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Journalist Charles Sennott

Charles Sennott is foreign correspondent for The Boston Globe. He is currently in northern Iraq where he is traveling independently with a group of journalists. In a Globe report filed April 2 he writes about U.S. special forces finding "preliminary evidence" that Islamic militants in the area were intending to develop chemical and biological weapons. He and other reporters witnessed the fight between special forces and Ansar Al-Islam militants. After the battle, Sennott and other journalists gained access to the Ansar Al-Islam camp where weapons were kept. In Afghanistan, in 2001 Sennott traveled with the Northern Alliance. He is also the author of the new book, The Body and The Blood: The Holy Land's Christians At the Turn of a New Millennium.



TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A

Interview: Charles Sennott discusses his investigation of an Ansar
al-Islam camp in Iraq and the possibility that the group was
attempting to develop chemical or biological weapons

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

My guest, journalist Charles Sennott, was in the terrorist camp in northern
Iraq run by the militant Islamic group Ansar al-Islam. He was there over the
weekend following the offensive in which US Special Forces and Kurdish troops
took control of the camp. Ansar al-Islam is the terrorist group that Colin
Powell described in his address to the UN Security Council. He said it had
links to al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein. After taking over the camp, US Special
Forces said they found evidence that Ansar al-Islam was developing chemical
and biological weapons. Charles Sennott saw the evidence before it was taken
away for further analysis. Sennott is a foreign correspondent for The Boston
Globe. He's covered the Middle East and the war in Afghanistan, and he's the
author of "The Body and The Blood," about the dwindling Christian population
in the Middle East.

This morning we called Sennott in Sulaymaniyah in the Kurdish-controlled
territory of northern Iraq. I asked him how he got access to the Ansar
al-Islam camp.

Mr. CHARLES SENNOTT (Correspondent, The Boston Globe; Author): Well, we got
access--it's kind of an interesting question, because we basically had to
bluff our way into that zone. It was completely closed to reporters. And
it's really kind of a war within a war. It's essentially a war on terrorism
up in the northern mountainous region, up near the border of Iraq, in northern
Iraq, that is completely separate from the wider campaign to topple Saddam

But as you pointed out, Colin Powell made a very big issue of Ansar al-Islam
when he was speaking to the UN and really making the case for this war. If
you remember, he cited their chemical weapons lab that he said they had up
there. He cited their contacts and ties to al-Qaeda. And he claimed that
they were also connected to the regime in Baghdad. Very little of that has
been proven to date, but that's what that war was about, and they really shut
it down. The Kurdish militia, at the request of the US Special Forces, were
told to close the zone.

And I was traveling with a reporter from The London Observer. And both of us
apparently look slightly military, I guess, because we told our driver to
simply tell the border guards that we were Americans, which in my case is
true; in Jason's case it's a bit of a stretch. And we basically nodded very
confidently. And I think they thought we were Special Forces. And then we
got into that zone and basically had a very unique view of that whole

GROSS: So you were there when the Special Forces took over the camp?

Mr. SENNOTT: We were there watching from almost--it almost felt like a Civil
War battlefield position, right in the valley on a rooftop of a local
commander's house who we had befriended. And we could see the entire campaign
unfold in the mountains right above us. It was far too risky to go up into
the hills where the actual, you know, ground invasion was happening, and we
could see the firefights between the Ansar al-Islam, Islamic militants and the
ground troops of the Kurdish fighters who were working in concert with the US
Special Forces.

But essentially we could see as dusk fell--you could see this whole battle
unfold, and what US Special Forces in a very unique press briefing that
happened yesterday--very rare for these Special Forces to describe what they
were doing, but they told us, essentially, `This is a model in the war on
terrorism,' where they work with local forces with a combination of heavy air
strikes and heavy airpower from--excuse me, heavy ground forces to really push
Ansar Islam out of its positions and send them fleeing into the hills and then
come after them from the other angle as well and try to basically seal them.

Essentially for those of us who covered Afghanistan, this looked a lot like
Tora Bora, the battle against al-Qaeda in the caves of Tora Bora, except this
time they seemed to have perfected it, essentially, or at least improved it.
And they really did have great success, not only in destroying the
infrastructure of this terrorist group, but in killing and in capturing and in
forcing others to flee from their positions. So they were very proud of this.

I'm not sure I agree with them on their assessment that it was such a success.
I think many more members of the 600 fighters of Ansar Islam got away than
were captured or killed. But nonetheless, the US Special Forces were really
painting this as a model.

GROSS: Well, you were able to actually go into the camp after it was secured
by the Special Forces and the Kurdish fighters. Can you set the scene for us,
give us a sense of what this camp looked like?

