by Dr. Jack Wheeler
October 3, 2006
The moon was a little over a quarter full. It would be setting in an hour or so, leaving us without its meager light. I longed for night vision goggles, but the men I was with seemed to have no need of them and moved confidently in the dark. They were Kurdish guerrilla fighters known as Peshmerga, “Those who face death.”
We were armed, but not heavily. Holstered on my belt was a Webley Mark IV .38 revolver, and slung over my back was an AK-47 Kalashnikov, Type 2 with a wooden stock. The famous banana clip only holds 30 rounds, but I had no vest for extra magazines. One of the men showed me he was carrying eight and motioned for me not to worry.
The Peshmerga were all carrying AKs of course, with vests for extra magazines and pouches for hand grenades. But that was it – no RPGs (rocket-propelled grenade launchers), no heavy machine guns. We were traveling light, as this was an insertion team. The mission was to insert me into Iran.
I had been driven three hours from Hewler (Arbil) in Iraqi Kurdistan to the border town of Rayat. The gentlemen with the Revolutionary Union of Kurdistan (RUK) were nervous about my being seen, so they made sure we arrived in the evening. The town was rife with Iranian and PKK agents.
We hadn’t proceeded 100 yards on a trail out of town when four Peshmerga emerged out of the gloom. They were the ones to take me inside. I shook their hands as they whispered their names – Ahlo, Soran, Fashad, and Naroz. Waving goodbye to Hassan, brother of RUK leader Hussein Yazdanpanah, who had taken me here, I set off with the four Peshmerga into the Siyah Kooh Mountains that form the border with Iraq and Iran.
There were so many stars in the sky that at first it was hard to pick out the constellations. One by one, there they stood out, Cassiopeia, Pisces, Pegasus, Perseus, Hercules. No Big or Little Dipper, no North Star – they were below a high ridge line on my left. I knew we were headed a little north of east by how the constellations were rotating above me.
I quickly discovered that Peshmerga don’t like trails. They prefer to walk straight up a mountain – in the dark. This is not fun. There was a trail but Hassan had explained we would use it only when it was sure no smugglers were near, some of whom could be Iranian agents.
So hour after hour I stumbled up slopes so steep they made my calf muscles achingly stretch, over crumbling rock that once dislodged would endlessly bounce down the mountain. Hopefully the sound would be covered by the barking of dogs far below us, and the incessant yipping of foxes – the mountains were full of them.
When we started, an illuminated box that was an Iranian guard post was way above us on a ridge. Now we were even with it, about a half mile to our right. Soran had me wait with Fashad and Naroz in a steep rocky gully while he and Ahlo went ahead. The top ridge – the border – was just above us.
I lay back and meditated upon the stars. What I missed was Scorpio. So many times like this before – like in Afghanistan with the Mujadaddin or RENAMO guerrillas in Mozambique – Scorpio always seemed to be there comfortingly above me. Not tonight.
It was getting brisk. We were at an altitude of almost 7,000 feet, it was 3 o’clock in the morning, and blasting gusts of wind would rise up, then die back down. Fortunately we weren’t thirsty, having filled up our water bottles from a small spring below.
When Soran and Ahlo returned, Soran whispered to me, “Baba – we go.”
While I wasn’t overjoyed to be called Baba – “Grandfather” – I couldn’t blame them as the beard I had grown for this occasion was mostly white. The hair on my head is still thankfully not gray yet, but a beard betrays me. Long-time friends know there’s only one reason I grow a beard, so would ask before I left the US, “Where you headed for, Jack?”-knowing I’d answer, “I’ll tell you when I get back.”
Scrambling up to the ridge, I discovered it was a “false summit.” There was yet another ridge higher and beyond. Ahlo pointed to it and said, “Iran.” Following him, I stumbled down a slope, crossed a small stream, then scrambled and stumbled up to the border ridge.
As best as I could make out in the dark, it seemed to be criss-crossed with trails made by smugglers’ horses. We waited and watched for some time. Then Fashad and Naroz dashed across. When we heard a soft whistle, Soran tapped my arm, and I crouchingly ran across with Soran and Ahlo on either side. We were inside Iran.
The first thing I noticed was the forest. The mountain we had just come up on the Iraqi side was treeless, the slopes covered only in dry grass and small incredibly prickly bushes that you dare not touch. Yet on the Iranian side just below the ridge seemed covered in thick trees and large bushes. As we ran off the ridge and into their cover, I noticed the city.
