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Letter from Kurdistan: Holiday in Iraq

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Over Christmas break, the author took his son to northern Iraq, which the U.S. had made a no-fly zone in 1991, ending Saddam's chemical genocide. Now reborn, Iraqi Kurdistan is a heartrending glimpse of what might have been.
by Christopher Hitchens (19/03/07)

source KRG website

Last summer, you may have been among the astonished viewers of American television who were treated to a series of commercials from a group calling itself "Kurdistan—The Other Iraq." These rather touching and artless little spots ( urged you to consider investing in business, and even made you ponder taking your vacation, in the country's three northern provinces. Mr. Jon Stewart, of The Daily Show, could hardly believe his luck. To lampoon the ads, and to say, in effect, "Yeah, right—holiday in Iraq," was probably to summarize the reaction of much of the audience. Sure, baby, come to sunny Mesopotamia, and bring the family, and get your ass blown off while religious wack jobs ululate gleefully over your remains.

Well, as it happens, I decided to check this out, and did spend most of the Christmas holiday in Iraqi Kurdistan, bringing my son along with me, and had a perfectly swell time. We didn't make any investments, though I would say that the hotel and tourism and oil sectors are wide open for enterprise, but we did visit the ancient citadel in Erbil, where Alexander the Great defeated the Persians—my son is a Greek-speaking classicist—and we did sample the lovely mountains and lakes and rivers that used to make this region the resort area for all Iraqis. Air and road travel were easy (you can now fly direct from several airports in Europe to one of two efficient airports in Iraqi Kurdistan), and walking anywhere at night in any Kurdish town is safer than it is in many American cities. The police and soldiers are all friendly locals, there isn't a coalition soldier to be seen, and there hasn't been a suicide attack since May of 2005.

It wasn't my first trip. That took place in 1991, in the closing stages of the Gulf War. With a guerrilla escort, I crossed illegally into Iraq from Turkey and toured the shattered and burned and poisoned landscape on which Saddam Hussein had imprinted himself. In the town of Halabja, which has now earned its gruesome place in history, I met people whose hideous wounds from chemical bombardment were still suppurating. The city of Qala Diza had been thoroughly dynamited and bulldozed, and looked like an irretrievable wreck. Much of the area's lavish tree cover had been deforested: the bare plains were dotted with forbidding concrete barracks into which Kurds had been forcibly "relocated" or (a more accurate word) "concentrated." Nearly 200,000 people had been slaughtered, and millions more deported: huddling in ruins or packed into fetid camps on the Turkish and Iranian frontiers. To turn a spade was to risk uncovering a mass grave. All of Iraq suffered terribly during those years, but its Kurdish provinces were among the worst places in the entire world—a howling emptiness of misery where I could catch, for the first time in my life, the actual scent of evil as a real force on earth.

Thus, I confess to a slight lump in the throat at revisiting the area and seeing thriving, humming towns with multiplying construction sites, billboards for overseas companies, Internet cafés, and a choice of newspapers. It's even reassuring to see the knockoff "MaDonal," with pseudo–golden arches, in the eastern city of Sulaimaniya, soon to be the site of the American University of Iraq, which will be offering not only an M.B.A. course but also, in the words of Azzam Alwash, one of its directors, "the ideas of Locke, the ideas and writings of Paine and Madison." Everybody knows how to snigger when you mention Jeffersonian democracy and Iraq in the same breath; try sniggering when you meet someone who is trying to express these ideas in an atmosphere that only a few years ago was heavy with miasmic decay and the reek of poison gas.

While I am confessing, I may as well make a clean breast of it. Thanks to the reluctant decision of the first President Bush and Secretary of State James Baker, those fresh princes of "realism," the United States and Britain placed an aerial umbrella over Iraqi Kurdistan in 1991 and detached it from the death grip of Saddam Hussein. Under the protective canopy of the no-fly zone—actually it was also called the "you-fly-you-die zone"—an embryonic free Iraq had a chance to grow. I was among those who thought and believed and argued that this example could, and should, be extended to the rest of the country; the cause became a consuming thing in my life. To describe the resulting shambles as a disappointment or a failure or even a defeat would be the weakest statement I could possibly make: it feels more like a sick, choking nightmare of betrayal from which there can be no awakening. Yet Kurdistan continues to demonstrate how things could have been different, and it isn't a place from which the West can simply walk away.

