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 09:50 AM
Comments

Do you feel comfortable making the comment you made above about Iran and then traveling there (which I think you mentioned plans to do in an earlier post)?

Posted by: Akiva at February 17, 2006 10:14 AM

If Iraq is supposed to be one sovereign country, the state must have the monopoly on the use of force.

That's true, if, the citiens of Iraq choose to allow their federal government to have a monopoly on the use of force. But, why should they? It appears that there may have been death squads operating within the Baghdad police. Suicide bombs are still going off every day or so and the only safe place in the country appears to be a place where citizens have taken responsibility for themselves. I'm not sure that their government has earned the privledge to hold a monopoly on the use of force.

I'm not at all sure that ceeding all power to the government is wise in any nation and surely not the current one in Iraq. Individuals must first and foremost provide for their own safety, their own security and their own survivability. to expect the government to provide for ones own survival seems a dangerous bet. Just as the individuals in NOLA should have had some sort of plan for their own survival, so should every individual. The Kurds appear to be taking good care of themselves and I see no reason why they should ceede their own security/safety and life to a government that has yet to prove itself competent.

Good job Kurds, way to take personal responsibility for yourselves!

Nowe if only Americans would take a lesson ;-)

Posted by: Ratatosk at February 17, 2006 10:18 AM

Ratatosk,

I agree with you. I'm just trying to figure out if "militia" is a fair description and why the Kurds are upset by the use of the word. I don't have strong opinions one way or the other about that. I certainly don't think the Peshmerga should disarm. That would be crazy.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at February 17, 2006 10:40 AM

Michael,

Sorry for all the grief I've given you all this time. You are doing a wonderful job of reporting. Good luck in your future.

Graham

Posted by: Graham at February 17, 2006 10:57 AM

Kidnapping insurance is actually fairly common outside of the industrialized world. I know many people who have it in places like Mexico, Colombia, Brazil, Philippines...

Posted by: Daniel at February 17, 2006 11:08 AM

It's funny -- your comments about Kurdistan sound a lot like how one could describe Israel's situation. The Palestinians have very limited-to-zero mobility, which puts a lot of the innocent Palestinians in a terrible place. The fanaticism is so insane, like in Iraq, that it forces the Israelis, like the Kurds, to basically have to protect themselves against all the Arabs.

Of course the main difference is that no one comes down on the Kurds for trying to protect themselves. It seems when Muslims antagonize other Muslims it's OK and not newsworthy.

Ultimately, I think it's a sad state of affairs that people have to think in terms of ethnic homelands --- but if our species never moves past that, there should exist a corner of the world where Jews, Kurds, Armenians, Japanese, etc. feel safe and accepted.

Good luck Kurdistan!

Posted by: ECo at February 17, 2006 11:08 AM

I'm just trying to figure out if "militia" is a fair description and why the Kurds are upset by the use of the word

Militia or National Guard would likely be an apt description (after all the Nat'l Guard in the US has a strong connection to the earlier militia system). However, with the way that term gets used in Iraq (Sadr for example) I can see why the Kurds might be touchy. Also, I wonder if it has something to do with their desire to be seperate from Iraq? If Mexico called our border patrol a militia, we might get a bit miffed too ;-)

Posted by: Ratatosk at February 17, 2006 11:12 AM

A wonderful look at the reality of Kurdish life, and very evenhanded.

Thank you Michael. This kind of work goes a long way toward changing attitudes on the left and on the right.

I wish everybody would read this.

Posted by: TallDave at February 17, 2006 11:17 AM

That's true, if, the citiens of Iraq choose to allow their federal government to have a monopoly on the use of force. But, why should they? It appears that there may have been death squads operating within the Baghdad police. Suicide bombs are still going off every day or so and the only safe place in the country appears to be a place where citizens have taken responsibility for themselves. I'm not sure that their government has earned the privledge to hold a monopoly on the use of force.--Tosk

Right you are, sir. Although I'm pretty sure that the Iraqi Government has NOT yet earned that right. That said, --- some militias could and should be put down at the earliest opportunity. I'm sure we all know which ones those are and to what 'foreign' power they might be somewhat indebted. They do not strike me as especially conducive to the exercise of 'democratic' rights in any future Iraq.

