February 17, 2006

Lockdown

ERBIL, IRAQ – A Western journalist I met in Erbil, who has been in Iraq for some time, told me the place challenges almost every liberal idea he has ever had in his head. I don’t know what he was like, ideologically speaking, before he got there. But he certainly doesn’t have orthodox left-wing opinions today. (Some right-wingers, especially those who think of the entire Islamic religion as a totalitarian death cult, would likewise get a crash-course in reality if they ever bothered to hang out in Iraq and meet actual Muslims.)

I was only in Iraq for two days before I had to face the sort of thing my journalist friend was talking about.

Omar and Mohammad, the two brothers from Baghdad who write at Iraq the Model, were supposed to meet me in the “Sheraton” hotel lobby.

They emailed me from Kirkuk and said they would be there in a few hours. I waited. And waited. And they never showed up. Considering this was Iraq, I was worried. What if they were killed on their way to meet me? They would not have been on their way to Erbil if I had not invited them.

I checked my email again. They were back in Kirkuk. The Peshmerga turned them away at the “border.” They had been to Kurdistan only two weeks before (they went to Suleimaniya last time) but the Pesh told them Arabs were not allowed to enter Erbil without a Kurdish escort.

Gack! I was pissed off. These guys are my friends. So what if they’re Arabs? They are two of the last people in the world who would ever blow themselves up or kidnap anybody. This was racial profiling at its worst. They did nothing – nothing – to deserve that kind of humiliation. Two fine upstanding citizens were not allowed to visit a city in their own country for no reason whatsoever except that they are Arabs. And Iraq is an Arab-majority country.

I didn’t like it one bit. But I had to be honest about what was happening. I was in Iraq without a gun and without any bodyguards. The only reason that was possible is because freedom of movement – one of the most basic freedoms in the world - doesn’t exist in Iraq. Without hard internal borders the violence in the center could not be walled off from the north. The very policy that allowed me, a foreigner, to enter Erbil while my Iraqi friends couldn’t was the very policy that kept me alive. I had no choice but to be grateful for that policy, for my own sake as well as for the sake of Kurdish Iraqis, even though some of the results were deplorable and blatantly unfair to the majority of Arab Iraqis who will never hurt anyone.

One of the Kurdistan Regional Government’s deputy ministers agreed to help me get Omar and Mohammad across without a Kurdish escort. He phoned in their names at the “border” and gave them permission to pass solely because I asked him to. He trusted me more than he trusted his fellow Iraqis, which made me feel profoundly uncomfortable and embarrassed. But it took four days for him to make this happen, and by then it was too late. Omar and Mohammad had to be back in Baghdad for work. (I’m sorry, my friends. I wish it could have worked out.)

Arabs are allowed in, though. Not only are they allowed to visit Iraqi Kurdistan, they are allowed to move to Iraqi Kurdistan if they have the right connections and can prove that they aren’t a security threat. At least four people who work at the “Sheraton” are Arabs who recently resettled there. Two told me they are Arabs (I didn’t ask), and I heard two more speaking Arabic to each other.

The Kurds aren’t trying to build an ethnic-identity state. They just want to build a secure one. And they’re doing a good job, such a good job in fact that hardly any U.S. troops need to be there. I saw a handful of off-duty soldiers in the lobby of the “Sheraton” when I was checking in. But I never saw them again and I never saw any others. Only 200 are stationed in the entire region.

I later spoke to the Minister of the Interior in Suleimaniya for ten minutes (he’s a busy man) and he laughed out loud when he was asked how well the Kurds are getting along with the American military. “Ha ha ha, our relationship is very good,” he said.

(I went to see him because I was trying to get permission to meet the terrorist Qays Ibrahim in his prison cell. Ibrahim tried to kill Barham Salih, then-Prime Minister of the Kurdistan Regional Government. He says he will try to kill Barham again if he ever gets out. Meanwhile, Barham refuses to sign the man’s death warrant. (Liberalism does exist even in a crazy place like Iraq.) Unfortunately the Interior Minister couldn’t get me access. I was slightly surprised, though, that he did not find my request odd or disturbing.)

The Peshmerga are completely responsible for security in the region. The Iraqi army doesn’t exist up there. The Kurds will not allow it. The Pesh take orders from no one but their own semi-autonomous government.

Paul Bremer once referred to them as a “militia.” This did not go over well. Both sides have a point here. If Iraq is supposed to be one sovereign country, the state must have the monopoly on the use of force. Right now it doesn’t, just as Lebanon’s government doesn’t have a monopoly on the use of force because Hezbollah has its own state-within-a-state.

There are differences, though. The Kurds think of the Peshmerga as their own national guard. That “national guard” is necessary to protect them from the Iraqi army which has been partly infiltrated by Baathists. Also, the Peshmerga report to an actually existing autonomous elected government. Hezbollah doesn’t. Hezbollah reports to the deranged dictatorship in Iran.

More important, the Peshmerga’s primary job is to keep the peace in Northern Iraq. Hezbollah’s primary “job” is to keep Lebanon in a state of hot war with Israel. The Peshmerga are a bulwark against violence. Hezbollah is an instrument of violence.

Whether the Peshmerga are a “militia,” a “national guard,” or a blended third category, they do terrific work keeping their part of the country secure. Even so, it’s not quite enough for some people and organizations.

I met a Palestinian-American from Beirut who works as a private sector aid worker of sorts. I’ll call him J. He’s there with a company to help Iraqis get their agriculture sector back up to speed after the Oil-for-Food program demolished it. (Agriculture products – wheat, etc. – were brought in from outside the country and distributed socialist-style for free to every Iraqi through the UN while Iraq was under sanctions. Locals farmers, then, had no reason to grow any crops. Their market was almost completely destroyed, and so was their business.)

J’s company does not allow him to walk the streets of Iraq, not even in Kurdistan. He lives behind concrete bomb-blast walls. The entrance is guarded by men with guns.

He kindly invited me to have dinner with him and his lovely roommates at their house. When I stepped out of the car at the gate he pulled me into the compound by my arm and said “Let’s get off the street.”

It seemed a bit much to me. But I wasn’t so sure. Was he being paranoid? Or was I being careless? He had spent a lot more time there than I had. But he also lived under a strict security regime ordered from above. His firm had kidnapping insurance policies on all its employees. Kidnapping insurance! I had never even heard of such a thing. What a country, Iraq.

“I love my job,” he told me. “But you better not come here to work unless you really love your work. Would you accept even 200,000 dollars a year if you had to live in a prison? This would be a terrible place to live if you were only here for the money.”

He had spent time in Baghdad before coming to Kurdistan. “Baghdad is easier to take in some ways. There, you’re happy to be locked up with guards. Here it’s hard. I can’t help but think it would be perfectly fine if I went out to a restaurant or to a store, but I can’t.”

After dinner we watched Southpark on DVD, the episode where Cartman and the rest of the gang end up in Afghanistan and do battle with Osama bin Laden. It was one of those weird Middle East moments. I never thought I would laugh my ass off at Osama bin Laden with a Palestinian friend in Iraq (of all places) behind bomb-blast walls that didn’t seem necessary.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at February 17, 2006 9:50 AM
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Winner, The 2008 Weblog Awards, Best Middle East or Africa Blog

Winner, The 2007 Weblog Awards, Best Middle East or Africa Blog

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