‘Shock and awe’ in Iraq | AspenTimes.com

‘Shock and awe’ in Iraq

Preston Mendenhall

An Aspen Times exclusive: Preston Mendenhall, who grew up in Aspen, is MSNBC.com’s international editor. He is covering the war from northern Iraq and has agreed to send us twice-weekly dispatches about his experiences.

SULAIMANIYAH, Iraq – The Kurdish official stopped himself midsentence and ordered an aide to turn up the television. “Is this video of Baghdad?” he asked to no one in particular. I, too, was transfixed. Iraq’s capital, the center of Saddam Hussein’s regime, was throwing a welcoming party for arriving American troops.

In the Kurdish security chief’s office, once his assistant confirmed the celebrations in Baghdad, whoops of joy sounded out. The scene playing out on an Arabic satellite news channel will live forever in the memories of the men in the room, and in my memory as well.

It was 2 p.m. when Iraqi Kurds, an opposition minority frequently targeted by Saddam’s government, began to spread the news that Baghdad was falling. The bureaucrats I was with leapt to their feet, hugged and then paused. Almost not believing the news, they turned again to watch the video from Baghdad.

This was a scene played out today in living rooms, restaurants and streets in northern Iraq. In the end, it was these television images that produced the “shock and awe” the U.S. military campaign promised – but distinctly lacked.

People in Sulaimaniyah’s streets, which by 2:30 p.m. were packed with crowds of revelers, described feeling as if in a dream. I waded through thousands of Kurds gyrating to a cacophony of car horns.

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Hadi, an unemployed 25-year-old, said in fact he was dreaming when his friend awoke him to watch the news. “Really, he had to pinch me,” Hadi said. “This is the happiest day of my life.”

Others echoed Hadi’s sentiments. Saddam’s shadow has loomed large over the Kurdish population of northern Iraq. Subjected to ethnic-cleansing campaigns that included the use of chemical weapons against civilians, Kurds have borne the brunt of Saddam’s repressive policies.

Sensing an international audience at the Sulaimaniyah Palace Hotel, where most foreign journalists are staying, thousands of Kurds drove laps around the block, raising their hands into the air and chanting, “U.S.A., U.S.A.!” Within minutes, American and British flags were draped from the hotel walls.

My Kurdish translator ran up to me with a newly minted Iraqi dollar – a photocopied Iraqi dinar bill with President George W. Bush’s face superimposed over Saddam’s. These are heady times in northern Iraq.

Still, many hurdles remain. There is still a northern front for the U.S. military to conquer. The cities of Mosul and Kirkuk remain under Saddam’s control. U.S. special operations forces, backed up by Kurdish opposition troops, are moving closer by the day. Yet there are strong concerns that the north may be where Saddam makes his last stand.

A southern escape route (but to where?) is cut off by U.S. forces. In the north, however, large swathes of land remain under Saddam’s control. If Saddam is alive, the north may be his last chance.

I tried telling that to the Kurds as I finished this report tonight. They couldn’t hear me over the din of car horns.