Mr. SENNOTT: Yeah. We came in on the morning after this very wild firefight
and pounding of the positions from the air. I've never seen aerial
bombardment like that. It was over 100 air strikes in a very small string of
villages up in the mountains.

And when we arrived in Viaro(ph), which was the central stronghold, there's
kind of wind blowing through this rubble of what was once their stronghold,
and literally you could see that the US air strikes had damaged a mosque there
and they had destroyed all of their buildings where they had their military
headquarters. And we saw--one thing that we were very interested in is the
documents that come from this group, and they're literally blowing around in
the rubble. And I was working with a reporter and a translator and we were
all going through these documents as quickly as we could. And we really did
see some documents that established connections to the theology of al-Qaeda
and kind of ideological similarities to things that we saw in Afghanistan.

We also saw a lot of bomb belts that they had abandoned. These are suicide
bomber bomb belts that they had just left behind. And we also came across a
very crude what appeared to be chemical weapons lab, but I want to stress the
word `crude.' It really looked like--you know, it was essentially a big
wooden box filled with these horrifying-looking little bottles and handwritten
notes in notebooks that used words like `botulism' and `ricin,' and, you
know, it was pretty horrifying stuff and all of it very confusing to us, as
reporters and not scientists, and so we very safely kept our distance.

But there was a member of the Kurdish forces there who's in a security unit
who was gathering all of this. And he posed it very well by saying, you know,
`We don't know what this is and we're going to get it tested, but you might
ask why the mayor's office is experimenting with deadly chemicals.' It was a
pretty good question.

The US Special Forces yesterday held this briefing where they told us that
they believe they now have documents and equipment that leads them to believe
that there were attempts there to create chemical and biological weapons. So
it's very scary stuff, but it all needs to still be analyzed.

I think the most chilling thing that I saw there, though, was a note that was
left behind. It was the last will of a suicide bomber. And he was
essentially writing to his father, trying to describe to his father why he
wanted to become a martyr, as he would see himself as a martyr, and talking
about jihad and talking about how he asks his family for forgiveness and that
he hopes they will accept his ideology and accept him as a martyr, and very
much inside the mind-set of this al-Qaeda grouping that sees itself as part of
a jihad in which they believe, if they fight to the death, they are martyrs.

And I think that was very eloquently and horrifyingly expressed in this note
that we found just written on white notebook paper and very carefully folded
and signed by Abdul Hani(ph), and that was the only signature on it. But that
does match one of the names of the suicide bombers who has struck here

GROSS: Well, Charles, you actually reprinted that letter in The Boston Globe,
so I thought I'd read it for our listeners. The letter from the suicide
bomber to his father read: `I ask my family for forgiveness for any errors I
have made. Dear Father, what shall I write to you when I have only tonight
before my body is to be covered with TNT? Father, what can I write to you
when my body will be shattered tonight? My spirit will last, but my body will
not. I pray you accept me as a martyr.' Yeah. So I could see why you were
pretty amazed to find that.

Mr. SENNOTT: Yeah. It's very creepy to...

GROSS: Yeah. Uh-huh.

Mr. SENNOTT: this and begin to put together all of these pieces of
something that--you know, I've been following militant Islam for way too long,
having met these guys for about nine or 10 years and seeing very nascent
al-Qaeda even in the Sudan back in '93, where I saw bin Laden for the first
time holding a conference and stretching that all the way forward in Algeria
and Egypt and the West Bank and now, of course, the war in Afghanistan.

And there really is a feeling I have here that the war on Ansar al-Islam, as
small a pocket of this war--this larger war against Saddam Hussein--as a small
a pocket as this is, to me it's actually the bigger war. I mean, if the first
Gulf War created Osama bin Laden and his idea for al-Qaeda, I think this
second Gulf War has really more deeply entrenched that ideology, it's widened
its vision and to some extent, it's a fulfillment of its very doomsday
scenario of a clash of civilizations or a war between the West and Islam, or
as they see it and we saw in many of the documents blowing in the wind in
these little villages, this is the war against the Zionist Crusader alliance,
as they see it. And so to me there is a sense of just how this all so
self-fulfilling that's captured in this little pocket of villages up in the
mountains near Iran.

GROSS: Charles, can you tell us more about what was written in that
literature that you saw flying around in the breeze when you entered the Ansar
al-Islam camp?

Mr. SENNOTT: I'm going to have to do it in a few days because we have some of
it and we're going through it, and it's very difficult Arabic, a theological
language. But essentially, in general terms, it spells out a very Wahabi
vision of Islam. And the Wahabi sect is the part of Islam that emerges out of
Saudi Arabia, and many of these documents are from Saudi Arabia.

