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Blogger of the Year

The Week magazine announced its annual Blogger of the Year award and I won it, along with cartoonist Josh Fruhlinger of Wonkette. There must be some glitch in the universe because somehow I beat Michael Yon who also was nominated. If I were a judge I would have picked Yon over myself, but this is not a complaint, nor is it false modesty.

Many sincere thanks to the panel of judges in my category– Glenn Reynolds, Jeff Jarvis, Nick Gillespie, and Alex Pareene.

Thanks also to my wife, family, and friends for putting up with my long absences. And thanks especially to you, my readers, for donating expense money through Pay Pal. Without you I would not be able to do this.

I’ll have more dispatches from Northern Iraq shortly. Then I’m off to Kuwait and Baghdad with the United States military.

Video Coming Soonish

I have a fair amount of video from Iraqi Kurdistan shot with my new HD (high definition) camera, but I can’t edit or publish it until I get home and have access to a more powerful computer.

In the meantime, my colleague Patrick Lasswell shot some video using a less high-tech camera, and he is able to post that from here. Talk a walk with him through the souk in Suleimaniya.

Published in the Jerusalem Post

Don’t miss my feature article in the Jerusalem Post’s weekend magazine: Welcome to Hezbollahland.

(A different version of this material appeared on the blog a few months ago, but if you didn’t read it then you can read it now in the magazine.)

Hope Over Hate: A Lebanon Diary

My American friend Noah Pollak visited Beirut and South Lebanon with me on my last trip.

He flew to Beirut from Jerusalem (via Amman.)

His long-awaiting essay has now been published in Azure Magazine. Here is an except:

From Israel, Lebanon has a way of appearing as a monolith. Its entire southern border is a Hezbollah stronghold, from which the organization, since Israel’s withdrawal in 2000, has been building a sophisticated battlefield infrastructure, stockpiling weapons, and planning the abduction and killing of Jews. It is thus easy to view Lebanon as a country in which the masses have gladly assented to the establishment of an Iranian forward operating base within its borders. Hezbollah is particularly good at using its territory to attempt to provoke and demoralize Israel; it put up a billboard on the border, facing into Israel, which shows the severed head of an IDF soldier, captioned: Sharon, don’t forget. Your soldiers are still in Lebanon. If you tell an Israeli that you have visited Lebanon, you will typically be met with a guileless stare of worry and astonishment.

But there is a Lebanon that exists in the distance, too far away to see from Israel’s northern border, and too difficult to discern through the opaque and fevered people camped in the South. It is the Lebanon of the Christians, the moderate Sunnis, and the Druze, the Lebanon that earned Beirut the moniker of the Paris of the Middle East. This Lebanon looks West for inspiration and support, not East, and sustains a loathing for Hezbollah (and the Palestinians) that rivals Israel’s. This is the Lebanon of East and West Beirut, of outstanding restaurants, nightlife, beaches, tourism, and Mediterranean joie de vivre. These Lebanese share two vital things with Israel: An aspiration to live in a liberal, democratic society, and a fervent wish to rid their nation of the Islamic extremists who are the perpetual cause of bloodshed, instability, and warfare. Israel and Lebanon, in this regard, are more similar to each other than either of them is to any other nation in the region. In the 1980s, a Lebanese Christian leader declared that “the Western world should either defend us, or change its name.” Israel is a member in high standing of the Western world, and should not exempt itself from sympathizing with such pleas.

Read the whole thing.

Meet Iran’s Revolutionary Liberals

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Abdullah Mohtadi, Secretary General of the reformed and mainstream Iranian Komala Party

SULEIMANIYA PROVINCE, NORTHERN IRAQ — One of the roads leading out of the city of Suleimaniya in Iraqi Kurdistan might as well be renamed Revolutionary Road. Two armed compounds inhabited by exiled revolutionary Iranian leftists were built less than a mile away from each other. My colleague Patrick Lasswell and I accidentally found ourselves in the armed camp of the military wing of the Communist faction of the Komalah Party when we intended to meet with the more moderate social democrats up the street. A few days later we returned to the area and met with the right people.

The Communists hosted us warmly and kindly gave us a tour of their camp. But the liberals who split with them in the late 1980s proved to be far and away their intellectual and political superiors.

