Michael Ware


TIME: A Family's Last Stand for Saddam


Knowing that U.S.-led Kurdish soldiers had entered Kirkuk, Abdul Karim Hamdaniy and his son Ahmed donned plain khaki military uniforms, strapped on ammunition-filled webbing and, with Kalashnikov rifles in hand, headed out of their homes.

The faithful father-and-son team were going to die for a dying regime. "They were real members of the party, so they fought to the end," said Talat Haias, a city resident, many hours later as he stood over Ahmed's body, sprawled as though crucified in a blood-pooled halo on a suburban street. The two had taken up positions near the Baath Party center in Kirkuk's Huria district last Thursday and had fired at people passing by. Eventually separated, the duo hung on for about four hours before teams of Kurdish peshmerga (those who face death) shot them. "We're happy they've killed them because they've done many bad and cruel things," said Haias.

The multipronged assault on Kirkuk began before daylight. U.S. special forces led battalions of peshmerga, who for the most part met no Iraqi resistance. To the east, however, it was a different story, as Iraqi soldiers tried to mount a last stand. They were positioned at the city's edge, having retreated there from bases farther afield amid intense bombing that began in March. This meant Kirkuk's first line of defense was now also its last.

When the assault kicked off, close to 300 peshmerga from one of the Kurds' top units raced to the Iraqi line. The fighters and the U.S. special forces leading them found themselves in a bigger battle than they had anticipated. With two tanks firing as they withdrew, the Iraqis yielded their outer ring of bunkers but stood fast on the city's outskirts. Iraqi soldier Riaz Jihad Zahir explains why he and his comrades stayed. "The officers had told us Baghdad had fallen, but they said the execution squads would kill us if we left," he says.

Five hours into the attack, the advance halted in its tracks. Around 10 a.m., the commanding team of special forces abandoned the eastern front, leaving Kurdish soldiers to hold the line. "We're going back to the 6th element. Let's go. Let's go," shouted the team leader, waving his men into their white Land Rovers. The order wasn't well received by all the special forces. "I'm telling you we're leaving," the leader breathlessly insisted as Iraqi artillery roared in. An argument erupted, with an angry U.S. soldier screaming "Is this how we lead by example?" The team leader called on his subordinate to "get with the program."

Forty-five minutes later, the Kurds began firing rockets into the Iraqi zone. Shortly afterward, a B-52 trailing four white vapors laid a carpet of perhaps a dozen bombs on the Iraqi trenches. Black clouds boiled up as the peshmerga whooped from their hilltop trenches that hours before had been occupied by the Iraqis being bombed. "This attack is a sacred thing," said Ismael Mohammed. He was fighting to return to the home in Kirkuk he had been driven out of seven years before. Kurdish commander Mam Rostam, a nom de guerre meaning Uncle Rostam, reveled in the momentum of the push on Kirkuk. "My soul is returning," he told his staff in the bunker.

When a second B-52 strike at last silenced their artillery, the Iraqis knew the end had come. "The officers took their uniforms off and dressed as civilians," says Iraqi soldier Zahir. "Both the Baathists and the Fedayeen changed their clothes and ran off. That's when I left."

Unknown to Zahir, the mood of the city behind his sandbagged bunker had already changed. Kirkuk inhabitants say that beginning at 10 a.m., they were seeing Iraqi soldiers, paramilitaries and Baath Party members change into civvies and leave town. "Many of them gave their weapons to civilians, and they all seemed to be headed south to Baghdad or Tikrit," says Firhad Saddiq Saeed. But not all the Iraqis who wanted to leave were able to do so. Ali Hussain says he stood mesmerized as two Iraqi soldiers trying to surrender were executed by their own. "They just shot them there in the street," he says.

Surprised by advancing Kurdish columns, one group fleeing the Arafa district tried to blast its way out. A colonel among them "tried to protect himself, and they killed him as his men escaped," says Ramazan Miran Jwainer. Hours later, the colonel's body remained on the sidewalk, his red boots still polished, his uniform still crisply creased. Two small pockets of Fedayeen diehards fought it out from a school and another building in the Wahda district. Kurdish soldiers encircled them, killing a few and capturing others. "We expect more bad things from them because they're finished and want to kill as many of us as they can," says Ghafur Salah Samin, local administrator of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan Party.

As TIME entered the city with peshmerga fighters, scores of Saddam's defeated soldiers were walking the same road. None were harassed. A Kurdish radio station advised people to disarm any Iraqi soldiers they came across but to allow them to go on their way. There was at least one case of Kurdish vengeance, against a man who had killed four peshmerga fighters. Holed up in the Huria district Baath Party center, he battled with Kurdish troops for hours; he surrendered in the afternoon. Burhan Mohammed witnessed what followed: "They asked him many questions, and he said he was Syrian." The peshmerga beat the man unconscious with rifle butts. "As he lay there, the peshmerga shot him," says Mohammed, "then they doused his body in petrol and burned him." Like his neighbors, Mohammed felt no pity. "They treated us like animals, so we must treat them in the same way," he says, staring down at the blackened corpse.

The vast majority of Kurds weren't out looking for blood in Kirkuk. Instead they filled the streets at midday, cheering and waving and beeping car horns. Offices of the regime's apparatus, like Baath Party compounds and police facilities, were looted and, in some cases, torched. Meanwhile, people danced in the streets, giving bouquets of flowers to U.S. special forces whose vehicles were trapped in the throng. In the center of town, a statue of Saddam Hussein was torn down. That evening happy fire from countless Kalashnikovs peppered the city's sound track. Hastily crafted THANK YOU, U.S.A. signs went up everywhere. "We are grateful to George Bush and Tony Blair," says Yaquob Yousef. "We hate not just the governments but all the peoples of Germany and France."