So you have a component within Ansar al-Islam that reflects this ideology, and
we could kind of see two sets of documents. We could see the Kurdish Islamic
militant documents, and then we can see those documents that apparently the
forces of al-Qaeda had brought with them into this camp. So you could in a
way see, just through the documents blowing around in the rubble, the melding
of these two ideologies, or perhaps even the hijacking of the Kurdish
Islamists by the al-Qaeda ideological militants who had moved in here.

And I think we're going to see a lot more of this in Iraq. I think the Iraq
will become the new battleground for al-Qaeda. We're already seeing some
evidence of this with the suicide bombing the other day that killed the US
forces. And we're going to see attempts to create ports of entry for the
Afghan Arabs, as they call them. Those Arabs who trained in Afghanistan in
terrorist camps are going to be looking for ports of entry into Iraq, and
Ansar al-Islam is just one of those ports. We've heard from the Iraqi
government that they have, you know, 4,000, quote, "Arab volunteers" who they
believe many of whom will carry out suicide bombings.

GROSS: Well, yesterday, the Iraqi minister of information basically called on
all Muslims to join the jihad against the United States. So what effect do
you think that's going to have?

Mr. SENNOTT: I think that it this interesting coopting of Islamic militant
language by one of the most secular regimes in the Middle East, which is the
Ba'ath Party under Saddam Hussein. These are fiercely secular people who are
so desperate that they're calling in the Islamists who they have, for many
years and many decades even, perceived as their enemy. So I think there's a
whiff of desperation to that call, but there's also a scent of the future,
which is a coalescing of Islamic militant groups around the issue of what they
will perceive as the US occupation of Iraq.

And I, in touring these villages yesterday--again, I went up into the villages
of Sergut and Viaro, where Ansar al-Islam had its strongholds. And in the
village of Sergut, the US Special Forces had hit a mosque, and you could see
that part of the building is sheared off. And there was an image that we were
not allowed to photograph. In fact, the US Special Forces were quite forceful
in telling us not to photograph them. But it was the kind of image that I
think militant Islam, you know, basically is their worst fear. This is how
they look at this conflict. And that was these very supped-up, heavily armed,
very intense-looking US Special Forces with sunglasses on walking over the
rubble of a mosque in a village of Islamic militants that's been destroyed.
And just the way they were pushing up through it with the minaret in the
background--it's the kind of image that fulfills everything the Islamic
militants see in this. And I think the Ba'ath Party is being very cynical
and, in some evil way, very smart about appealing to that and trying to tell
all of the Islamic militants to `Come help us.' And I think if that does
happen, that will greatly complicate not only this war in Iraq, but the many
months--and some predict even possibly years--in which the US still plays an
active involvement on the ground in Iraq.

GROSS: My guest is Charles Sennott, foreign correspondent for The Boston
Globe. He's speaking to us from Sulaymaniyah in northern Iraq. More after a
break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Charles Sennott. He's joining
us by phone from Sulaymaniyah in northern Iraq, and it's the part of Iraq that
is Kurdish-controlled. He's a foreign correspondent for The Boston Globe.
He's one of the few reporters who was actually able to go into the terrorist
camp in northern Iraq, Ansar al-Islam, and to walk around and investigate it a
bit after US Special Forces and Kurdish troops took over the camp.

Charles, one of the things that the Bush administration has said about this
camp is that it was tied to the regime of Saddam Hussein, and Colin Powell
referred to that in his speech before the UN when he was making the case that
the UN had to authorize--you know, sanction this war with Iraq. Did you find
any evidence of connections between this terrorist camp and the regime of
Saddam Hussein?

Mr. SENNOTT: No, none at all. And the US Special Forces, although they did
confirm, you know, that they had some evidence and some documents that would
indicate the presence of chemical and possibly biological weapons, they
stopped short of saying that they found direct connections to the regime in
Iraq. I think they're a long way from proving that.

And we have also heard from some of the top Kurdish security officials here
who we've managed to talk to who are actually very uncertain about those
links. You know, politicians in the Kurdish-controlled area will say the
links are direct, but when you get to the level of those who are actually
researching it, they have very little to prove it. It's a great suspicion,
but there seems to be very little proof of that as of yet. But I think--one
of the things that we've heard is that there are CIA teams here now gathering
all of this evidence, and they're going to be sifting through it and
presumably looking for those connections.

GROSS: Now you've said that the chemical--the poisons and botulism and
chemicals that you found seem to be very crude. Would you describe what you
found, what it looked like?