Posted by: dougf at February 17, 2006 11:21 AM

Dougf,

I don't disagree. Though, I'm not even comfortable recommending the disbanding of the Sunni militias until we figure out if the new Iraqi government is truly going for democracy, or if they plan on death squads and torture. I think the next year will be important in figuring out if the Iraqi government is a good steward or a bad egg.

Posted by: Ratatosk at February 17, 2006 11:30 AM

Why not just call them what they call themselves "Peshmerga" ? It is a term that works for them and clearly defines for the rest of us who are news junkies who they are. They have every reason to be terrified to allow arabs into their lands. Is it fair? yes. I am very selective on whom I invite to my home. Maybe in another decade, when the suicide bombers and infiltrators from Syria and Iran have all died off (or are too busy fighting the newly elected governments of those countries), then they can risk opening their borders.

Posted by: Rey at February 17, 2006 12:33 PM

This is great stuff. Your persona as a writer allows the reader space to "read between the lines" and perhaps catch a glimpse of this world you've been in... depending on the reader's life experience and capacities.

I can't get there from here, but I can almost see it, just little snatches illuminated for a profound few seconds. I feel like I can almost see...

Posted by: Todd Grimson at February 17, 2006 12:38 PM

I loved on the South Park episode you referenced where Cartman refused to be called a Canadian. I have always identified as a American. That was the best part of that episode...don't call me a fuckin canadian.

On to Kurdistan...Maybe one of the reasons the Kurds have not expierenced as much violence is the lack of coalition military in the region. I know the South Koreans have people in Erbil and I was at that FOB once, they have a very secure compound and don't do patrols, or convoy escort duties so they are not exposed to attacks either. But definetly the Kurdish militia is good, I read somewhere they offered to pacifiy Mosul and was turned by the American military because they were afraid the Kurds were making a territiory grab. My opinion is they should have been given authority over Mosul and Kirkuk, and the oil pipeline into Bayji (Iraqs largest refinery).

Did the Kurdish government comment on the Koreans in Erbil? Do you believe they have a serious design on Kirkuk and the major oilfields there? This is great reading. You may have to go back.

Posted by: john beard at February 17, 2006 01:20 PM

John,

They most certainly do have serious designs on Kirkuk. I'll have a whole post about it shortly.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at February 17, 2006 01:38 PM

Thanks Michael;
Todd nailed my feelings "Your persona as a writer allows the reader space to "read between the lines" and perhaps catch a glimpse of this world you've been in..."

(better than I've been able to articulate in two years of steady MJT reading.)

The Liberal problem with freedom is always how to get security when there is some minority abusing others -- security requires force and a reduction in freedom.
Two possible system errors: wrongly reduce freedom of the innocent (false positive, false guilty);
wrongly give too much freedom to the guilty (false negative, false innocents).
But it's that second, false negative error that kills.

Which is why Bush was right to invade Iraq, even if WMDs were no longer there (false positive); which is not yet certain (Syria? Iran?).

Posted by: Tom Grey - Libertay Dad at February 17, 2006 01:53 PM

Another good one, Michael.

South Park as Middle Eastern culture jammer... I like it.

Posted by: Joe Katzman at February 17, 2006 02:36 PM

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.

Except for the "liberal" idea that the war in Iraq makes no sense. Most of Iraq is unsafe for Westerners. Much of it is unsafe for its residents as well. The Kurds are the only pro-American faction, and their solution is to wall off Kurdistan as a separate country. Yet Bush promises to "bring stability and unity to a free Iraq". What unity?

Posted by: Greg Kuperberg at February 17, 2006 04:33 PM

Michael,

Excellent post! You've completely managed to juxtaposed the most fundamental issues of safety and security, from how it effects daily life to broad philosophical questions about the use of violence.

It's also interesting to see an American commentator finally compare Middle Eastern regime to Middle Eastern regime and examine it in an evenhanded way. Comparing Hezbollah to the Peshmerga is apt, however, as you note, the differences between the two make one group "the allies" and the other "the terrorists."