(UPDATED TO CLARIFY: There are two separate Iranian parties here who both call themselves Komala. One is communist, the other is liberal. The people interviewed in this article are the ex-communists. The people interviewed in the previous article are still communists.)

Secretary General Abdullah Mohtadi and Political Bureau member Abu Baker Modarresi sent two men to pick us up from our hotel — just to make sure we made it to the right place. They drove us to their safe house under armed guard less than an hour away from the Iranian border. We met over coffee and cigarettes.

MJT: You are both from Iran?

Mohtadi: Yes, yes we are.

MJT: How long have you been here?

Mohtadi: The first time our headquarters came inside Iraqi Kurdistan was in late 1983, when we lost the last liberated area in Iranian Kurdistan. So we moved our headquarters to Iraqi Kurdistan at that time, which was under Saddam Hussein. For some months they were reluctant to accept us, but they realized, okay, we are against the Islamic regime.

MJT: Did you ever have any problems with Saddam’s government?

Mohtadi: Yes. They shelled us. Also, we are the only Kurdish Iranian party that has been gassed by Saddam Hussein.

MJT: Really. Were you gassed here?

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The Komala Party Compound

Mohtadi: Twice. Not at this place, twice we were at different places at that time. Near Halabja. And also in our previous camp. We lost 72 people near Halabja on the banks of the River Siwan. The second time we lost 23 people. They were gassed by Saddam’s airplanes.

MJT: Was this during the Anfal Campaign? [The Anfal Campaign was Saddam’s attempt in 1988 and 1989 to utterly destroy the Kurds of Northern Iraq. 200,000 people were killed, and 95 percent of the villages were destroyed.]

Mohtadi: Yes, it was. Because they were suspicious — rightly — that we were dealing with the Anfal victims. We also had good relations with the Kurdish fighters, with the Peshmerga — of course, clandestinely. Thus they punished us for that.

And apart from that, we were shelled several times and we lost several people. It was not just once or by accident or as part of the large Anfal Campaign. No, they singled us out and hit us.

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An armed guard watches the compound

MJT: Which regime was more oppressive to you?

Mohtadi: The Iranians.

MJT: Worse than Saddam?

Mohtadi: Yes, of course. To Iranian Kurds, yes.

MJT: Tell us something about this. Very few Americans, including me, know very much about what the Iranian government has done to the Kurds in Iran.

Mohtadi: That’s exactly our problem. So many people in the West and in the world know that Kurds had problems in Iraq, they have problems in Turkey. But very few people know that Kurds are under oppression in Iran, as well.

MJT: They are oppressed more than the Persians?

Mohtadi: More than the Persians and the Azeris, yes. I am not saying that it’s something like the Anfal Campaign or genocide has been taking place in Iran. Nevertheless, there have been lots of oppression and killings and torture and expelling people from their land and sending them to internal exile in Iran and shelling the cities and all kinds of oppression.

MJT: Why is the Iranian government doing this? Is it a religious war, an ethnic war, or is it political?

Lasswell: Or a combination?

Mohtadi: It is a combination but first of all political, and ethnic and religious as well.

There are three main religions in Kurdistan. Most of the Kurdish people are Sunnis in Iranian Kurdistan. But there is a considerable Shia minority in Iranian Kurdistan.

MJT: How many people are we talking about?

Mohtadi: At least 30 percent.

Kurds live in four different provinces. Only one of them is called Kurdistan in Iran. The first one, from top to bottom, is Western Azerbaijan, which is shared by Azeris and Kurds.

Mahabad is located in Western Azerbaijan. Mahabad, as you know, was the capital of the short-lived Kurdish Republic from 1945 to 1946. Then is the province of Kurdistan. Then is the province of Kermanshan. Then is the province if Ilam.

So we have four provinces in Western and in Northwestern Iran which are inhabited by Kurds. We also have Kurds — millions — how many, I really don’t know. There are no reliable statistics on that. We have Kurds in the Eastern part of Iran. There were Kurds who were sent to exile during the Middle Ages by Safavids, by Khajars, even by Pahlevis — the first Pahlevi, not the second one. Because they thought Kurds were troublemakers. They confiscated Kurdish lands. They expelled them from their lands.