Mr. SENNOTT: Well, we saw--it was a wooden box, essentially, in a little
hovel of--almost like a side room, cement, about 10-by-10, filled with
explosives and also, as I say, this small wooden box which contained bottles;
some of them, you know, using socks as stoppers. I mean, this was just
absolutely crude-looking stuff. But written on some of the labels were
different chemical compounds that can be used apparently in the development of
botulism, at least according to the documents that were inside the box that we
saw a Kurdish security official leafing through. And he was translating for
us some of these documents, and they appeared to be about, you know, somehow
isolating botulism and also developing ricin. We obviously wanted to keep out
distance from all of this stuff. We did not have our chemical suits on or our
masks, and it was one of those things that you fall upon when you're
researching one of these stories right after it's happened.

I just think there's a lot to show that they were experimenting and that they
certainly had a horrifying intent to create this stuff. But I don't want to
scare everyone in terms of them having an advanced chemical-biological lab
there. There really was no evidence of that.

GROSS: There were Kurdish soldiers who were helping to clean up the chemicals
and remove them from the camp at Ansar al-Islam. Did they have gas masks and
chemical suits on when they were touching this stuff?

Mr. SENNOTT: No, they didn't. It was something we asked them about, and we
actually advised them to do so.

But it was just one of those chance findings. We were literally making our
way very delicately through this rubble of this village, because there can
still be unexploded ordnance or landmines or even booby traps in some of these
buildings. So we were walking very delicately, very carefully through this.
And we came upon the remains of this one building that was an Ansar
headquarters, and we saw the man going through all these documents very
diligently and looking at all these chemicals. And we, from a distance of
about six feet, asked him what he was doing. And in a 10-minute conversation
we quickly, you know, visually surveyed what was there and asked him to come
outside with the documents and tell us what's going on. And when he began to
do a very rough translation from Arabic of what these documents seemed to
indicate, which was, as I say, a very crude experiment maybe in botulism and
possibly in ricin. The translation is very difficult when you're dealing with
chemical compounds that I don't know well coming at us via Arabic to Kurdish
to English. But we clearly advised him, `This is very dangerous.' And he
said, `Well, I'm just going to seal this and we'll be bringing it to our
security forces.'

So you had a sense, also, of a very chaotic chain of evidence in this, that
you wonder how it's going to get eventually to the CIA if, indeed, there were
CIA agents on the ground who are experts in this, as we've been told by the
Kurdish authorities. `How do they get evidence like that? How do they know
it's clean? How do they know it's genuine?' was a real question for us.

GROSS: Charles Sennott is a foreign correspondent for The Boston Globe. He's
in Sulaymaniyah in northern Iraq. Our interview was recorded this morning.
We'll hear more of it in the second half of the show.

I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)


(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Coming up, we continue our talk with Charles Sennott about Ansar
al-Islam, and he'll tell us about some of the challenges he's faced in
covering the war in northern Iraq.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with more of the interview
we recorded this morning with Charles Sennott, foreign correspondent for The
Boston Globe. He's currently in Sulaymaniyah, in the Kurdish-controlled
territory of northern Iraq. He's one of the few journalists who got access to
the Ansar al-Islam terrorist camp in northern Iraq, just after US Special
Forces and Kurdish fighters took control of it over the weekend. Sennott saw
the evidence that these terrorists were developing chemical and biological

Charles, I know one of the things that you're concerned about is the
possibility that Ansar al-Islam is actually targeting journalists in northern
Iraq. What makes you think that journalists are their target?

Mr. SENNOTT: Well, we've heard this from Kurdish intelligence officials, and
we probably could dismiss that as them trying to scare us and keep us out of
the area, but when one of the suicide bombings struck at a checkpoint, it
happened at a checkpoint where many journalists were gathered throughout the
day, interviewing essentially civilians who were fleeing the area of Ansar
al-Islam because of the pending US air strikes there. And as these cars were
pouring out of this checkpoint, there was a long line of traffic, and there
were approximately 25 journalists gathered there, more journalists than there
were Kurdish military, and that is the point at which the suicide bomber chose
to, you know, detonate his explosives, and one of the people he killed was an
Australian journalist for ABC, Australian Broadcasting, and you know, he
injured the translator, and he killed, I believe, it was two other Kurdish
military officers who were at the site.

But one of the indicators was that the journalist, Paul Moran, was actually
leaning forward to get footage of the bomber's vehicle when the pin was
pulled. So putting that together with the warnings, we have a sense that they
may actually be targeting American journalists, because we are a very visible
presence on the ground for them, or at least we were before the Kurdish forces
closed the area for the offensive. So it's a feeling and it's also to some
extent been borne out by what we've seen.