Thank God pundits are thinking outside of the "our ally/bastard" mode. As you note, the Peshmerga aren't a force for good merely because they are allied with the United States.

One critique:
You write, "which has been partly infiltrated by Baathists."

Isn't this an in or out sort of issue? You're either infiltrated or not. There's nothing in between.
I understand your intention; the Iraqi military is not a Baathist operation and should not be entirely discredited.

Posted by: lebanon.profile at February 17, 2006 05:22 PM

"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."

Great things happen when Americans leave their shell to see what's going on in the world.
I love it!

Posted by: Ruby at February 17, 2006 06:26 PM

Michael,

That actual episode was on last week on Comedy Central. It mocks the American Military as well as Ben Laden.

In Kurdistan do they have their own news channels in Kurdish exclusively?
Do they watch Arabic Channels and/or Satellite Stations as well?

- Mike

Posted by: Mike Nargizian at February 17, 2006 07:53 PM

Michael & Lebanon Profile -

Even if Iraq becomes a quasi Shiite Mullah State more closely allied with Iran than we'd like. The US still has a potentially huge ally in the North in the heart of the Middle East.

As Lebanon it appears to have a Democratic and anti-fundamentalist mentality. However, unlike Lebanon which it could be argued has a stronger base for Democracy - Kurdistan does not have to deal with Hezballah.

- Mike

Posted by: Mike Nargizian at February 17, 2006 07:58 PM

Michael, do you hear anything about death squads inside the Iraqi police? Zeyad is back, and has posted on this here.

Posted by: John H. at February 17, 2006 11:26 PM

{I agree with you. I'm just trying to figure out if "militia" is a fair description and why the Kurds are upset by the use of the word "militia"?!}
Definitions of militia on the Web:
civilians trained as soldiers but not part of the regular army.
well to be honest that is what exactly we Kurds want! We want our Peshmarga forces to be trained and definitely not part of the Iraqi-Arab Army!
Hiwa Mahmmud/ United Kingdom / Leeds

Posted by: hiwa mahmmud at February 18, 2006 03:12 AM

{I agree with you. I'm just trying to figure out if "militia" is a fair description and why the Kurds are upset by the use of the word "militia"?!}
Definitions of militia on the Web:
civilians trained as soldiers but not part of the regular army.
well to be honest that is what exactly we Kurds want! We want our Peshmarga forces to be trained and definitely not part of the Iraqi-Arab Army!
Hiwa Mahmmud/ United Kingdom / Leeds

Posted by: hiwa mahmmud at February 18, 2006 03:13 AM

All the time Saddam's death squads were operating, the media had no problem with Saddam killing hundreds of thousands. Now in the inevitable settling of scores after the overthrow of a tyranny, the western media cannot get enough of the "death squads" in Baghdad.

Likewise contrast descriptions of the trials of Saddam and Pinochet. Saddam is given all the sympathy the western press can muster, while the old senile Pinochet, much less the murderer than Saddam (though still a murdering dictator in his time), is reviled and taunted by the media.

Posted by: Marvin at February 18, 2006 05:56 AM

Marvin,

Can you point to specific instances of sympathetic media coverage of Saddam Hussein by the media? I haven't seen any, but I don't read and see everything.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at February 18, 2006 05:59 AM

Michael, we know for a fact that CNN wouldn't report on many of Saddam's abuses (in order to maintain their "access") because Eason Jordan admitted it.

Posted by: Rand Simberg at February 18, 2006 07:55 AM

Ratatosk: great job pointing out why the right of the Kurds to protect their population exists.

Michael: another great report - really enjoying them.

Posted by: MPH at February 18, 2006 08:11 AM

Seems to me a nation is defined by mutual affiliation - the whole "monopoly on the use of force" thing is spurious if the locals are doing a fine job unassisted. I'd consider it no more than an excuse for a centralizing power grab.

Posted by: Julian Morrison at February 18, 2006 08:12 AM

"Ultimately, I think it's a sad state of affairs that people have to think in terms of ethnic homelands --- but if our species never moves past that, there should exist a corner of the world where Jews, Kurds, Armenians, Japanese, etc. feel safe and accepted."