And also because Kurds were supposed to be good warriors. Iran was — every time in its history except for the Arab invasion — it was invaded from the Northeast by the Turks. So they sent Kurds to the eastern part of Iran, to the northeastern part of Iran and settled them there to defend Iran from there.

MJT: How many Kurds are in Iran now?

Mohtadi: In these four provinces, 12 million.

MJT: That’s quite a bit more than here.

Mohtadi: It is. According to our sources in the Ministry of Budget and Planning in Iran, 35 percent of the whole internal Iranian water resources are located in Kurdistan. Apart from that, Kurdistan is very rich in terms of oil and minerals and all that.

Two places have been explored. We have gold mines. One of them was explored by the British and then the British went out of the contract, I don’t know why. Perhaps for political reasons. All kinds of minerals — Kurdistan is very rich agriculturally, for the grain and all kinds of…it’s a kind of grain house for Iran.

MJT: What do Kurds in Iran think of joining a Greater Kurdistan. We don’t hear anything about this because journalists don’t go to Iranian Kurdistan.

Mohtadi: It’s a dream. People consider it a right, but Kurdish mainstream politics in Iranian Kurdistan is not for secession.

MJT: What is it for then?

Mohtadi: For a democratic, secular, federal Iran in which Kurds have their own rights.

MJT: Is this taken as a pragmatic position, or is this what people really want? If they had the option, would they choose a democratic federal Iran, or would they choose Greater Kurdistan?

Mohtadi: You can imagine this, but options have to be real. There is no real option for a Greater Kurdistan. When it becomes a real option people can choose between them. But the only feasible option that is there is Kurdish rights within Iran.

But I must add that historically there have been good relations between different parts of Kurdistan together. They have a great impact on each other, especially Iraqi Kurdistan and Iranian Kurdistan. They speak almost the same dialects. So they are very near. Politically they feel very close to each other. They are relatives to each other. You have families. Part of the family lives in Iran and part of the family lives in Iraq.

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Komala Party Political Bureau member Abu Baker Modaressi

Modarresi: They are a safe haven for each other.

Mohtadi: Yes, exactly. In 1978-79 the revolution broke out in Iran. It was a huge opportunity for the PUK [Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, the secular leftist party in charge of Iraq’s Suleimaniya Province] and Iraqi Kurds who were fighting against Saddam. In fact it saved them from annihilation.

Lasswell: And again in 1991.

Mohtadi: Of course. And from 1991 Iraqi Kurdistan, with all its shortcomings of course, it is still a source of inspiration for Iranian Kurds.

For example, when the law about federalism in Iraq was adopted in the national assembly in Iraq there were huge demonstrations in most cities and towns in Iranian Kurdistan. When [Kurdish PUK party chief in Northern Iraq] Jalal Talibani became President of Iraq there were huge demonstrations and clashes between police forces and people in Iran.

The same was true in 1945 and 1946 when a republic was established in Iranian Kurdistan, the Kurdish Republic. Also the Kurdish Iranian movement in 1979. It had a huge cultural and political effect on Iraqi Kurds. It brought with itself new concepts and new horizons for the Kurdish cause. A very close cooperation between Iranian and Iraqi Kurds and their parties began.

So whenever it becomes a real option that we can choose, we can decide. But right now it is just a dream, a right, an abstract right. But who knows, perhaps the time will come.

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Two Komala Party members have lunch on the grass outside the compound

Lasswell: I suspect that if all of Kurdistan joins, they will have one language and it will be English.

Mohtadi: [Laughs.]

MJT: Well, how different are the dialects?

Mohtadi: They aren’t dialects.

MJT: Is it more a question of accents?

Mohtadi: It’s more than just accents. With two of them, it is more than just accents. The one which is called Standard Kurdish Sorani, which is spoken and written in Iranian Kurdistan and Iraqi Kurdistan. The other which is spoken and written illegally in Turkey and Syria.

MJT: Is it still illegal in Turkey? I understand the Turks have changed most of these laws.

Mohtadi: Yes, there is a process of change in Turkey. But they still have a long way to go.

MJT: I know they do. Last year I was in Turkish Kurdistan. It’s not a nice place. There is still fighting going on there. And the economy is at zero.

