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Iraq: Desert Dispatch -- RFE/RL Correspondent Describes 'Friendly-Fire' Incident, Situation In Northern Iraq

By Sami Shoresh

Kurdish officials say at least 18 people were killed and 45 injured when U.S. warplanes mistakenly bombed a joint convoy of U.S. special forces and Kurdish fighters in northern Iraq. One of those said to be critically wounded was Wajeeh Barzani, a brother of Kurdish leader Mas'ud Barzani. Radio Free Iraq correspondent Sami Shoresh was traveling in the convoy when it was hit. He spoke to RFE/RL about his experiences, the mood of Kurdish fighters, and the current military situation in the area.

Question: You were in the convoy that what mistakenly bombed by U.S. airplanes yesterday near Mosul. Could you tell us what happened?

Shoresh: Around noon yesterday, an American airplane bombed a convoy of cars full of Kurdish fighters who were heading toward one of the front lines where fighting was going on. On the roadside, they spotted an abandoned Iraqi tank. Some of the [Kurdish fighters] got out of the cars and walked toward the tank. At that moment, an American airplane arrived and mistakenly bombed them. Some 18 Kurdish fighters were killed and 45 others were injured.

Among the injured was Wajeeh Barzani, the head of the [Kurdistan Democratic Party's, KDP] special forces and the brother of KDP leader Mas'ud Barzani. Barzani's son, Mansour, was also injured in the incident. A team of BBC journalists, including correspondent John Simpson, was also injured. Among the 18 dead is a translator working for the BBC team. The injured were taken to an emergency hospital in Erbil.

Wajeeh Barzani was in a very bad condition, and he was flown to Germany on board an American plane. At 1 a.m. last night [2300 GMT], I was told that he had already arrived at an American military hospital in Frankfurt, Germany. I heard from his relatives that his condition has somehow stabilized. But he has two bad head injuries and his condition remains critical. What will happen to him remains unclear.

Question: How did the KDP leadership react to this incident?

Shoresh: Yesterday, KDP spokesman Hoshyar Zebari held a press conference. He emphasized that this incident was the result of "friendly fire" and would not affect the nature of relations and cooperation between the KDP and U.S. forces. Zebari also said that the aim of this cooperation is to build a democratic and federal Iraq and that yesterday's incident will not affect the situation and that both sides will investigate what could have caused this mistake.

Question: Do you feel any resentment among the rank-and-file Kurdish peshmerga fighters?

Shoresh: Among those fighters who were in the convoy, yes. I've heard a lot of [bad things]. They are upset. However, on the front line where fighting is going on, this incident had another kind of impact. [Peshmergas] are now encouraged to fight even more heavily against Iraqi troops. Wajeeh Barzani is a very popular among Kurds and is considered a very capable military commander. People who were accompanying him in this convoy are upset, but fighters on the front line and in the mountains are now even more eager to fight against Iraqi troops.

Question: What is the current situation around Mosul? Renewed bombing has been reported there this morning.

Shoresh: Mosul is being heavily bombed. It seems there are two "hot spots" on that front line now. The first is in Shaykhan, a large town close to Mosul. Residents there are Kurds, Arabs, Christians, and Yazidis. This town is now under the control of Kurdish fighters. The second is in Faidah, which is located on the road between Dohuk and Mosul. It seems that fighting is continuing there, and American planes are heavily bombing positions held by Iraqi troops, as well as targets inside Mosul itself.

It seems that the objective of Kurdish troops is, with the help of U.S. soldiers, to take control of the main road between Mosul and Kirkuk, which goes through Al-Quwayr. They also want to take control over some oil fields in the area near Al-Quwayr and Dibagah.

Question: The operation is likely to be carried out with U.S. troops?

Shoresh: With U.S. troops, yes. But there is not a large number of U.S. troops [in the area]. Their aim is to hold contact with U.S. airplanes and to offer some kind of military assistance [to Kurdish fighters]. The bulk of the troops on the front line are made of Kurds. For every 400 Kurdish fighters, there are between 15 and 20 American soldiers.

Question: Do you have the impression that the KDP wants to seize Mosul and Kirkuk?

Shoresh: I've spoken with KDP officials and with Mas'ud Barzani himself. They all emphasize that they have no intention whatsoever of take control or to enter Mosul and Kirkuk. They told me that they had agreed with the Americans that security in these two cities would be left to U.S. troops in the future. They don't want to enter [these two cities] because of the sensitivities in the region. They referred specifically to Turkey, which is concerned at the prospect of Kurdish troops entering Kirkuk and Mosul. They don't want to let troops enter [these two cities].

But at the same time, they cannot control the masses of people who were expelled of Kirkuk and Mosul over the last 20 years. These people want to go back, and I think neither KDP nor [Jalal Talabani's] Patriotic Union of Kurdistan will be able to prevent these people from going back, although they can prevent armed fighters from entering these two cities.