February 13, 2006

Iraq Without a Gun

ERBIL, IRAQ – Until just a few months ago, Iraq was one of the last places in the world a normal person would want to fly into. Baghdad had the only international airport in the country, and you risked your life just taking a taxi to the kinda-sorta half-way “safe” Green Zone from the terminal. Today you can fly directly to Erbil (known as Hawler in Kurdish), the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan in the north, where the war is already over.

Erbil Skyline 1.jpg

So I took a charter flight on Flying Carpet Airlines and flew there directly from Beirut. I paid as much for that ticket as I would have paid to fly home to Oregon, but it beat the logistical pain of driving in over the border from Turkey.

Erbil’s tiny international airport – with its tiny little customs booth and its tiny little luggage rack – doubles as a military base. Civilian craft only started landing there a few months ago. A kiosk called “Tourist Information” was set up by the main entrance next to an office that rented “phones for tourists.” I had a hard time believing many tourists actually went there on holiday unless they were visiting from other parts of Iraq. As I later found out, “tourist” simply meant visitor.

Civilian cars weren’t allowed anywhere near the terminal for security reasons, so I had to take a bus to a checkpoint a mile or so away where my pre-arranged driver Mr. Araz picked me up.

Driving to the center of any city from an airport rarely leaves a good first impression. The only exceptions I can think of are the trips into Tunis and Istanbul. But my fifteen minute ride to the Erbil International Hotel (aka, “The Sheraton,” even though it isn’t really a Sheraton) was particularly unpleasant. The city didn’t look like anywhere I wanted to be. Few things in this world are uglier than totalitarian cities. And while Erbil isn’t totalitarian anymore, Saddam Hussein left his stinking thumbprints all over the place. Erbil desperately needs an aesthetic makeover. (As I later found out when I could explore the city properly, it is getting one.)

Erbil Water Tower.jpg

Erbil Sidewalk.jpg

“Today is Friday,” Mr. Araz said. “The city is more quiet than normal.”

Friday is the Muslim holy day when almost everything closes. But I had a hard time believing Erbil could ever look like a place with much activity. Such are rides from the airport. I hadn’t seen downtown yet, though, and I tried not to make too much of the first things I saw.

A perimeter of thick concrete bomb-blast walls was set up around the hotel in a 50-yard radius. I would have taken a photograph, but I decided not to help Googling terrorists with any logistical plans by publishing what the place looks like. Armed security guards made me get out of the car while they opened the trunk, rifled through everything, pulled out the spare tire, and checked under the chassis for bombs.

“Is it safe to walk around here?” I asked Araz.

“No,” he said. “I do not recommend it.”

Great, I thought. What the hell am I doing in this country?

“Why, exactly, isn’t it safe?” I said. I hoped he would say that I might get lost or be menaced by crazy drivers.

“I don’t personally know of any incidents that have happened,” he said. “But I never see foreigners like you walking around without a local person.”

I didn’t plan on spending much time alone anyway. I had already decided to hire a driver and translator. But it’s always best to explore foreign cities on foot when it’s possible, and I certainly wasn’t happy that Araz was telling me that I shouldn’t.

There was something fishy about the man, though. Sure, Erbil is Iraq. But it also is Kurdistan. The war is over in Kurdistan. He was the guy who was going to supply me with a driver and translator, and he wanted 350 dollars a day for that service. The Kurdistan Development Corporation told me I shouldn’t have to pay anywhere near that much. I suspected Araz was trying to scare me so I would pay his exorbitant fee.

After I checked in at the desk I asked Araz if he would lower the rate.

“I will have to see about that and get back to you later,” he said. I quietly decided not to hire him. All I had to do was call the Kurdistan Regional Government’s Public Relations office and ask them to set me up with someone more reasonable.

Night fell as a storm came in. Rain lashed against my hotel room window. I heard a solitary boom of thunder and, later, a jet that sounded distinctly military flying over my head.

Erbil, like the rest of Iraq, does not have a functioning electrical grid. Residents of the city get two hours of power each day if they’re lucky. I stood at my window and looked out over the dark and quiet city. I felt okay, and I was oddly happy to be there. But I couldn’t get it out of my mind: I’m in Iraq I’m in Iraq I’m in Iraq I’m in Iraq.

*

I met the Guardian reporter Michael Howard in the lobby. He and I have a friend in common, and he kindly gave me a solid welcome and introduction to Iraq and it’s politics. He has spent most of the past three years in the country, and he knows it better than most Westerners do.