Mohtadi: To be honest it’s like…when we go to Istanbul and Ankara there are different parts if you look at Kurdistan. It’s like a colony. You can feel that they have been exploited by colonialism and oppressed. It’s not like 20th Century or 21st.

Lasswell: Or even the 19th. I think it would have been better under the Ottomans.

MJT: It probably was better under the Ottomans.

Mohtadi: It was. I mean, we have a famous Kurdish historian, Mohammad Amin Zaki. He was a very high-ranking official in the Ottoman Empire. And he tells us how he became aware of his Kurdishness. He says: Nobody said we are Turks. Everybody said we are Ottomans. And we were alright. It was alright for us. Then people started to say we are Turks. And I realized I was not a Turk. So I realized I was a Kurd.

They Turkified everything in Turkey. So there was no place for “others.” And that was the beginning of…

Modarresi: …the awakening.

Mohtadi: Yes, the Kurdish awakening.

MJT: Turkish Nationalism and Arab Nationalism are very similar in the way they are implemented.

Mohtadi: The British, the British colonialists ruled those areas and those countries. But they had nothing against ethnic origin. They had nothing against people’s ethnicity. But in Turkey they want to deny our ethnicity, our identity. So it’s more…it’s more deep. The oppression is more deep. Colonialism is a kind of oppression, but it’s from top to bottom. It’s from above. It doesn’t go to the texture of the society.

Lasswell: You sound very educated. Where did you study?

Mohtadi: [Laughs] Well, I’m not that educated. I studied in Tehran. I speak Farsi almost like my mother tongue. My father was a member of the forerunner to KDPI of Iran which established the Kurdish Republic of Mahabad. He was a minister in the cabinet of Ghazi Mohammad. Ghazi Mohammad was the President of the Kurdish Republic.

He was then hanged. He did not escape. He thought it was better to remain perhaps in order to prevent the Iranian authorities and the Shah from suppression. So he remained in the city of Mahabad and they hanged him along with two of his brothers and a cousin in 1946.

He was at that time supported, but also oppressed, by the Soviet Union.

Lasswell: They did not give support without strings attached. Perhaps “cables” would be a better description.

Mohtadi: That’s true.

His Komala, it was not our party, that Komala Party of Iranian Kurdistan, which was established in 1942. At that time, when the Allied Forces decided to occupy Iran and make it a bridge to send help from the United States and Great Britain and Western Allies to the Soviet Union and Stalin to defend against Hitler…when they occupied Iran they ousted Reza Shah, the father of Mohammad Reza Shah, the second Pahlevi who was toppled by the revolution in 1979.

Modarresi: Because of his good relationship with Hitler.

Mohtadi: Yes. He had started to make contacts with Hitler. He was a kind of — it was very strange, anyway — he had contacts with Hitler and tried to distance himself from Britain and make propaganda for Aryans and against the British.

So then they ousted him. 1941 to 1953 was the golden era of democracy in Iran. That’s the only period when the Iranian people had a constitutional monarchy. It was at that time that the first modern Kurdish party, called Komala JK — Komala, which means Organization or Party, of the Revival of Kurds. That was the name of the party.

MJT: You had a split with the Komalah Party down the road at some point. We know about that because, as you know, we accidentally met them a few days ago instead of you.

Mohtadi: That Komalah Party was established as an underground organization in 1969, under the Shah. We were a leftist organization. It was the 60s and 70s. It was a struggle against the Shah, against oppression, dictatorship, for social justice, and against…the United States. Sorry. [Laughs.]

MJT: Well, that’s alright.

Lasswell: My father was working pretty vigorously against aspects of the United States at the same time.

Mohtadi: We were also inspired by the anti-war movement in the 70s.

MJT: We wouldn’t expect you to have any other position. You’re a leftist, so…

Mohtadi: Yeah, ok. So, members of Komalah were arrested several times. Every other political dissident in Iran…there was no political freedom, especially in the 1970s. A system of very harsh and brutal torture was carried out in Iran, in the prisons. The dictatorship intensified. The Shah paved the way for his overthrow.

So many organizations in Iran were crushed and disintegrated. Komalah was not. We survived.

MJT: How did you survive?