Piranshahr was much larger than I expected, a huge array of bright lights spreading over the valley below, and pockets of lights in the hills above it. I got only a glance before we reached the trees. It was now almost 4am, so we pulled out our lightweight sleeping bags to get a few hours’ sleep.
We woke to the sound of horses’ hooves. It was dawn, and the hills around us were alive with teams of smugglers’ horses being hurried back into Iraq. A number of them came close by, and I could see no horse was carrying a load. Evidently there was nothing of value they could take out of Iran.
Still lying in our bags, Soran pointed up and to our left, whispering “mullahs,” the Peshmerga term for Iranian soldiers Through the trees I could make out a small Iranian guard post about 300 yards away just below a higher ridge line. With the binoculars, I could see it was a stone shelter with a green canvas cover. I could make out two mortar tubes. It seemed to be manned by three soldiers, one of whom had binoculars.
They should have been able to clearly see smugglers crossing over the ridge in the early light, but did nothing. Evidently they were unconcerned about empty horses crossing back into Iraq. Packed horses coming into Iran was another matter entirely.
After wolfing down a Met-Rx protein bar, I cautiously packed up my bag and we slithered deeper into the forest. Suddenly a man appeared in a black-and-white checkered flannel shirt. The Peshmerga all recognized him, introducing him to Baba (me) as “City Man.”
By gestures and the few words in English they knew, I understood the plan to be for me to go with City Man down to a road where there would be a car to take me to Piranshahr and the home of an RUK man who was “speaking good” (spoke good English), and through him I would meet and talk to folks who could tell me about life under the Mullacracy and RUK resistance to it.
The time to do this, however, was not in daylight. We would have to wait until after sunset, when there was less light, and when fasting was over (it’s the month of Ramadan now when Moslems can’t eat or drink between sunrise and sunset), so the “mullahs” at the check points along the way would be more interested in food than being watchful.
So why don’t we all go and have a cup of tea? City Man suggested. Well, okay. We followed him through the forest to a small encampment – of smugglers. They all seemed to know City Man, who proceeded to introduce me to them as, of course, Baba. Noting the concern in my eye, City Man whisperingly assured me, “No mullah” — according to him, none were in Iranian pay.
I had been instructed to say nothing, so I limited myself to saying spass (thank you) when offered anything, and bash (good) when trying it. There was a small fire. A blackened kettle boiled water and a battered pot held reheated rice. I had a cup of chai (tea) in a small unhygienic glass, and nan (flat bread).
There were about 20 of these fellows, and a few dozen horses that were still saddled, but their loads had been taken off and lying in various piles. I pointed to them with my eyebrows raised and Soran quietly said, “Whiskey, cigarettes.” Booze and smokes, the best value per volume for a smuggler on horseback.
The smokes were smuggled to avoid the taxes, the booze because it was completely forbidden by the “Islamic Republic” of Iran, and thus highly desired. I don’t smoke and never have, so that was no temptation. But I had to restrain the impulse to ask for a sample of their liquid wares.
I could have used a drink because it was a long day. Evidently, the smugglers – all Bash Kurdistani, good Kurds according to City Man – went across at night, and the ones who didn’t make it off the mountain by dawn holed up here waiting for darkness to return. They all talked and laughed and joked and drank tea and seemed happily enjoying themselves. I just tried to sleep.
Finally the sun had sunk to the horizon. City Man motioned that we could leave. Soran held up two fingers then pointed to the ground, and otherwise made me understand that he and the others would meet me here at this camp in two days to take me back into Iraq. The smugglers were repacking their loads on the horses. It was time to go.
Then we heard the shouts, then the unmistakable sound of AK-47s firing. It was coming from the direction of the mullah guard post. More shouts, more AKs going off. Soran and Fashad grabbed me as we ran away from the encampment and under some trees. The smugglers got away fast as well, with the horses remarkably unperturbed by it all.
Then came the mortars. The shells landed too close for comfort with deafening explosions. We moved deeper into the forest, City Man with us. The Peshmerga seemed more puzzled than alarmed. We waited. There was silence. Finally, City Man and Naroz went off in the direction of the commotion. I waited with Soran, Fashad, and Ahlo for what seemed a long time.
By the time they returned it was getting dark. After much hushed conversation, Soran made me understand that the mullahs had spotted a group of smugglers coming into Iran, jumping the gun when it was still light. The shouts were the smugglers’ as the mullahs opened up on them with AKs, then fired off the mortars. Two horses of the smugglers were hit and killed, and one of the smugglers was wounded by shrapnel.
