Kurdish bazaars sell the wares of war to journalists

Reporters haggle over the price of bulletproof vests and gas masks that might save their lives in combat.

For journalists preparing for war, the shopping list is endless. But here in Sulaymaniyah, a city in the Kurdish-controlled part of northern Iraq, the bazaar is ready for us.

One corner of the city's main market is devoted to things military. Bolts of camouflage material, in patterns ranging from jungle classic to desert beige, adorn the walls of tiny stalls maintained by men with sewing machines.

It's a haberdashery for the pesh merga or "those who face death," as the Kurdish fighters are known. Boots, caps, holsters, and web belts hang on the walls. There are no weapons here - they are sold elsewhere - but there is just about everything else a soldier might need.

Some of the items of war are useful to those who cover it. Most foreign journalists have arrived here equipped with bulletproof vests as well as suits and gas masks designed to provide protection against chemical or biological attack.

Most also quickly understand that they won't be able to don such gear if their drivers and interpreters aren't similarly equipped. With that realization I began my visits to the military market. The Kurdish-controlled areas of northern Iraq are smuggler economies, so most things are available to those with persistence and cash. First on the list: gas masks.

I inspected dozens of masks, first in Arbil, the biggest city in the Kurdish-run areas, and later here in Sulaymaniyah. In this part of the world, there is nothing hypothetical about the threat of chemical weapons. In the late-1980s, Iraqi forces killed thousands of Kurds using chemical and perhaps biological agents in at least 60 villages.

Earlier in the decade, Iranian and Iraqi forces repeatedly used chemical weapons during their eight-year conflict. Some of the masks I saw looked as if they had been ripped off the faces of that war's dead. Their filter canisters were battered, their seals obviously broken.

The breakthrough came in Sulaymaniyah last weekend: One stall owner had two new masks with sealed canisters, one from Turkey, the other from South Korea. Sold.

Next: flak jackets. The same stall owner sells used military-style vests with a ceramic chest-plate that can stop a high-velocity round. They are made by the same South African manufacturer that produced the vest I use. A colleague with superb bargaining skills brought the price down from $300 to $150 per vest, and they were ours.

It has not been as easy to find chemical suits. One stall owner in the Sulaymaniyah market showed me an Iraqi chemical-weapons suit, made from a gauzy green fabric lined with cellophane, which by now had become as yellowed as a piece of old tape. I passed.

A Kurdish interpreter who served in the Iraqi Army during the first Gulf war led me to a stall devoted to rain gear. The owner makes suits of white, rubberized fabric. I ordered several. Combined with rubber boots, latex gloves, a gas mask, and generous amounts of duct tape, the suits should provide enough protection to flee the scene of a chemical strike.

Right after survival on the priority list comes power. A colleague and I have acquired a small generator and a car battery. One of our drivers went to an electrician who made a gizmo we can use to connect the battery to a device that can recharge a satellite phone, a laptop, or a digital camera. Even in a powerless Iraqi city, we should be able to run our gadgetry.

The rest of the shopping is prosaic. Reporters' hotel rooms in Sulaymaniyah are stocked with bottles of water, bags of canned food, boxes of batteries, and detailed maps of Iraq.

I have worked in the West Bank, where journalists often use tape to mark their vehicles with the initials "TV" to ward off gunfire. Here in Sulaymaniyah, we are taking that precaution to the next level. A man who makes automobile decals is producing giant stickers of the letters for the roofs and sides of our four-wheel drives. Some journalists are welding poles to their vehicles in order to fly white flags. The motto: Move cautiously and conspicuously.

In the midst of all this preparation, the wait stretches on. Nobody wants war, but everyone wants to get on with it so they can go home. Some journalists have been here for three months.

The other night an American television network threw a party in the best hotel in Sulaymaniyah. "The storm before the storm," read the invitation. Scores of journalists attended, along with a dozen or so Kurdish officials. A Kurdish band entertained us with rhythmic dirges.

The badge of coolness in this crowd is to have covered the war in Afghanistan, which I didn't. So I sat with my Kurdish driver for a while. We surveyed the flourescent-lit ballroom.

Every journalistic genus was represented: battle-crazed photographer, giddy war neophyte, designer-clad television correspondent, nerdy newspaper reporter. Out of many a pocket protruded the blunt antenna of a satellite telephone. Everyone was having a good time.

Despite the convivial chatter, I told my driver that it is not a good sign when such people show up in your country. It usually means something nasty is about to happen.

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