Mohtadi: First of all, we were unlike other leftist organizations. We had real, real connections with people, with real people. We were a real movement. And that has been our characteristic for decades now.

MJT: How did that mean you were able to survive oppression from the state? Did you have more safe houses, things like that?

Mohtadi: We were among people. That was our safe house. We were among, for example, workers. Peasants. Teachers. Students. Different families. Neighborhoods.

We were against the guerilla warfare movement that swept the world in the 1970s. We had our theories against that. We believed in political work, raising awareness, organizing people. We said that was the real fortress. That was the real safe house.

MJT: You participated in the revolution of 1979, I assume.

Mohtadi: I did. He [referring to Modarresi] was arrested…twice, I suppose?

Modarresi: Yes.

Mohtadi: He was sent twice to prison under the Shah. Myself, three times. He spent three years?

Modarresi: Four years.

Mohtadi: I spent about three years in prison. Then in 1977 and 1978 we reorganized Komalah and we took part very actively in the revolution. At that time the KDPI of Iran were exiled. They didn’t have connections, real connections with people, for two decades. We were the real activists who took part in the revolution. We were behind the demonstrations. We organized people. We gave speeches. We led people on different occasions. Because we had that network inside the society most intact under the Shah we were able to control the movement in almost every city and town in Iranian Kurdistan.

Lasswell: Do you think it helped that you didn’t endorse the people who were committing violence?

Mohtadi: Let me clarify. We were not against revolution. We were not against overthrowing the regime of the Shah. What we were against was violence by small groups of guerillas who were separated from the mass movement. We put our emphasis on mass movements, on organizing them. We thought it was the people who had to do something about our fate.

MJT: Who did you have in mind, specifically at that time, of guerillas who were disassociated from a people’s movement?

Mohtadi: The Fedayan. And also the Mujahideen Khalq.

MJT: Ok.

Mohtadi: There were two different groups, religious and secular leftist guerilla groups who were influential at that time. People thought they were the way out of the dictatorship. Many many intellectuals and students and political activists joined them. But we wrote different pamphlets criticizing their methods. And that made us people who had something, a kind of political theory for a movement.

MJT: What do you think of PJAK? [The Iranian wing of the Marxist-Leninist Kurdistan Worker’s Party, the PKK, from Turkey.] Are they the kind of people you just described? Or are they more…popular than that?

Mohtadi: No, no, no, they are not popular. They are part of the PKK. When they cross the border [from Turkey] they change their name.

The problem with the PKK…I mean, the Kurdish toilers have every right to fight for their rights and their freedom. But the PKK as an organization is not reliable. They are very fanatic in their nationalism. They are very undemocratic in nature. They have no principles. I mean, they can deal with Satan. They can fight the Kurds.

MJT: They have fought the Kurds.

Mohtadi: Yes, they have fought the Kurds. They have fought the Kurds much more than they have fought the Turks. When you study the history of the PKK, you find out that they have been against every single Kurdish movement in every part of Kurdistan. At the same time they have had good friendly relations with all the states where the Kurds live, where the oppressed live.

They have been friends with Hafez al-Assad [in Syria]. They have been friends with the Khomeini regime. And they supported Saddam in 1996.

MJT: So, really, Turkey is the only country they haven’t had good relations with.

Mohtadi: Yes.

Lasswell: But they’ve used everyone else to maintain their power.

Mohtadi: Yes. They are very greedy.

Lasswell: The people down the road [referring to the estranged and unreconstructed Communist faction of the Komalah Party] said the PKK has a lot of money.

Mohtadi: They do.

MJT: Where do they get this money? Do they get it from these other regimes?

Mohtadi: The Kurdish-Turkish community in Europe is a huge community, unlike the Iraqi Kurds who are a few thousand or tens of thousands. They are millions. And they tax people. They impose taxes on people, on every business that Kurds have in Europe. They cannot fail to pay.

MJT: So it’s basically a mafia now. In Europe.

Mohtadi: I think so, yes. Unfortunately, they are. They also have bases on the border between Iran and Turkey. They help people smuggle drugs and they tax them. It is a huge source of raising money.

PKK ideology is a mixture of Stalinism, Kurdish tribalism, patriarchalism.