City Man kept saying mullah, mullah — otombil nay. I could figure that out. Mullahs were coming, lots of them from other guard posts and check points, there would be no car (otombil, automobile), the insertion plan was snafu’ed. Time to abort and get out of Dodge.
City Man abruptly vanished. The four Peshmerga and I made our way up towards the border ridge. By the time we got there it was dark, but there was some light from the one-third full moon. Between the edge of the trees and the top of the ridge it was grass, open and exposed for about fifty feet. Everyone checked his weapons as best we could in the moonlight.
Once we started up those last 50 feet we would be totally exposed with no cover. Soran tapped my arm and we all started moving up together. With about 30 feet to go we saw the flashlight. It was a mullah walking towards us, checking the trail along the border ridge, waving his flashlight to either side in front of him.
We collectively froze for a second, then realized it was no time to turn back. Clutching the AK with my right hand while using my left to help pull me up the slope, I scrambled along with my four companions as fast as I could move, reached the ridge trail and raced across it to stumble and slide down the Iraqi side.
When we got down to the little stream in the gully below the border ridge, we started following it down and out of flashlight range of the mullah. We found one of the smugglers’ trails, a fairly wide one that even I could see in the pale moonlight, and trudged down the mountain to Rayat.
Fashad had gone ahead, so when I arrived, Hassan was waiting to drive me back to Arbil. Bidding goodbye to my Peshmerga friends, I clambered in the Land Cruiser and tried to give Hassan an AAR, after-action report – but I was so exhausted I fell sound asleep.
So I got inside, but not by much, maybe a mile or so. My insertion, it turned out, had a Catch-22. To get me into a city near the border like Piranshahr where I could learn something required me to cross where the border was closely guarded. The smugglers had the same problem as Piranshahr was their best and most-easily reached market.
To cross further away with fewer guard posts would have meant days of walking and climbing in sparsely-populated country to no effect for me. The Peshmerga do it to reach cities much deeper in like Mahabad, but the risk of my doing so was too great.
You can see how this is with this map of the area:
All those villages at the top left are in Turkey. The blue at the top right is Lake Urmia, and there isn’t much between it and the border. Piranshahr was my only bet, and while my dice didn’t make my point, I didn’t roll snake eyes and crap out, for I came back all in one piece.
I went in with the RUK rather than other Kurdish resistance groups like Komala and the Kurdistan Democracy Party of Iran (KDPI) because they are the only ones currently actually fighting the mullahs. The others confine themselves to “organizing” people for an “uprising.”
I am all for uprisings against the mullahs and wish these groups all the best. But frankly, folks with the cajones to take up actual arms against the Iranian Islamofascists appeal much more to me.
There’s another reason I chose RUK. All of the Kurdish resistance groups are secular and despise Islamic religious tyranny. But with one exception, all are left-wing, from socialist KDPI to crypto-communist Komala to hard-line Marxist totalitarian PKK. The exception is RUK.
The RUK leaders like Hussein Yazdanpanah embrace capitalism and the individual’s right to own property, to flourish and get rich. They despise Marxism as much as they despise Islamism. They are eager for me to arrange for a pro-capitalist economist (like TTP’s frequent guest author Richard Rahn) to come to Arbil/Hewler and develop a message to the people of Eastern/Iranian Kurdistan about how they can become free and prosperous.
My experience here convinced me that there are Kurds willing to fight for real freedom. Such folks need to be supported. Upon my return to Arbil/Hewler, I learned that while I was dodging mullah mortars with Kurdish Peshmerga inside Iran, at that very time on Saturday, September 30, President George Bush was signing into law the Iran Freedom and Support Act.
The new law states that it shall be “the policy of the United States to support efforts by the people of Iran to exercise self-determination over the form of government of their country.” It authorizes the president to support “pro-democracy forces in Iran.”
We will not have peace in the Middle East, we will not be free of Islamofascist terror, until there is regime change in Iran. The Kurds are the key to achieving it.
…Oh, yes, one last thing. On the way to the smugglers’ camp, the Peshmerga had me hide my camera and made it clear it was dangerous for me to try and take pictures. So before I did, we all crouched down, I set the timer, and got this one shot. It’s entitled Baba and Friends:
— Dr. Jack Wheeler is editor-in-chief of To The Point News and is widely credited as the architect of the Reagan Doctrine.