CHAMCHAMAL, NORTHERN IRAQA song blares from a loudspeaker at a Kurdish base at the front line. It is the Kurdish anthem called "Mister Peshmerga," and it is played normally in times of war to spur fighters on. "The last time I heard this song was during the uprising in 1991," says one security officer standing outside grinning.
"Let it be blessed, that hand that carries the gun," go the lyrics. "In the day of struggle, nobody can stand in your way." Peshmerga militia fighters from different regions have begun gathering at this base Thursday morning because it is the closest point to Kirkuk, widely expected to be the firstand most importantfight for the Kurds.
It is the first day of war, and the Kurds of northern Iraq are raring for a fight. It was on this exact day in 1991 that they captured Kirkuk from Saddam Hussein (only to lose it 10 days later). The director of the radio station explains that after translating the news of America's bomb attacks on Iraq this morning for his listeners, he wanted to play the song. "I played it for the memory of the uprising here in 1991, when Kirkuk was saved by the Kurdish people, and for the attack that is just starting." He follows it up with another hit by a Kurdish singer from this area, just released this week, which asserts, "I am coming, I am coming, I am coming back to Kirkuk."
Up the road, another group of peshmergas crowd together in front of the TV, avidly watching first Bush and then Saddam Hussein as they speak, barely two hours after the bombs fell on Baghdad. The interesting thing is not that they cheer for Bush and hiss at Saddam. The interesting thing is that they are not really peshmerga. "I am not a peshmerga, but I am holding this gun now, because this is the day we have been waiting for," says Bakir Sadullah, a burly schoolteacher in baggy Kurdish pants and sneakers cradling his Kalashnikov. "We think, we hope, we wish we will go back to Kirkuk, with the help of the United States."
This morning, Sadullah and his buddies took up their guns and gathered in this party headquarters near the border with Baghdad-held Iraq. Their families have all fled to remote villages farther north, scared of the possibility of a chemical attack. But they have chosen to stay and help fight for their homeland, a city 20 miles away that most of them have not seen in decades. One is a clinical assistant, one a photographer, one a receptionistbut all now consider themselves peshmergas, or "those who face death." "I stayed because I want to go back and see the liberation of Kirkuk," says the one woman among them, 35-year-old Shler Rashid, whose name means "lily." She left Kirkuk in 1994 and is now a law student in Chamchamal. "If it is necessary, I am ready to fight."
As they snicker at Saddam's appearance, saying it must have been recorded before the attack, they all say they are disappointed by the weakness of the attack this morning. "We thought the first day America would attack with 3,000 bombs, but now we see only 40. Why is that?" asks one. "We don't want to give war criminals a chance to come and speak on TV."
Still, there is not much the Kurds can do until the Americans give them the go-ahead, since their government has made a deal that they will not enter Kirkuk unilaterally. Until then, they will have to wait across the border, holding their guns. It is inconceivable to them, though, that America would make them wait to go back to their homeland. "We would expect the U.S. to let all people go back to Kirkuk," says Sadullah, the schoolteacher turned peshmerga. "Saddam occupied freedom, and the U.S. came to save freedom. If they don't allow us to go back, then that is not freedom."
On the hilltop at the edge of town, still within mortar range of Iraqi posts on a ridge opposite, boys stand around huge bonfires. It is the feast of Nau Roz, or "New Day," the Kurdish new year celebration. On this day, people burn tires to celebrate the beginning of spring and the legendary liberation of the Kurdish race from an evil tyrant. These boys just came over a few days ago from Kirkuk, to escape a crackdown by Baath Party officials who have been arresting young Kurdish men over the past week to prevent an internal uprising. "We are burning tires here because it is the highest point in town, and we want to show the Iraqi Army we are here and we are not afraid," says Mohammed Latif, a 24-year-old student. "After all, they are not attacking us, we are attacking them."