There was more than enough time for me to get a grip on the politics. That’s what I would spend much of my time doing. What I needed to know right up front was how safe (or not) Iraqi Kurdistan really is.

“Realize that this hotel is a primary target,” he said. “Last year a bomb went off only 100 meters from here. Dozens of people were killed. Chunks of flesh were picked out of the garden near the front entrance.”

“What about kidnappings?” I said. “Correct me if I’m wrong, but to my knowledge not a single person has been kidnapped in Kurdistan.”

“That’s true,” he said. For the first time since I arrived in the country somebody said something that made me feel better.

“So can I walk around by myself?” I said. I’m not afraid of terrorist bombs that explode once a year. In some parts of the country they explode every day. But when kidnappers target Westerners, and when I’m one of perhaps 100 Westerners in a 50-mile radius, I can’t afford to be naïve or stupid. “I need to know how to behave in this country, and right now I’m not sure. What do you do? Do you walk around by yourself?”

“I’ll walk the main streets,” he said. “But I don’t walk any side streets. You don’t have to worry much in Sulaymaniyah or Dohok. I’ll go anywhere in those cities. But Erbil is a little more dangerous.”

Last year’s attack near the hotel wasn’t the only terrorist incident in the city. In 2004 Sami Abdul Rahman, the Deputy Vice President of the Kurdistan Regional Government, was assassinated by a suicide bomber along with dozens of other people.

“I lost five friends that day,” Michael told me. “I missed that explosion myself by only five minutes.”

Just a few days after I arrived a memorial to the dead in that attack would be dedicated in the city park. I had plans to meet Bayan and Vian Rahman, the daughters of the murdered deputy prime minister, for dinner the next day. I hadn’t even been in the country for 8 hours and already the violence felt perilously close. It didn’t take long to become friends with people who recently had lost loved ones. But I tried not to let it frighten me too much. More people were killed by terrorists recently in Madrid than were killed in Erbil. And who is afraid to visit Madrid? Nobody I know.

My logic didn’t make me feel better, but I did what I could to relax. The bloody city of Mosul was just down the road. Any time I wanted I could hail a taxi and be within easy reach of the head-chopping killers in a mere 45 minutes. The Syrian assassins lurking in Lebanon’s shadows are one thing. But Zarqawi’s Al Qaeda jihad in Iraq is terrifying to think about when you’re in Iraq, whether or not the Kurdish armed forces, the Peshmerga (“Those Who Face Death”), stand in the way.

Later a man from the Kurdistan Regional Government rescued my nerves when I told him what Mr. Araz said to me about the dangers of walking around by myself.

“He told you what?” he said.

“He told me it wasn’t safe to walk around Erbil by myself,” I said.

He was literally taken aback – he flung himself ramrod straight against the back of his chair. His face flushed red. “Who is this man?” He pulled out his notebook. “What is his name and what is his phone number?”

I told him. “He also wanted to charge me 350 dollars a day for a driver and translator.”

How much?” he said. “He is lying to you. He is lying to you so you will pay him more money. I can’t believe he is scaring visitors like that. I am going to report him.” To whom, I wondered? “You are safe here. You are as safe here in Kurdistan as you are in any American city.”

I believed him, partly because I wanted to believe him, but also because it lined up with everything I had heard and read about Kurdistan before I got there. Yes, it’s Iraq. But the war is in a different part of the country. There are no Kurdish insurgents. The Peshmerga guard Kurdistan’s de-facto border with ruthless effectiveness. Those who attempt to cross away from the checkpoints and the roads are ambushed by border patrols. Anyone who doesn’t speak Kurdish as their native language stands out among the general population. Iraqi Kurds, out of desperate necessity, have forged one of the most watchful and vigilant anti-terrorist communities in the world. Terrorists from elsewhere just can’t operate in that kind of environment. Al Qaeda members who do manage to infiltrate are hunted down like rats. This conservative Muslim society did a better job protecting me from Islamist killers than the U.S. military could do in the Green Zone in Baghdad.

I did what I wanted and needed to do. I threw myself into their society, without a gun and without any bodyguards, and I trusted that they would catch me. And catch me they did. I trusted the Kurds with my life. No trust in the world is greater than that, especially in an extraordinarily dangerous blood-spattered country like Iraq.

Postscript: Comments are turned back on, at least for the time being. Everyone is welcome to argue with me and with others, but comments by trolls will be purged.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at February 13, 2006 2:13 AM
Winner, The 2007 Weblog Awards, Best Middle East or Africa Blog

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