GROSS: Why do you think they might want to target journalists?

Mr. SENNOTT: I think the American and the Western journalists here travel in
very large, you know, convoys. And there are satellites, and there is a sense
of so many journalists covering this war, many of whom haven't covered the
Middle East for very long, many of whom are great veterans who've covered it
for many more years than I have. But there really is a sense of a all-out
effort by the networks and by the newspapers and by the magazines to put as
many people in here as possible, and I think in some way, we, as Western
journalists are an image, a kind of presence for them, you know. We
definitely look Western, and they see little that would matter to them to
distinguish us from the military or from the government. To them the media is
an extension of what they see as this crusade, essentially, in Iraq.

So I think they've come to view us as part of the problem as well, and so a
lot of us who are journalists who've worked in the Middle East, we always put
on our cars, `TV.' We take tape and we write the letters T-V, which have
become this international symbol that we think gives us immunity. But in this
war zone, all of us have been stripping that tape off of the car and making
sure that we don't have any visible signs of being the press, because we
really do feel a target here. Even our hotels, for example, have the military
out in front of them. We've had to have roads blocked in the back so that we
can't have a suicide bomber out there, and we've had a lot of warnings that
our hotels where we've been staying are going to be targeted.

So it's a combination of warnings, it's a combination of just a sense of
things, and it's scary to be a reporter here in that way, because you no
longer feel that sense of immunity. You feel very much in the eyes of the
Islamic militants that you are part of the problem.

GROSS: Charles, who was Ansar al-Islam actually fighting? Were they fighting
the Kurds? Were they fighting Saddam Hussein? Were they preparing to fight
America? What were their targets?

Mr. SENNOTT: Ansar al-Islam for two years has waged a very bloody insurgency,
using assassinations and suicide bombings and guerrilla hit-and-run tactics on
the very secular government of the Kurdish forces. You know, this is the
Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, which controls the eastern sector of the Kurdish
zone that 3.5 million Kurds carved out for themselves after 1991 in the failed
uprising, when the US came in with a no-fly zone to protect them, so there's
this secular government that controls that zone in the north, and is trying to
create a model of democracy in the Middle East, and tried to develop an
economy and to push forward ideas that could be seen as a kind of model for a
post-Saddam Iraq.

That's certainly the way the Kurds would see it. But from the Islamic
militants' point of view, it was a very secular vision and one that had been
co-opted by the West. So their government--excuse me--the Islamic militants
have been very clear in targeting that secular Kurdish government. They've
assassinated their leaders; they've attacked their troops. It's been a very
bloody war up in the hills for two years.

Now what's interesting is with the US invasion of Iraq, and now the presence
of the US Special Forces here, Ansar al-Islam has been, of course, gravely
diminished and all of its infrastructure reduced to rubble. But its vision
for its war has widened. Now that vision for who is the enemy of Ansar
al-Islam takes on a much wider camera angle to include not only the secular
Kurdish government but also the forces of the US government that have come
into Iraq. So in that sense, it becomes very much part of this
self-fulfilling prophecy of the clash of civilization.

You know, I hate to use that phrase. It's an idea I don't even subscribe to,
I don't believe in. And I think it's actually a very dangerous way to view
the world. But I'm very interested to see, and horrified to see, the way in
which it feels like it really is playing out here. Ansar al-Islam has
suddenly been put on the map. The 300 or 400 who survived this intense
offensive I think will be back, and I think their definition of their enemy
has changed and broadened way beyond the secular Kurdish government and very
myopic view to a much larger one and grander one, and one that Osama bin Laden
really wishes upon all the militant Islamic groups to share with him.

GROSS: My guest is Charles Sennott, foreign correspondent for The Boston
Globe. He's speaking to us from Sulaymaniyah in northern Iraq. More after a
break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Let's get back to the interview we recorded earlier today with Charles
Sennott of The Boston Globe. He's currently in Sulaymaniyah in northern Iraq.
He's one of the few journalists who got access to the Ansar al-Islam terrorist
camp in northern Iraq after it was taken over by coalition forces.

The Saddam Hussein regime is calling on all Muslims to join the jihad against
the United States. I asked Sennott if he thinks the war might be motivating
more people to become terrorists.

Mr. SENNOTT: I think it was a warning that a lot of people gave to the Bush
administration as they ventured into this war that it could greatly undercut
the larger war on terrorism, that it could actually ignite the Arab world and
the militant Islamic units within it to really increase their war on the US,
on the West. But I have to say as a journalist who's covered Baghdad on and
off for many years, have been there many times and kind of known about the
brutality of that regime, as a reporter up here among the Kurds, and having
been in this valley where Ansar al-Islam is and seeing the aftermath, these 15
years later, of the chemical attack that Saddam Hussein did on Halabjah, you
begin to really understand, you know, just how brutal this regime has been to
its people, especially to the Kurds.