There is sir. It's called the United States Of America.

Posted by: willis at February 18, 2006 08:34 AM

Interesting

Posted by: william spiller at February 18, 2006 08:59 AM

Very interesting, espe. about the state of the Kurd areas, the politically incorrect profiling for the sake of security, and role of the Peshmerga

Posted by: Moonbat_One at February 18, 2006 09:10 AM

There is sir. It's called the United States Of America.

Exactly.

MJT, how is foriegn investment going in Iraqi Kurdistan? Are Iraqis in the South and Center of Iraq aware of how much better things are in the North? Is there rivalry/jealousy between Kurds and Arabs because of it? Does the Central Govt. control the Northern oil fields or do the Kurds? Or is it a shared responsibility?

Thanks for all your hard work.

Posted by: The Apologist at February 18, 2006 09:11 AM

Michael,

One of the more amazing things about this piece is the balance. As much as Fox News annoys me with it's claim to "fair and balanced reporting," there is credible evidence that the far left has too much influence on other aspects of the mainstream media.

In much the same way that Wikipedia is gaining respect because, over time, it proves itself credible, non-mainstream writers (like yourself) are gaining respect, at least from a broad internet-based readership. Even the blogroll and linked sites show a diversity of opinion, as opposed to the ideological monoculture that more and more people on the right and left seem to immerse themselves in.

Tim

Posted by: Tim at February 18, 2006 09:16 AM

Tim -- Your comment about "ideological monoculture" reinforces the point I try to make that the MSM acts more like a guild than a professsion. MSM reporters endure an apprenticeship, and only move upwward if they're seen to demonstrate the core beliefs of the guild at large. Thus the monoculture breeds and selects for its own version of white lab mice.

Posted by: Bob1 at February 18, 2006 02:07 PM

"I was in Iraq without a gun and without any bodyguards."

Jesus man, what are you doing? Please get out of there!

Posted by: Lem at February 18, 2006 03:15 PM

I'm already out, Lem. (In Beirut now.) And I was in Iraqi Kurdistan. The war is over there.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at February 18, 2006 03:21 PM

"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 think you have set up a straw man. I haven't seen much evidence that anyone, left or right wing, thinks that the whole religion is a totalitarian death cult. Most people seem to bend over backwards to say that the religion is okay, so long as it isn't forced on people by a minority of violent adherents.

And yeah, I know some Moslems. Nice people, like most people you meet one on one. But their religious view is entangled in a political view which is antethical to the Western idea of individual liberty. And it is the political component of Islam - the idea that government and personal liberty should be subordinated to Islam, by force if necessary - that is the problem.

Posted by: harmon at February 18, 2006 04:20 PM

Erbii aka Arbil aka Arbela aka Gaugemela - is the site of Alexander the Great's victory over Darius the Persian.

Michael this was an interesting choice in Iraqi cities to visit was its history just a mere coincidence?

Posted by: Seismic at February 18, 2006 06:04 PM

Yup - Totten sets up a straw man by way of introductions, just as harmon writes.

Frankly, I could care less if Mussies insist on conflating religion and government. What I care about is the dotcrine of Jihad.

The euphemistic GWOT is in fact a war against the revival of the Islamic doctrine of Jihad. If "warfare with spiritual significance" - as David Cook describes it in his useful history "Understanding Jihad" (2005), and what Walid Phares calls the unoffical sixth pillar of Islam - became peaceful, the War on Terror would end, and the rest of the planet could ignore Islam. But, as Cook says, since there's no sign of such as turn, we cannot.

If I have learned to hate Islam, it is because I hate violence and doctrines supporting it in practice. Although few actually carry out "martyrdom operations," very few Muzzies object to violence in the name of their religion, other than rediculous press releases and hypocritical slogans like "Islam is a religion of peace!"

Stuff it, MO! Gaze upon my Danish Mohammid wearing an exploding turban. If the truth offends you, good.