MJT: I thought they were opposed to tribalism.

Mohtadi: They exploit the tribal culture. They have mobile phones, walkie talkies, satellite stations, but I don’t consider them to be a modern party in the real sense of the word. Like the mafia. The mafia was modern in a sense, but they exploited the medieval culture that was there in Italy, the family connections, the family loyalties. The PKK did not start the struggle against Turkey until they had eliminated other Kurdish groups and achieved a monopoly of the Kurdish movement.

MJT: Do you have any relations with them at all?

Mohtadi: We had. We supported them in a sense, but we always had reservations. At some times they were under pressure by Iraqi Kurds. We tried to mediate between them. We even helped them in some respects. But we found out that they are unreliable. They have no principles, no friendship, no contracts, no values. Perhaps it’s a harsh judgment I’m making, but…

MJT: Well, I agree with your judgement. So I’m not going to say it’s harsh. It may not be kind, but I think it’s true.

Modarresi: They never believed in pluralism.

Mohtadi: In the name of the Kurdish movement, they eliminate everybody.

MJT: It sounds to me like they’re a mafia, but they have the reputation of being a leftist group.

Mohtadi: They got some ideas and some organizational methods from the left, but just as a tool. They don’t have the real genuine leftist values. I mean, you have to be…there are values.

MJT: I know.

Lasswell: In the United States the primary organizer of the anti-war movement is a group called ANSWER — Act Now to Stop War and End Racism.

MJT: They lost all the left values, as well. They support North Korea, for God’s sake.

Mohtadi: How could they support North Korea! It’s not Marxist, it’s a kind of secular religion.

Lasswell: It’s a Starvation Monarchy.

Mohtadi: [Laughs.] Yes, exactly. In 1983 we took part in the Communist Party of Iran, but after some years we realized it was a mistake. We criticized that and split from them. It took some years, of course. It was not just like that. [Snaps fingers.]

MJT: You split with them over what, precisely?

Mohtadi: Over so many things.

MJT: Are you referring to the party down the road here?

Mohtadi: Yes. [Laughs.] It’s a lousy party now. It was not like that always.

Lasswell: They seem very ideologically controlled. They are very fixed in their belief structure. Do you feel you outgrew them?

Mohtadi: Yes, they are very dogmatic. They are very sectarian.

MJT: You mean ideologically sectarian.

Mohtadi: Ideologically sectarian. They have lost contact with the realities of the society. They’re against the Kurdish movements. They aren’t enemies of the Kurdish movement, but they have no sympathy for it. They have no sympathy for the democratic movement in Iran. We think the time for that kind of left is over. It was our belief in the late 1980s and the beginning of the 1990s, and that was the real cause of our split.

We revived the Komala Party of Iranian Kurdistan, and we are now more affiliated with European social democracy.

MJT: Are you a member of the Socialist International?

Mohtadi: Not a full member, no. We have applied for that, and we are a member of the Kurdish Group of the Socialist International.

MJT: If I describe you as social democrats, is that accurate?

Modarresi: We won’t be angry. [Laughs.]

Mohtadi: We haven’t decided to take that name or not. But we are for democratic values. We are for political freedoms, religious freedoms, secularism, pluralism, federalism, equality of men and women, Kurdish rights, social justice. We are for a good labor law, labor unions. There is an element of the left in our political program.

MJT: You sound like the mainstream left.

Mohtadi: But as a leftist and as a Kurd I thought the left discredited itself by associating itself with Saddam Hussein and with the political Islamist groups. The left, the genuine left, should have been the real defenders of democracy, of political rights, of political freedoms, of overthrowing dictators, no matter if the United States government is or is not against them.

To be continued…

Post-script: If you enjoy my articles from Northern Iraq, please help cover my travel expenses and support independent writing and journalism by donating through Pay Pal. The Kurdistan region of Iraq is an expensive place to visit, and these trips don’t pay for themselves.

