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Kurdistan Gets Taste Of War With U.S. Attack Mistake

by Aaron Glantz

to series on Kurdistan and Iraq election

(IPS) ARBIL -- Arbil is normally a quiet place. Capital of the Kurdish autonomous area in Northern Iraq, the city of 800,000 has largely avoided the bloodshed of 22 months of war and occupation.

Kurdish fighters here fought alongside the United States in the initial invasion. Since the fall of Saddam, the area has been governed by Kurdish leaders, whose followers provide security. There are no American soldiers on the streets, and no humvee patrols. The area had not seen a single American attack since the invasion.

Until this month, that is.

Just past midnight Wednesday Jan. 5, three U.S. helicopters arrived over Arbil from a base in Baghdad, and began circling over a college dormitory near the center of town. Many in the boys dorm, who attended nearby Salahudin University, were still awake cramming for midterm exams scheduled for the next day.

"Suddenly, American soldiers began to jump out of one of the helicopters and started shooting at the building," says Salam, an English department student. Local police tried to intervene to stop the attack, but were pushed back by the Americans, students and Kurdish officials say.

Then the helicopters opened fire. First they fired bullets at the dormitory, and then they launched four rockets. One of the rockets hit the electricity generator on top of the dorm, which exploded in a giant fireball. "The whole building was in flames," Salam said. "It's a miracle nobody died."

The helicopter attack sent a wave of dismay throughout the Kurdish autonomous region, where nearly everyone supports the U.S. presence.

After strong condemnation by the Kurdish government, and unrest in the streets, the U.S. commander in charge of Northern Iraq issued an apology. "I ask the President, the Kurdistan Regional Government, and the people of Arbil to accept our sincere apologies," Gen. Carter F. Ham told Kurdish television.

But Gen. Ham provided no reason for the attack. He told Kurdish leaders the attack was ordered from Baghdad and carried out by U.S. forces based there.

The Kurdish government accepted the apology, but officials here remain puzzled. "You should ask them why they came here," director-general of the ministry of the interior in the Kurdistan Regional Government, Tariq Gardi told IPS. "Because when they came here they found nothing. If there is any terror network in Arbil, we would be the first to know about it, not the Americans."

Kurds see themselves as friends of the United States, Gardi said. "If they share information with us we will cooperate with them. We will help them and we will get their target, but they didn't cooperate with us and they came with three helicopters and they didn't achieve anything."

Like their leaders, most Kurds are still grateful to the Bush Administration for toppling Saddam Hussein. The vast majority seems to have accepted the U.S. apology. But at the same time, there has been a subtle shift of attitudes here.

"Previously we welcomed the Americans warmly," says Mohammed Mahmoud, a recent graduate of the university's English department. "We thought that they had come to liberate us, to help us, and to cooperate with us in governing our region. But now we think the U.S. troops are here just for their own interest. They don't respect the local government of the Kurds.."

Mohammed Mahmoud says the helicopter attack has made Kurds appreciate their government more. He hopes official outrage by the Kurdish government will convince the U.S. military not to behave in Kurdistan the way they have acted in Fallujah, where whole neighborhoods have been destroyed and hundreds -- perhaps thousands -- of civilians killed in massive air and ground assaults.

"It showed the American commanders in Iraq that Kurdistan is a region completely different from any other part of Iraq," Mahmoud said. "If U.S. troops go to Fallujah and carry out operations and even damage houses, no one will condemn the operation, but in Kurdistan, because we have a government and our own security forces, if anything is done without this coordination, it is condemned by the people. It is an insult to the Kurds."

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Albion Monitor January 25, 2005 (

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