I hate Islam for what Muslims do, for what it encourages, and their failure to marginalize the evil in their midst. Thus, Islam will remain monotheism for dummies to this atheist - the worst religion in the world - and morally unfit company among all the world's greater belief systems.

Islam is the religion of pieces. As Voltaire said in another time of religious backwardness and violent persecution, let's "crush the infamous thing!"

Posted by: Orson Olson at February 18, 2006 06:31 PM

There's a huge difference between the Peshmerga and Sadr's militia: the Peshmerga is under the control of a legitimate, elected government, while Sadr's militia is a private army employed for the purpose of making demands on, and, ultimately, wresting power from the elected government. As long as Sadr's army is (erroneously) referred to as a militia, then I would certainly have a problem with calling the Peshmerga a militia. It would be more accurate to drop the term 'militia' from Sadr's private army, but until that is done we should call the Peshmerga something else. Kurdish National Guard works fine.

Posted by: Ardsgaine at February 18, 2006 06:37 PM

harmon wrote:
And it is the political component of Islam - the idea that government and personal liberty should be subordinated to Islam, by force if necessary - that is the problem.

That component isn't a bug (as with Christianity), it's a feature. Islam is theocracy. It has never been a strictly personal religion. Whether it can morph into one is another question.

To Michael: What religion isn't a death cult? All of them tell us that death is a more sublime state than life, right? And to the extent that they oppose reason with faith and promote self-sacrifice, all of them provide the necessary basis for totalitarianism. Christianity in the West was liberalized--paganized, if you will--by the Renaissance, and that is all that allows it to co-exist with freedom.

Posted by: Ardsgaine at February 18, 2006 07:13 PM

"[If Islam] became peaceful, the War on Terror would end, and the rest of the planet could ignore Islam."

Maybe the rest of the world, but can the West permit Islam to be imposed upon it, even by peaceful means? Suppose, for instance, that Islam became a majority "party" in a Western polity - should it be permited to establish Sharia? We will probably be facing this question for several countries in Europe in a couple of decades. It seems to me to be the same question as whether a democracy can decide to vote itself into Communism. Can we afford to allow a Western country to become Islamic, even peacefully? Shouldn't we, for instance, encourage the EU not to admit Turkey? Shouldn't we support them in any policies designed to limit Moslems from entering their countries?

Remember your Vonnegut - Islam appears to me to be the political version of Ice Nine.

"That component isn't a bug (as with Christianity), it's a feature."

Well put. We have to stop thinking of Islam as a religion, and start thinking of it as a political system that is not compatible with individual liberty.

Posted by: harmon at February 18, 2006 09:22 PM

Great Job Michael,
I would like to tell teh readers that witout exageration, Iraqi Kurdistan, especially Erbil and Dohuk, has teh least crime rate in teh entire world. As an Iraqi Kurd, I rarely ever hear about a killing, theft, kidnapping or even a feast fight on a street. The secret to that is we want to tell the world that we deserve a country of our own. We want to be independent. Therefore, everyone of us is a policeman/woman and a Peshmerge to defend Kurdistan, the people of Kurdistan and teh guests of Kurdistan, like Michael Totten and others. By the way guys I also dont see American soldiers often in Kurdistan because it is safe and their presence is not needed. But that dosent mean that we want the Americans to leave Iraq. NO NEVER. We are helping the Americans to restore peace to some parts of central Iraq and fight the defeated AlQaeda. We do need Americans on teh long term to help Iraq succeed to democracy.Thanks America for ridding us of Saddam.
Regards to all
Abdullah Dizayee
Erbil - Kurdistan Region of Iraq

Posted by: Abdullah Dizayee at February 18, 2006 11:21 PM

Just wanted to mention how much I appreciate your pieces on the subject of your Middle Eastern travels— it is so refreshing to see pieces that deal with people as PEOPLE instead of soundbites, statistics, or sociological subjects.

As to those who say that Islam is the enemy— remember, while Islam is a monotheistic religion, it is not a monolithic one, and it is the goal of radical Islamists (whom we might think of as the dangerous ones) to make us and everyone forget that there is such a thing as moderate Islam. Don't fall into their trap.

