Troubles in Kurdistan

While a restful experience, driving around the mountains and green fields of Kurdistan did not provide the complete escape from the troubles of Iraq for which we had hoped.

The cousin of a friend manages a hotel in Erbil … one of the nicer lodges in the city. While dining with him in the empty restaurant he explained that there are no guests due to the fact that the private security company Dyncorp has been renting the entire place since January … so aside from when their personnel stay in the 60-room hotel, it sits empty. They stay at the hotel while training new Iraqi Police, among other things, and he told us they’ve signed a two year contract.

Each day of the four spent in the north I’d seen the armored GMCs with the huge antennae used by these private security groups and the Secret Service racing along the roads from time to time, their tinted windows reflecting the beautiful countryside.

There are, of course, loads of Peshmerga checkpoints – since we hailed from Baghdad with an Arab driver, we were searched at most of them.

Nevertheless, the reprieve from Baghdad was long overdue. In Shaqlawa, a beautiful little town on the slopes of a large ridge, we dined in the garden of a small farm amidst cooler temperatures. Earlier that same day we’d cooled our feet in the water of a mountain spring while birds chirped. Periodic views of snow-capped peaks in the distance had me longing for home; from time to time I even forgot about things like Abu Ghraib, military patrols in cities and the electricity shortage in Baghdad.

The opinions of the few Kurds I spoke with ranged across the board – those who are doing better financially tended to favor the occupation, while others who appeared to be suffering more were against it. A few refused to talk politics altogether.

Life in a war-torn country is never simple. Yesterday we drove to Sulemaniyah, a sprawling city surrounded by rolling mountain ridges. After finding a hotel, Abu Talat had parked his car amongst several others on a small street. We’d checked in, had some chai and were venturing out to find an internet cafĂ© when he noticed his car was not where he’d left it.

A traffic policeman told him it had been towed. Hoping to just go pick up the car he hailed a taxi and was off. Upon arriving at the impound, he found the car smashed up, along with a few other cars with Baghdad license plates. He was taken inside a house and interrogated by a Peshmerga officer, who asked him many questions such as: What are you doing here? What is your tribe? Why did you come to Kurdistan? When are you leaving?

After he was released, he found his car – the trunk smashed in and lock broken, driver’s side window smashed in, fuel line cut, battery cables cut, back seats torn out and the antenna broken off. Apparently several Peshmerga, fearing another bombing like that last winter in Kurdistan which killed so many people in a mosque, were trying to prevent another attack.

The next day, after having parked the car in a garage, when Abu Talat went to pick it up he asked the watchman why his mouth was bloodied and swollen. The man told him that late last night five drunk Peshmerga had come demanding money, and when he wouldn’t give it to them they pistol-whipped him.

A local Kurdish man at the hotel, upon hearing this story, said it is business as usual in Sulemaniyah … that the Peshmerga are acting like the thugs of the mob boss Talabani.

So even up in restful Kurdistan the symptoms of war and unrest remain. One must be patient at the checkpoints and be wary of where one parks the car.

We stop for lunch at a friends place in Kirkuk. An older Turkman spoke of the growing rift between the Kurds and Turkmen in the city. He told of how the Arabs and Turkmen in Kirkuk are banding together against the Kurds there. I asked him what the solution is, and he felt it was to go by the ’57 Census in the city, where Turkmen were the majority. So, again I ask, what is the solution? Each of the last few times I’ve been through Kirkuk the topic of the Turkmen vs. Kurds is the first thing that comes up. It is tense there, and seems to be getting worse with time.

After a good meal and chai we continued our dry, windy journey, still missing a window. Exiting Kirkuk we passed the old Saddam portraits which have been blasted into rubble.

The occupation forces, having removed the regime of Saddam Hussein, now face the challenge of sorting out the complex web of ethnic groups and tribes in the north; a challenge that Hussein never could effectively manage. One way or another, at some point, this situation will have to be resolved by the occupiers.

The normalcy of rural Iraq – the green crops lined with date trees, tan homes blending into the desert sands, and intermittent chai stands along the road we take – begrudgingly give way to occupied Baghdad. As summer temperatures continue to rise, the setting sun bathes the destruction of bombed out buildings, Dyncorp men aiming their guns at us as we pass their white SUV’s, long petrol lines, and polluted air, a beautiful yet angry orange.

Author: Dahr Jamail

Dahr Jamail has reported from inside Iraq and is the author of Beyond the Green Zone.