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Arrested in Kirkuk

sunny

With no common language to explain anything beyond my desire to go to Sulimaniye, I was determined I wasnt leaving the bus, I didnt have any assurance who these guys were despite what their badges said. I clutched onto the bus in vain but the Sergeant wasnt having it and I was grabbed by the arm and herded towards a police pickup truck. They were especially interested in the fact that I had a camera with me, and it was a quirk of fate that I had had it out at the time the bus stopped and had just quickly stuffed it into my trouser pocket. Normally it would have been in my jacket and throughout the ensuing ordeal it was not searched once. A local boy who spoke good English had offered to help but in spite of my protest he was brushed aside. It didnt dawn on me in such terms at the time but I was under arrest.

Hustled into the back of the pickup, I was sat on my own and the cops immediately showed their piss poor professionalism. I was free to delete the 5 or 6 recently taken photos of the desert fortresses and suburbs of Kirkuk which I thought might incriminate me. Driving through the broad boulevards of Kirkuk, I saw Iraqi flags for the first time en route to the police compound, a ropey affair made of slapped together breeze blocks with barbed wire and a roof mounted machine gun. Upon entering the main building I was shown into an office where I met Adam the paymaster, a small kindly faced guy who had good English and most fortuitously was on his one 24 hour shift he had to do each week. Upon walking out towards a small building in the centre of the courtyard I was left wondering why I was being taken in this direction, it didnt seem to offer anything of significance. The Sergeant started to fiddle with his holster and the 4 escorting cops were line abreast behind me armed with AKMs. It did just cross my mind at this point that they were about to squirt my guts against the wall. In vain I looked for a way to run but the compound wall topped with barbed wire was a clear 100 yards away, I would never make it. My footsteps must have momentarily faltered but thankfully none the wiser, the cops just kept on walking and now I saw that we were headed over to another small outbuilding over the other side of the HQ. Here I was presented to the commander, a squat burly guy in civvies who you wanted to be on the right side of. So I got 20 questions to which I carefully added a little padding to the truth, he was more bothered about me taking photos and I had to go through them one by one. There were a few he was not happy with, ones showing political party name crests and another of pin sized soldiers slouched by the statue at Arbil Citadel. It was also bad patter to admit that I was headed for Iran, not flavour of the month around here but my visas would have given the game away anyway. They also wanted to go through all of my gear but did a very sloppy job of it, they never saw half of my stuff and I could have very easily still been concealing my camera or a weapon for that matter. The camera was taken off me and passed back umpteen times, it was a circus. After a while though the interrogation relaxed as it turned to politics. I explained through Adam that I was trying to investigate Kurdistan, that I was the first of many travellers who wished to see their country and with the help of the brochure Ant had given me in Dohuk I threw in the work of Diakonia for good measure. Having already established that these guys were all Kurdish it was music to their ears and so the heat was off. In turn, it revolved into a very interesting education about the resentment felt towards Turkish involvement in the present situation. Turkey favoured the small local Turkmen community who held the balance of power between the Kurdish and Arab populations in Kirkuk, and was using them to intentionally destabilise the area. The fate of Kirkuk would be the linchpin in any future Kurdish state and the last thing Turkey wanted was for the new Kurdish Autonomous Region to flourish. An election pencilled in for November 2007 would be a crucial juncture.

Another interesting aspect was Adam. He was a Sabaean Medean Christian, that is a follower of John the Baptist of whom he explained there are perhaps only 250,000 worldwide, 10,000 of whom are in Iraq. He had had to try and hide the fact for his families safety in the south but had finally fled north. Now getting the royal treatment, the TV was switched onto the BBC World Service where Michael Palin was tackling the Sahara. We all had a laugh when I explained through Adam that he was travelling through a part of Algeria known as the Triangle of Death, probably the first white man to go there in 10 years. Most pertinent! Meanwhile the news explained that Baghdad was now under a third night of curfew, 21 had been killed by a bomb in Tel Afar, and 23 had been shot in cold blood after been taken from their homes in Diyala. And it was all happening just down the road. God knows how anyone could believe that this was in their best interests.

The US Army eventually sauntered in at 3, a Captain Wolfe and 3 troopers whom I later established were of the 25th Infantry. Captain Wolfe (my own personal superhero) could only have been late twenties, Centola was a kid from New York, also Purvis the fat guy and their very brave local interpreter whose name escapes me. The third guy went back outside to sit by the M60, their Humvees parked in a circle wild west wagon train style. They had been returning from a standard patrol and had been within sight of their base when they got the call about me, they were mystified by my presence. Thinking I might have a bit more of a problem explaining myself to these guys I made it plain that I was a tourist travelling in Kurdistan and had not wanted to enter Iraq, it was the cops who had brought me there. Thankfully, the Captain readily agreed that it had been a pretty dumb thing to take me off the bus and bring me into Kirkuk "for my own safety". I had no idea where I was but they explained I was in the south, and the worst part of the city at that. For good measure some idiot playing with his weapon in the courtyard ND'd (fired his weapon accidentally), it could have gone anywhere and did little to settle my nerves. Thankfully the Yanks stood by me and insisted I was delivered to Sulimaniyeh personally by the police, despite their continued attempts to fob me off. Moaning about lack of resources, they just wanted to dump me at the local taxi garaj, not healthy for a white boy in this neighbourhood. So with 2 police pickups with roof mounted heavy machine guns and 10 heavily armed guys in balaclavas, all just for sweet little me, I was eventually ready to go when Captain Wolfe called. They had radioed my details to their HQ who had contacted the Brit consulate and said that a Brit diplomat would be visiting. Already dusk, it would mean spending the night at the police compound and despite all that had happened, the overwhelming sentiment was of boredom, I just wanted to get out of there and be left alone.

Over the course of the evening I was audience to a ragtag bunch of fat guys and kids coming and going, decked out with AKs and body armour (those not too fat to wear it!) that made up what I discovered were Kirkuk's finest (sic), the Emergency Response police. When the shit hit the fan these were the guys who were supposed to go out and deal with it. No wonder the country was a mess! Over the course of the night 2 young guys were brought in and received the full treatment from the chief and his cronies. He had shown that he was a real Jekyll and Hyde figure and was pretty quick in laying slaps and kicks into these guys before taking a big stick to them instead. It could so easily have been me. I thought they might have been curfew breakers but was later told they were robbers.

Another observation had been that the chief's office where I had spent the day was adjoining the exterior wall of the compound and would have made a really soft juicy target for any bad guys. It was plain for me to see that you could have parked a vehicle outside right up against the building, and coordinated with a lookout, taken out half of their force in one hit. Prefering the sofa, I was beckoned instead towards the chiefs grotty old U shaped bed and had to try to sleep up against that wall after one hell of a day. Staring back at me from the walls were pictures of martyred cops killed in the line of duty on the streets of Kirkuk. Thankfully the place quietened down later on, and left pretty much to myself I managed to sneak a tin of Efes from my bag I had been savouring, I had never needed one so much.

Posted by andyhay 00:00 Archived in Iraq

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