And for me, it's my first time in Kurdistan, as they would call it, or
northern Iraq, where I've actually heard Iraqis talking about what they've
suffered, and you see these destroyed villages. For example, many of the
villages that Ansar al-Islam has used for its strongholds were destroyed by
Saddam Hussein. They were leveled, and they were made rubble. People came
back and slowly rebuilt them, and in the real bitterness and cynicism toward
the West, that it did nothing to help the victims of Saddam Hussein's regime,
was created a militant Islamic movement. So to some extent, the hatred of
Saddam's regime that went ignored by America in the late 1980s, when he was
still perceived on some level as a kind of de facto ally because of the
Iran-Iraq War, that really laid some of the groundwork for this militant
movement, and that militant movement took hold after 1991, but it really has
its roots, in a sense, of betrayal by the West towards the Kurds. So it's a
very complex picture in which you see and hear the absolute outrage at the
brutality of the regime, and on the other hand, some of that brutality and the
West's indifference to it for a long time helped create the militant Islamic
movement that is now also our enemy.

So you see here all the complexity of the pictures that come into this thing,
and yes, I do think this war in Iraq will undercut the war on terrorism. I
also think our policies in the Middle East, going back to the late 1980s, when
we were indifferent to the way Saddam Hussein was treating his people, has
also contributed to the militant Islamic movement, so again, it's the Middle
East, so it's always complex, but it does have a lot of layers here, and in
the battle on Ansar al-Islam, I think you see all of the complexity that's
really going on in this war in Iraq.

GROSS: What is the biggest of the bombing campaigns that you've witnessed so
far in northern Iraq?

Mr. SENNOTT: We've been staying at a commander's house, and interestingly and
very sadly, this commander who invited us to stay at his home was the first
killed in the battle on Ansar al-Islam. And the day of his funeral, we went
back to the border village near Kirkuk, this border village--it's called
Chamchamal--and that day, some of the Kurdish fighters brought us inside, past
the border of the Kurdish zone, into the Iraqi zone, where the troops had
retreated, and we got down fairly close to Kirkuk, about 15 kilometers from
Kirkuk, and we were able to see very, very heavy air strikes in and around the
area of the Khalid base. This is one of the major military bases inside
Kirkuk, and you could just see absolute carpet bombing of these positions, and
you could also hear it. You could hear the earth just pounding like a bass
drum from repeated bombing. We stayed for about an hour, and I would say we
heard well over 20 or 30 air strikes just in that time frame, and some of the
Kurdish fighters had told us this has been going on all day.

So this sense that right now, in the last few days and today and into, we
expect, tonight, you're going to have an intensification of bombing aimed at
taking out the Republican Guard that is based around Kirkuk and Mosul.

GROSS: Are there that many targets, or are a lot of the bombs hitting the
same target over and over again, just for the kind of shock effect and for the
demoralization effect and fear factor of this constant bombing?

Mr. SENNOTT: It's really hard for us to tell. We're too far away to know.
It would be very dangerous to go into Saddam Hussein-controlled Iraq to check.
We are, you know, unilaterals. We're not with American troops here. We're
the journalists working alone on the ground inside Iraq, so there's no
protection of armor, there's just, you know, our vehicle, so we haven't been
able to get a very good look at that. But it certainly looks, from the way
we're eyeballing it, and looking at maps that have been provided to us of
Kirkuk, like they're doing a steady bombing of the Khalid base, and they're
also trying to hit the Ba'ath Party apparatus that exists within the city of

Kirkuk is a very interesting city that is very coveted. It's really the prize
of the war in the north, not only because of its vast oil reserves, but
because it's really considered almost like the promised land to the Kurds, and
the Kurds have been forced out through the years by this policy of
Arabization. Their homes have been taken from them by the Ba'ath Party and
their lands have been taken, and they were pushed out. So the people who we
are watching this bombing of Kirkuk with are cheering, you know. The Kurds
are cheering the bombing of that city, because they believe it's going to
destroy the regime and that they will then be allowed to push forward and
reclaim their land.

But that promises to be a very messy fight inside Kirkuk, because you have not
only strong elements of Ba'ath and the Republican Guard, but you also have
tribes who've taken Kurdish land and who the regime have armed. So there are
great concerns about a potential bloodbath inside Kirkuk, because it's such
an ethnic tinderbox, and the Human Rights Watch has actually issued a report
warning the United States that it's not doing enough to plan ahead for when
Kirkuk falls to have the Kurds move back in without igniting a very, very
serious interethnic explosion of violence.

