Michael Ware


TIME: Dispatches From the Front


At about 2:45 p.m. Saturday in the Kurdish city of Gerdigo, in northern Iraq, I heard the thump of a mortar firing. It was coming from the battle line held by Ansar al-Islam, a Kurdish fundamentalist Islamic group that's allied with al-Qaeda, with some support from Saddam Hussein. The round landed in front of a forward emplacement held by the Kurdish 61st Uprising Battalion, part of the anti-Saddam Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). Moments later, a second round landed even closer. The soldiers scurried into their foxholes, me along with them, before they popped back up to return fire with a DShK heavy machine gun. Then, from behind us, came a whomp of an explosion that I knew wasn't a mortar. Across a grassy field, flame and smoke belched up from what had been a taxicab. With a sickening realization we knew that a suicide bomber had struck. What I didn't know until I got to the scene was that one of the victims was a colleague, Paul Moran of the Australian Broadcasting Corp. He was the first journalist killed in Gulf War II. The most likely suspect: Ansar.

The mortar attack had been a diversion. The taxi had detonated near a Kurdish checkpoint where Moran had been filming some soldiers. The blast loosed a fireball, charred the asphalt and left the taxi a smoking hulk. A roadside stall was set alight. Paul died instantly. Two Kurdish soldiers were also killed and five more seriously wounded.

In the Kurdish-controlled part of Iraq, war can be a two-, three-or even four-way fight. Two main Kurdish groups, the PUK and the Kurdish Democratic Party, have co-existed uneasily, even though both despise Saddam. After Sept. 11, several Taliban-like groups also emerged. They mostly blended into Ansar, which, with help from Baghdad, has used brutal tactics to try to impose Islamic fundamentalism on the secular Kurds. There are no noncombatants here. One morning, while in a position being bombarded by mortars for six hours, one of the local fighters known as peshmerga told me, "These bombs don't recognize your identity." Territory shifts frequently. The day before the blast, the checkpoints were manned by a local fundamentalist militia, known as Komal, which is allied to Ansar and protects its northern flank.

This wasn't the terrorists' first suicide bombing, but never before had they successfully targeted a journalist. Two soldiers and a civilian were ripped apart on Feb. 26 in the same region, outside the town of Halabja, when a taxi passenger strapped with explosives detonated himself at a checkpoint. Afterward, Kurdish intelligence sources warned us that more bombers were aiming for journos and our hotel in Sulaimaniyah. American agencies also warned media organizations that intelligence traffic had picked up a threat against the press pack in northern Iraq. The Kurdish military increased protection for us, beefing up troops around our hotel, introducing stricter registration procedures and logging our travels more closely.

On the day Paul died, Ansar and its allies were supposed to be on the defensive. The U.S., which believes the group has ties to al-Qaeda, had set out to crush its stronghold in the mountains near Iran. For more than two hours that morning, Ansar had been hit by what a Kurdish combat commander described as "a cocktail of Tomahawk and cruise missiles." As many as 40 missiles rained down over the snowy Shinerwe Mountain from U.S. warships in the Red Sea, killing dozens and destroying an ammunition dump and a string of the terrorists' forward bunkers.

The missiles silenced the Ansar mortar batteries. One impudent mortar that opened up a few hours later was taken out by a U.S. warplane. The peshmerga cheered the missiles and spent the day sunning themselves on the grass. Translated literally, their name means "those who face death." Tragically, I learned this applies to journalists too.