Southern Turkey—January 1990
The cold was sickening, pressing in on him, hunching him over. He gripped his coat collar, keeping whatever warmth there was from escaping. The hours before dawn are the coldest in the frigid wasteland of the Anatolia Highlands of south-central Turkey. Here, the wind sweeps the semiarid high plateaus much like the American high deserts. With nothing to stop the wind, the cold pressed into Akmed’s soul.
He had little to prepare him for the weather—a light oiled wool coat and thin gloves. He crouched down behind a boulder, trying to keep his face protected from the blustering wind, his knee aching from the cold ground it rested on. He wondered if he would just go to sleep in this cold place before the sun rose. He had hallucinated at one point, seeing his father, sister, and older brother together, waving for him to join them. And then he had snapped out of it, realizing it was a vision, each having died by Iranian rockets in that war. His groan against the wind was met harshly by Uday, who hissed for Alea and him to be quiet.
He was close to the dam and the massive gray concrete pipes that extended downhill. Uday called them penstocks, a strange word that was difficult for him to say. He could make out forms, guards, moving above, lit by the lights on the top of the dam. The moonless and cloudless night was bright with stars. Looking away from the lit dam, he could barely discern whether hills were trees, rocks were shadows, or bushes were guards. He prayed to Allah for strength and for the night to be over.
The three had spent the night stringing wires that would bring the water back home to Iraq. The Turks had stolen the precious water to create farms and light their country in the Western way. Tonight they would change that, and the West would be powerless to intervene. Saddam Hussein had shown he was able to play the West. Uday had shown them a torn newspaper earlier. It reported the US Army War College just two weeks before had proclaimed that Iraq had adopted a peaceful nonaggression policy that would last a decade. Uday had read the tattered paper:
Baghdad should not be expected to deliberately provoke military confrontations with anyone. Its interests are best served now and in the immediate future by peace.…Force is only likely if the Iraqis feel seriously threatened.…It is our belief that Iraq is basically committed to a nonaggressive strategy and that it will, over the course of the next few years, considerably reduce the size of its military.
Akmed knew that Iraq would act in ways the West never could predict, and it would begin with him tonight.
He had spent hours in the cold at the concrete pipes that extended down the hill, connecting charges to the plastic explosives. Ali Hassan al-Majid, whom he had heard sometimes called Chemical Ali, had provided the explosive, boasting it was “the most powerful NATO has to offer.” Soon the water would be turned into these concrete paths for the last time. Detonated, the charges would ensure the water never stopped flowing. The charges were designed to damage, not destroy, the dam. Destruction of the dam would be devastating to Iraq. Damaged, it would not be able to impound water and would be forced to bypass the river’s flow. Turkey and the West would blame the Kurds, and the distraction would allow Iraq to secure Kuwait’s riches and unify the northern Gulf under Iraqi control.
The Euphrates and its tributary, the Tigris, had provided the cradle of civilization with all that it required for millennia, only now to be shut off by the Turks. For the last month, the river had been dry, stagnant pools collecting waste and mosquitos so the Turks could fill their new reservoirs.
And now it was war, and if it had an incidental benefit of the Turks blaming and retaliating against the Kurds, that was the genius of Saddam. Saddam had long tried to eradicate the Kurds—in this he could find common ground with the Turks.
Akmed knew he needed to stop such thoughts…he needed to focus. Removing his gloves, he cupped his hands over his ears and rubbed his eyes. He needed to wake, be alert. He had allowed his thoughts to take over and his senses to be dulled in the cold. Brought back to the present by the hiss of water filling the penstocks, he never heard the footsteps or the sound of the safety sliding off the rifle ten meters behind him.
For Akmed, the sight of Uday’s head exploding into mist next to him was surreal; it had come a split second before the sound of the shot. Akmed lunged away just in time to avoid the round meant for him, rolled behind an escarpment, and began to run down the hillside. He lost his footing, sliding and rolling against the jagged rocks. The RPGs exploded behind him, then in front of him. And then there was a burst of light as the grenade blast impacted him. He felt searing heat, smelled the acid stench of cordite, and slipped into blackness.