Posted by: B. Durbin at February 18, 2006 11:34 PM

I agree with you that racial profiling is wrong, but look at the current situation in that country. I am sure they are doing it for security reasons and probably are under orders to do that. I am a Kurd and when someone asks me where I am from, I say Kurdistan. I will never say Iraq, and as a Kurd I say that Kurdistan is not the land of the Arabs and hope it will never be. How can you say that these two Arabs were not allowed to visit a city in their own country? When in fact its not there country. Modern day Iraq is not the land of the Arabs, arabazation of the land took place with the spread of Islam. So don’t call it there own country.

Posted by: Dyko at February 19, 2006 01:10 AM

No! Please! No! you Should never ever let islam to be the religion of west! It will be a disaster if you do that!

Posted by: hiwa at February 19, 2006 02:09 AM

All this reminds me of the stories I have read about the ol' West in America. You know the ones where the local residents elect a Sheriff to keep the town safe and look at outsiders as trouble.

Michael could be one of the lone riders that rides into town, not looking for trouble but encounters the locals dislike of anything or anyone from the "outside".

I think Michael's next assignment should be to old Mexico and the Texas-Mexico border area. But he would be in even more danger than he is in Iraq, especially the Kurdish areas.

Next stop Larado...bring your six-shooter.

Papa Ray
West Texas
USA

Posted by: Papa Ray at February 19, 2006 07:28 AM

"If Iraq is supposed to be one sovereign country, the state must have the monopoly on the use of force."

Even in the U.S. the use of force is spread out between federal and state and local with a good dash of self defense thrown in. Which brings up a question I've been wondering about for some time. Does the new Iraqi constitution have the equivalent of our Second Amendment?

Posted by: Fred at February 19, 2006 04:23 PM

Dear Mr. Totten,

I have enjoyed reading your reports from the Mid East very much. However I do want to take issue with your view of Islam and Muslims in general. The Muslim faith has not been highjacked by extremists as stated frequently by western leaders and the media. It has returned to its roots. Mohommed was a cross between Joseph Smith and Gengis Khan. He cobbled together the hodge-podge religeon called Islam from several others after claiming that he had received revelations from God. Like Jim Jones or the Rev. Moon he then gathered followers through persuasive preaching and familial ties which he gained through marrying his boss. After a while the powers-that-were in Mecca decided that he was a threat to their lucrative little black rock business and kicked him out of the city. He and his followers eventually raised an army and returned to Mecca as heroes, of course only after Mohommed had another "revelation" stating that marching around the black rock was necessary for salvation.(See Salman Rushdie) He then set out on a military conquest of the Arabian peninsula. The penalty for resistance was death and destruction.(I have a feeling that's how "Islam" came to mean "surrender") He waged war against the infidels and blasphemers until his death. The war continues today. True believers will never rest until the prophet's dream of everyone living under the early bronze age values expressed in the Koran. The promise of paradise awaits those that kill and conquer in Islam's name by the prophet's own mouth. So I guess when those "right-wingers" think of Islam as a totalitarian death cult they may be correct.

Posted by: Basil Doughty at February 20, 2006 01:48 AM

Dear Michael,
great reporting. I always feel a little more hopeful about the "clash of civilizations" when I read your blog. Would that Muslims the world over be more like your friends in Kurdistan. Which brings me to your quote:

"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."

Isn't that the attitude at Little Green Footballs? And didn't that site's proprieter, Charles Johnson, design your web site? Not that you shouldn't use his services just because you disagree with his assessment of Islam, but WTF? And I'm curious what you think about Islam's bloody borders, cartoon craziness, and everything else that other posters have noted. Are the Kurds the exception? Have they called BS on the violent aspects of their religion or what? It says in the Koran that believers should not make friends with the infidels. Clearly there are many Muslims who consider you their friend. How do they reconcile this with what the Koran instructs?

Posted by: Paul at February 20, 2006 08:34 AM

Paul,

Don't get hung up on what the Koran says. Most Muslims have never even read that book. Even Islamists (some of the moderate ones) don't have a problem making friends with Westerners.