GROSS: Now you've been meeting some people who have friends and relatives who
are in Kirkuk, and you've been able to find out through these people what life
is like now in Kirkuk, and you reported that the Saddam Hussein regime has
actually clamped down on Kirkuk and things are worse than ever there. What
have you been hearing?

Mr. SENNOTT: Well, we've had some very disturbing phone calls with actually
relatives of some of the people who've been helping us here. A driver and a
translator were trying to touch base with their families inside Kirkuk, and
yes, they're talking about Ba'ath Party members who are, you know, well armed,
walking in the streets with a bullhorn, telling the Kurdish neighborhoods
anyone who comes out of their home will be shot on sight. We have reports
that have been confirmed by very high-level Kurdish officials who have
contacts within the opposition inside Kirkuk that 61 members of the opposition
were rounded up and summarily executed in the Khalid camp, the same camp
that's now getting the intense bombing. Those reports seem to be genuine,
because they're consistent with--the people we've reached in the town have
heard about it and the officials have heard about it, so there is a sense of
truth to that.

Very hard to know what's really going on in there, but we've also heard
reports of 1,500 young men have been rounded up and put on buses and taken to
God knows where, somewhere in Iraq, under suspicion that they were part of an
opposition movement. We've also heard reports of a tribe that refused to take
up arms for the regime had several hundred members of its tribe killed as a
result. That report is less confirmed. We're still working on really trying
to nail that down, but we've just kind of had a scene for us painted of life
in there of a very intense and horrifying sense of the fear of this regime
taking hold and clamping down on any possible uprising that could happen
inside Kirkuk or inside Mosul.

GROSS: You know, you had mentioned that the Kurdish commander whose house you
were staying at was killed in the battle at Ansar al-Islam. What was your
relationship like with him?

Mr. SENNOTT: He was just a very generous man, and we began to befriend him,
and he really just took to us and we took to him, and we kind of got to know a
lot about the life of Kurdish families through him. He is married, with two
wives. He has four children. He invited us into his home. His family had
fled, because they live on a front-line village, and so they went up into the
mountains, and he allowed us to stay with him in his home. And then when he
went on to do the big offensive on Ansar al-Islam, he invited us to stay there
and offered us even bodyguards from his fairly large tribe that lives around
this town of Chamchamal, so we had a very safe, very fortified house where we
could stay.

And we learned about his story as a peshmerga, as the Kurdish fighters are
called, and peshmerga stands for `those who face death.' It's a very long
fight for them, since at least the 1970s, where they've been fighting for
Kurdish independence up in the north and fighting against the regime of Saddam
Hussein. He had been shot 19 times. He was a tremendously brave man, but he
was also, as I say, very generous and very gentle in some way. And when we
got news from his family that he had been the first killed in the fight on
Ansar al-Islam, we were just, you know, really saddened by it. It really hit

It made this conflict feel very personal for us, and when we went to the
funeral, you know, we went not as reporters, and it's always refreshing on
some level. I mean, terribly sad, of course, but you feel like you're just
part of this community, suddenly, that you've been thrust into in a way that
exists beyond your reporting, and you can relate to these people on a human
level, and we really mourned with them, and we sat as they read the Muslim
prayer for the dead, which is a very beautiful and sad reading of the Koran,
and you could hear the clicking of Kalashnikovs mixing with the clacking of
prayer beads, and there was a sense of feeling it, of feeling what they've
gone through for so many years in their fight against Saddam Hussein and now
in their fight against Ansar al-Islam, that we connected on a level that you
never could if you just came at it as a reporter.

And I think we also got to meet a man who was really a great man, and who we
had hoped to go into Kirkuk with, because his family is from that part of
Iraq, and he was very excited about showing it to us. And I know when the
northern front finally does really open and we get into Kirkuk, we're going to
be thinking about him, because the last thing we did is hand him a whole bunch
of cigars for his battle against Ansar, and he said, `I'm not going to smoke
these until we all get to Kirkuk.'

GROSS: My guest is Charles Sennott, foreign correspondent for The Boston
Globe. He's speaking to us from Sulaymaniyah in northern Iraq. More after a
break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Let's get back to the interview we recorded earlier today with Charles
Sennott of The Boston Globe. He's in Sulaymaniyah in the Kurdish-controlled
territory of northern Iraq.

Charles, what's your typical day like now? Do you have any time when you're
not covering the war? Do you have anything that would resemble down time?