In my hometown of Washington, D.C., it's too easy to hear some expert hold forth about the essential character of any stricken or strategic country. (Larry McMurtry, in his novel Cadillac Jack, has a lovely pastiche of Joseph Alsop doing this very act about Yemen.) I had lived here for years and suffered through many Georgetown post-dinner orations until someone supplied me with the unfailing antidote to such punditry. It comes from Stephen Potter, the author of Lifemanship, One-upmanship, and other classics. Wait until the old bore has finished his exposition, advised Potter, then pounce forward and say in a plonking register, "Yes, but not in the South?" You will seldom if ever be wrong, and you will make the expert perspire. Different as matters certainly are in the South of Iraq, the thing to stress is how different, how very different, they are in the North.

In Kurdistan, to take a few salient examples, there is a memorial of gratitude being built for fallen American soldiers. "We are planning," said the region's prime minister, Nechirvan Barzani, in his smart new office in the Kurdish capital of Erbil, "to invite their relatives to the unveiling." Speaking of unveiling, you see women with headscarfs on the streets and in offices (and on the judicial bench and in Parliament, which reserves a quarter of the seats for women by law), but you never see a face or body enveloped in a burka. The majority of Kurds are Sunni, and the minority are Shiite, with large groups belonging to other sects and confessions, but there is no intercommunal mayhem. Liquor stores and bars are easy to find, sometimes operated by members of the large and unmolested Christian community. On the university campuses, you may easily meet Arab Iraqis who have gladly fled Baghdad and Basra for this safe haven. I know of more than one intrepid Western reporter who has done the same. The approaches from the south are patrolled by very effective and battle-hardened Kurdish militiamen, who still carry the proud title of their guerrilla days: the peshmerga, or, translated from the Kurdish language, "those who face death." These men have a very brusque way with al-Qaeda and its local supporters, and have not just kept them at a distance but subjected them to very hot pursuit. (It was Kurdish intelligence that first exposed the direct link between the psychopathic Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and Osama bin Laden.) Of the few divisions of the Iraqi Army that are considered even remotely reliable, the bulk are made up of tough Kurdish volunteers.

Pause over that latter point for a second. Within recent memory, the Kurdish population of Iraq was being subjected to genocidal cleansing. Given the chance to leave the failed state altogether, why would they not take it? Yet today, the president of Iraq, Jalal Talabani, is a Kurd: a former guerrilla leader so genial and humane that he personally opposed the execution of Saddam Hussein. Of the very few successful or effective ministries in Baghdad, such as the Foreign Ministry, it is usually true that a Kurd, such as Hoshyar Zebari, is at the head of it. The much-respected deputy prime minister (and moving spirit of the American University in Sulaimaniya), Dr. Barham Salih, is a Kurd. He put it to me very movingly when I flew down to Baghdad to talk to him: "We are willing to fight and sacrifice for a democratic Iraq. And we were the ones to suffer the most from the opposite case. If Iraq fails, it will not be our fault."

President Talabani might only be the "president of the Green Zone," as his friends sometimes teasingly say, but he disdains to live in that notorious enclave. He is now 73 years of age and has a rather Falstaffian appearance—everyone refers to him as "Mam Jalal" or "Uncle Jalal"—but this is nonetheless quite a presidential look, and he has spent much of his life on the run, or in exile, or in the mountains, and survived more dangerous times than these. You may choose to call today's suicide murderers and video beheaders and power-drill torturers by the name "insurgents," but he has the greater claim to have led an actual armed Resistance that did not befoul itself by making war on civilians. In Baghdad, he invited me to an impressively heavy lunch in the house once occupied by Saddam Hussein's detested, late half-brother Barzan al-Tikriti, where I shared the table with grizzled Kurdish tribal leaders, and as the car bombs thumped across the city I realized how he could afford to look so assured and confident, and to flourish a Churchill-size postprandial cigar. To be chosen by the Iraqi parliament as the country's first-ever elected president might be one thing, and perhaps a dubious blessing. But to be the first Kurd to be the head of an Arab state was quite another. When he was elected, spontaneous celebrations by Kurds in Iran and Syria broke out at once, and often had to be forcibly repressed by their respective dictators. To put it pungently, the Kurds have now stepped onto the stage of Middle Eastern history, and it will not be easy to push them off it again. You may easily murder a child, as the parties of god prove every single day, but you cannot make a living child grow smaller.

Peshmerga soldiers hold Kurdish (left) and Iraqi (right) flags as they participate in a graduation ceremony at a stadium in the town of Sulaimaniya, October 25, 2005. By Azad Lashkari/Reuters/Landov.