Your typical Muslim REALLY doesn't have a problem with it. Middle Easterners are far more willing to befriend me than Westerners are.

The Koran tells you very little about how actual Muslims behave in the real world. Put it aside and read something else if you want to know about 21st Century Muslims.

As for Charles Johnson, he and I do not agree about everything. We certainly have different styles. But we do agree about some things. He's more mellow in person about this stuff than he is on his blog. I know him personally and can factor that in.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at February 20, 2006 08:43 AM

"It's funny -- your comments about Kurdistan sound a lot like how one could describe Israel's situation"

Mr Cohen, With all respect, comparing Israel against Kurds is wrong on so many levels. You talk from both sides of the mouth: The Kurds claim that all of their lands are "occupied", and meanwhile Israel is considered to be the "occupier" in Palestinian lands. Your thinking is incorrect. If anything, the Palestinians and the Kurds share a brotherhood of misery. As a Turk, I cannot deny that Kurds are oppressed in Turkey (and Iran, Syria and Iraq) but this situation is improving in leaps and bounds in Turkey. The Palestinians have their Hamas, Fatah, Al Aqsa Martyrs, Hezbollah etc, and the Kurds have their (now re-named) PKK- all TERRORIST groups. So you see, if you want to compare apples to apples, let's not use Israel and Kurds in the same sentence. It is Turkey and Israel who share similar hardships and challenges, not Israel and Kurds. To wit, Israel has been helping Turkey with counter-terrorism training and support, against Kurdish PKK! Kurds in Turkey would sooner spit on the Turkish flag before saluting it. The irony astounds me though, when the first place where Kurds flee to in times of ethnic cleansing by Saddam's regime, is Turkey. Hyphenated ethnicity is rejected by Kurds living in Turkey (Kurdish-Turks). They are a clear and present threat to national security. Why is it any wonder that it has been necessary for the Turkish government to curb their liberties for so much time? Turkey tries to make itself a more attractive place for Kurds to live, and at the same time to satisfy requirements set forth by the EU. Does anyone need reminding of the death toll in Turkey which has resulted from the terrorist PKK resistance? It numbers in the tens of thousands. Kurds are welcome to live in Turkey, but the popular American motto "Love It Or Leave It" rings so true sometimes. It appears that there will be a place for them to go soon enough.
Many thanks.

Posted by: Amerikan Turk at February 20, 2006 08:18 PM

"If anything, the Palestinians and the Kurds share a brotherhood of misery."

Not really.

Iraqi Kurds and Jews (and Iraqi Kurdistan and Israel) share a common enemy, both run secular and democratic countries allied with the west, both have to defend themselves against Islamic terrorism, and both are minorities in the Arab world (the Kurds in Turkey and Iran are not included here).

The only similarity between Kurds and Arab Palestinians is that they both have enemies. That's it.

I guess Kurdistan and Israel will be even more similar once the world starts to call only Arab Iraqis "Iraqis", like they did with Arab Palestinians.

When did you last refer to a Jew as a "Palestinian" just because he was born there into a family of people who were born there and who, in many cases, have roots there that go back several thousand years? The same thing could happen to Kurds. This was more or less the excuse Saddam used for arabizing Kirkuk, wasn't it?

Posted by: Andrew Brehm at February 21, 2006 04:53 AM

Michael,
thanks for the reply.

"The Koran tells you very little about how actual Muslims behave in the real world. Put it aside and read something else if you want to know about 21st Century Muslims."

Could you recommend something else that I should read? You have made me curiouser and curiouser.

Posted by: Paul at February 21, 2006 02:33 PM

Paul,

Read "From Beirut to Jerusalem" by Thomas Friedman. His recent work is fairly ridiculous, but that book is brilliant. He gets Beirut EXACTLY right.

Also read "Baghdad Without a Map" by Tony Horwitz. It is just wonderful. I've read it three times.

"The Dream Palace of the Arabs" by Fouad Ajami also is good. He's a "neocon" Lebanese Shia, and a professor at Johns Hopkins.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at February 21, 2006 04:09 PM

Great reporting, Michael!

On the mosque bombing at Samarra, do you think al Qaeda did it?

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