Mr. SENNOTT: Well, it hasn't happened so far. I think we may have a few of
those days in the near future, but the hard part about covering the north has
been having to travel great distances between the two fronts. We have the
front near Kirkuk, and then when we hear there's action with Ansar al-Islam,
we have peel back and drive about two and a half hours through some very
dangerous areas to get up into the battle for Ansar al-Islam, so it's been
very much covering a war on two different fronts, and kind of keeping two
completely separate files straight in your head on what you're covering, and
kind of doing a split-screen war that way.

The sense we have, though, is that things are going to hit a lull here in the
north, because the Kurdish forces have been told not to go and push toward
Kirkuk. You know, there are approximately 60,000 fighters, if you take the
whole grouping of all the Kurdish fighters, east and west, and they, of
course, did take Kirkuk in 1991, and the US failed to support their uprising.
They've done it before; they feel they could do it again, but the US is
imploring them not to do it because it would so inflame the diplomatic
situation with Turkey, who worries about its Kurdish neighbors. And so we
feel like we're about to hit a lull, and frankly, I don't know what I'll do
with myself if we do.

I have yet to take the time to really view a lot of this countryside, and it's
absolutely beautiful. Unfortunately, I've been looking up into beautiful
snowcapped mountains and beautiful pastures with spring flowers up in the
northern parts near the Halabjah Valley, right on the border with Iran, and
those areas are stunningly beautiful, and we've had no time to really stop and
look at them and actually get a sense of the rhythm of life in this area. Now
that the offensive is over on Ansar al-Islam, we're going to plan to go up
there if we can tomorrow and actually just do exactly what you said, try to
get a sense of what is normal life like here. How quickly can they get back
to the daily flow of farming and of the kind of traditional tribal work that's
done in those areas? And I think that'll be refreshing and interesting to go
and take a look at that.

GROSS: Are you traveling completely alone or are you mostly traveling with
other journalists?

Mr. SENNOTT: I'm actually traveling with a group of four journalists, one of
whom is my brother, Richard, Rick Sennott, who works for the Minneapolis Star
Tribune, and his correspondent, Paul--my brother is a photographer, and he's
working with a correspondent, Paul--and a friend of mine from The London
Observer. We have two reporting teams, three vehicles, two translators, a lot
of gasoline, sleeping bags, a lot of, you know, oranges and water so that we
can just stay mobile. And we've been sleeping out most nights on the front
towards Kirkuk on a commander's floor, and staying, for example, in the
hospital in Halabjah, or staying in a small barracks off of a commander's
fortress, essentially, up near the Ansar al-Islam front. And when we get
caught between the two fronts, there is a hotel in Sulaymaniyah where we can
actually clean up and get some food and then head out again.

So it's very much this rolling convoy in which we just keep working together
and keep trying to check each other on our different spirits of aggression of
trying to get out and get the story. And there's a good wisdom that comes
with a team in trying to keep each other safe.

GROSS: Do you have any music or books with you?

Mr. SENNOTT: I have a lot of books on Iraq, and I'm getting greatly bored by
them, and my friend has got a book, a novel, titled "Zanzibar," by Giles
Foden, which I'm just starting into, and I don't like it that much so far, but
we'll see if it gets better. But I've read up a lot on Iraq, on the Kurds,
which I needed to learn a lot about. I've been reading--David McDowell has
written a history of the Kurds, a modern history of the Kurds, which is an
excellent book, and it was about 400 pages, so that took me quite a while.
And I'm reading Patrick Cockburn's book, "Out of the Ashes," about Saddam
Hussein, so it's mostly been reading related to work, and everyone is
scrounging around for novels at this point, to see if anyone can lend them to
each other, and other than that, we spend a little bit of time listening to
some tapes, driving around, not much because you want to be able to hear
incoming artillery, for example, so listening to the radio is not a great
idea, or listening to tapes is not a great idea.

The most common thing we do is sit around at night, listening to the BBC on
shortwave and, if we can find it, drinking these very coveted beers here
called effet(ph), and talking about what's going to happen in the war, and
feeling very much that the northern front has not yet completely opened, and
we wonder how it's going to unfold, and what will happen to the overall war as
a result of the northern front being so strong.

GROSS: Well, Charles, I wish you safety and good health as you cover this
war, and thank you so much for talking with us about some of the things that
you've witnessed. Thank you so much.

Mr. SENNOTT: Thank you.

GROSS: Charles Sennott is a foreign correspondent for The Boston Globe. He's
currently in Sulaymaniyah in northern Iraq. He's also the author of the book
"The Body and the Blood," about the diminishing Christian population in the
Middle East. Our interview was recorded this morning.


GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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