I got a whiff of this intoxicating "birth of a nation" emotion when I flew back with Talabani from Baghdad to his Kurdish home base of Sulaimaniya. Here, as in the other Kurdish center, in Erbil, the airport gives the impression of belonging to an independent state. There are protocol officers, official limousines, and all the appurtenances of autonomy. Iraq's constitution specifies that Kurdistan is entitled to its own regional administration, and the inhabitants never miss a chance to underline what they have achieved. (The Iraqi flag, for example, is not much flown in these latitudes. Instead, the golden Kurdish sunburst emblem sits at the center of a banner of red, white, and green.) Most inspiring of all, perhaps, is Kurdish Airlines, which can take a pilgrim to the hajj or fly home a returning refugee without landing at another Iraqi airport. Who would have believed, viewing the moonscape of Kurdistan in 1991, that these ground-down people would soon have their own airline?

The Kurds are the largest nationality in the world without a state of their own. The King of Bahrain has, in effect, his own seat at the United Nations, but the 25 million or so Kurds do not. This is partly because they are cursed by geography, with their ancestral lands located at the point where the frontiers of Iraq, Iran, Turkey, and Syria converge. It would be hard to imagine a less promising neighborhood for a political experiment. In Iraq, the more than four million Kurds make up just under a quarter of the population. The proportion in Turkey is more like 20 percent, in Iran 10 percent, and in Syria perhaps nine. For centuries, this people's existence was folkloric and marginal, and confined to what one anthropologist called "the Lands of Insolence": the inaccessible mountain ranges and high valleys that bred warriors and rebels. A fierce tribe named the Karduchoi makes an appearance in Xenophon's history of the events of 400 B.C. Then there is mainly silence until a brilliant Kurdish commander named Salah al-Din (Saladin to most) emerges in the 12th century to unite the Muslim world against the Crusaders. He was born in Tikrit, later the hometown of Saddam Hussein. This is apt, because Saddam actually was the real father of Kurdish nationhood. By subjecting the Kurds to genocide he gave them a solidarity they had not known before, and compelled them to create a fierce and stubborn Resistance, with its own discipline and army. By laying waste to their ancient villages and farms, furthermore, he forced them into urban slums and refugee centers where they became more integrated, close-knit, and socialized: historically always the most revolutionary point in the emergence of any nationalism.

"The state of Iraq is not sacred," remarked Dr. Mohammad Sadik as we drove through Erbil to his office at Salahaddin University, of which he is president. "It was not created by god. It was created by Winston Churchill." Cobbled together out of the post-1918 wreckage of the Ottoman Empire, Iraq as a state was always crippled by the fact that it contained a minority population that owed it little if any loyalty. And now this state has broken down, and is breaking up. The long but unstable and unjust post-Ottoman compromise has been irretrievably smashed by the American-led invasion. Of the three contending parties in Iraq, only the Kurds now have a serious Plan B. They had a head start, by escaping 12 years early from Saddam's festering prison state. They have done their utmost to be friendly brokers between the Sunni and Shiite Arabs, but if the country implodes, they can withdraw to their oil-rich enclave and muster under their own flag. There is no need to romanticize the Kurds: they have their own history of clan violence and cruelty. But this flag at present represents the closest approximation to democracy and secularism that the neighborhood can boast.

Americans have more responsibility here than most of us are aware of. It was President Woodrow Wilson, after the First World War, who inscribed the idea of self-determination for the Kurds in the 1920 Treaty of Sèvres, a document that all Kurds can readily cite. Later machinations by Britain and France and Turkey, all of them greedy for the oil in the Kurdish provinces, cheated the Kurds of their birthright and shoehorned them into Iraq. More recently, the Ford-Kissinger administration encouraged the Kurds to rebel against Baghdad, offering blandishments of greater autonomy, and then cynically abandoned them in 1975, provoking yet another refugee crisis and a terrible campaign of reprisal by Saddam Hussein. In 1991, George Bush Sr. went to war partly in the name of Kurdish rights and then chose to forget his own high-toned rhetoric. This, too, is a story that every Kurd can tell you. However the fate of Iraq is to be decided, we cannot permit another chapter in this record of betrayal. Meanwhile, you should certainly go and see it for yourself, and also shed a tear for what might have been.

Created by keza
Last modified 2007-03-20 03:15 AM

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