, but Kirkuki will come back soon.
The next stop is a tire shop on Ferguson Road. One of the salesmen is Kamaran Shubak, a local representative of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan Party. A small man with a salt-and-pepper mustache, Shubak is an effusive guy known in the Kurdish community for organizing parties, political rallies and meetings to discuss the future of Kurdistan and the constitutional article for normalization of Kirkuk. He's been in Dallas since 1992 and makes a point to welcome Kurds when they arrive. "I don't want them to get lost here," he says. "I want them to remember who they are." That's something Kirkuki relates to—his own three children prefer McDonald's to Kurdish food and opt to listen to wrestler and rapper John Cena instead of their parents' traditional music.
Shubak says he knows the families of most of the Kurdish soldiers Kirkuki has helped enlist. "I'm proud of them," Shubak says. "We want to be in the war—some of those 20,000 new troops [going to Iraq as part of the surge] are Kurdish."
One of the recent enlistees is a Kurdish woman who left her husband and three children behind to become a soldier. When she first called Kirkuki last year and said she was interested—she'd seen one of his fliers somewhere—he was surprised. "Middle Eastern society is a man's society, but she's different," he says. "I told her, you're going to be a soldier, you're going to go to Iraq and train with M-16s and everything. She said, 'I'm ready to defend the country.'" She worked as a nurse before shipping out for basic training, he says, and she wants to build a career as a linguist. The woman and her family declined to be interviewed for this story, but when Kirkuki told her husband about the article, the man expressed frustration that people might not expect residents from Arab countries to join the Army. "There are Middle Eastern people who love this country and want to defend it," Kirkuki says the man told him.
Before Kirkuki leaves the tire shop, Shubak praises Jalal Talabani, the current Iraqi president and former Kurdish guerrilla leader. Though he doesn't agree with the Iraq Study Group's recommendation that the American and Iraqi governments dialogue with Iran, and Talabani has been doing just that, Shubak has nothing but praise for the president.
"He's a good man," he says.
"You have to believe that," Kirkuki teases. "He's the secretary general of your party."
At the Kurdish men's table, the topic of conversation is the usual one: Iraq. Saber Hamad, a bearish man with a sharp jawline and thick mustache, is talking about how today's problems can be traced back to the borders drawn by Western powers after World War I and the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire. "In 1920 they forced that state to become Iraq for their benefit," says Hamad, who grew up in a small Kurdish village and joined the peshmerga in 1991. "Since then, we fight."
Hamad, like his friends, is glad the United States ousted Saddam, but when he talks about the chemical assaults against the Kurds in the 1980s, his rage at the West's inaction is clear. "Where were America and Europe when Saddam attacked the Kurds and committed genocide?" he says angrily. In 1987, he says, 153 people were killed by chemical weapons in his mother's hometown. "All her family, including my grandmother, was dead," he says. "I was in the shower and my brother came in and said, 'All our relatives were killed yesterday in the village; we have to go.'" When he, his brother and mother arrived, there were hundreds of bodies, most of them black and partially decomposed. They took the wounded survivors to a nearby hospital, he says, but soldiers arrived and took them away. They found out later that the women and children were left in a remote place to die and the men were buried alive.
"I still dream about it," he says.
"Nightmares," says Sherzad Fattah, a gnomish man with a gray mustache, gently correcting his friend's English. "You have nightmares about it—you don't dream about it."
As a child, Hamad spent long stretches hiding from the Baathists with his family. "Until I was 10, I spent most of my days in caves," he says. "Most people spent a third of their lives in the mountains."
"Caveman," teases Bakhtiyar Bilbas, a quiet man who worked with Kirkuki at Kurdistan Save the Children and did a stint as a translator in Iraq in 2003. The three of them laugh.
Kirkuki puts his arm around Hamad. "Caveman," he repeats with a smile.
"Hey, you were living in a city!" Hamad replies. "I had to live in a cave the entire year of '74!"
As for solutions to the anarchy bubbling over in Iraq, the men agree the best move would be to divide the country, what politicians and experts refer to as soft partition.
"They keep saying Iraq has to be united as one country, but everything proves it's impossible," Fattah says. "Eventually, they'll have to separate them."
Hamad nods. "Separation is the best way, because these are three completely different ethnic groups." An independent Kurdistan would spark opposition and possibly even attacks by neighboring states such as Turkey, which is worried about the ambitions of its own restless Kurds. And of course the north would have to figure out a way to be economically independent, which would likely require Kirkuk.
But the biggest stumbling block to soft partition would be Baghdad, Bilbas says. "It's half Sunni and half Shia," he says. "They'd never give it up."
"Maybe they can just flip a coin for Baghdad," Fattah says, prompting the others to laugh. Then he grows serious. "Iraq was born a paralyzed baby. It's never going to get on its feet."
Hamad responds with a sober nod. "Exactly," he says, again emphasizing that it all goes back to the borders drawn nearly a century ago with little regard for the region's ethnic groups.
Fattah leans back. It's growing late, and they've been discussing the complexities of Iraq for hours. As if to settle the matter for the night, he makes one last pronouncement: "It's a made-up country."