(Email address for Pay Pal is michaeltotten001 at gmail dot com)

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All photos copyright Michael J. Totten

The Iranian Revolution in Iraq

KOMALAH COMPOUND, NORTHERN IRAQ — They were supposed to be social democrats, the people Patrick Lasswell and I met yesterday in a compound outside the city of Suleimaniya, the cultural capital of Northern Iraqi Kurdistan. We had it all set up. We were to meet Abu Bakr Mudarisy and his associates for lunch at 11:00 A.M. and learn what we could about the anti-government resistance a few miles away in the Islamic Republic of Iran. Our driver Yusef misunderstood and took us to the wrong place. He did drop us off where we met left-wing dissidents from Iran. But these weren’t the moderate English-speaking leftist intellectuals we were looking for. Instead we found ourselves in an armed camp of the military wing of the Iranian Communist Party.

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They call themselves the Komalah Party, which is some kind of acronym for the Kurdish Organization of the Iranian Communist Party. Patrick and I were deposited, along with our translator Aso, at the guard house at the gate on the way into the camp.

Aso introduced us to the man whom we later would know as Kamal. Kamal dutifully logged our names in the guest book and said we were welcome to talk to the party leaders. We hadn’t yet figured out we were in the wrong place. That would take us a while. But apparently it’s perfectly normal, or at least acceptable, to show up unannounced and without an appointment even at this kind of place around here. Unreformed Communists may not be our cup of tea — and bourgeoisies citizens of the American Empire may not be theirs — but this is the Middle East at the end of the day. Pretty much everyone except the violent jihadists takes the cultural requirement for hospitality seriously.

Marx and Engels hung on the wall of the guard house, and I asked Kamal if I could take a picture.

“Of course, of course,” he said. So I took a picture.

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In the corner was a photograph of the founder of the party who was assassinated by Iranian Revolutionary Guards. I took his picture too.

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I noticed the not-so-vague resemblance to Josef Stalin (it’s the moustache, I guess), and I did wonder why supposedly moderate leftists hadn’t junked Marx yet. But hey, I thought. Maybe they just simply honored the man who inspired them in the first place. No big thing.

Kamal set up a plastic table and chairs in a pleasant courtyard surrounded by a high wall across the road from a small mosque. I asked if I could tape our conversation, and he said no problem. It wasn’t much of a conversation, however. Kamal was all about the pre-prepared boilerplate monologue.

“We are the opposition to the Iranian government party,” he said without being prompted. “Our goal is to save, or liberate, all the Iranian people. We are a Communist party, an international party. Our action is for those people who are toilers and workers in Iran.”

An armed guard sat down behind me and Patrick. He did not say a word, and he shrugged when I asked if I could take his picture.

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The Silent Armed Guard

I wondered where our English-speaking guy Abu Bakr Mudarisy was, but I didn’t mind a briefing by Kamal about who we were dealing with.

“We announced our hostility to the Iranian regime 28 years ago,” he continued. “Before that we didn’t announce our party. We saw that many people were persecuted under the Iranian regime so we began our struggle against that regime in order to liberate the people. At that time Khomeini was in power and he waged a campaign against Kurdistan — a jihadi campaign. The Iranian regime said Kurdish people are blasphemous and deserve to be killed.”

“Is this because the Kurdish people are Sunni and not Shia?” I said. The fitna, or civil war within Islam, between Sunni and Shia Muslims is so ancient and fierce it makes the Arab-Israeli conflict look like a recent and passing phenomenon. The Iranian theocracy is Shia, and the overwhelming majority of Kurds are Sunni Muslims.

“That is part of it,” Kamal said. “There were many violations of human rights at the time.” He spoke more intensely now, and with a fast staccato voice. “Our party did not want to see people under torture and persecution, so we started struggling against the government. We bear our arms in order to defend ourselves, our human rights and other rights in Iran. We don’t want to kill people. We just want to defend ourselves. The Iranian regime waged a campaign against the Kurdish people, including arresting us and burning the villages and houses of our people and bringing our people under torture. There are many internally displaced people in Iran, people who were involved in political parties, opposition. The Iranian government sent them into exile. They became internally displaced people in Iran.”

Neither Patrick nor I needed to ask him anything to get him to talk.

“There are many many sectors of the government that persecute people in Iran,” he continued, “like the intelligence agents. They spy on people. There is no freedom of speech or freedom of the press. Many of the newspapers have been closed. If you go to Iran now, they will not take you to the places where people are persecuted. They will show you their own parties and their own places. Would you like some tea?”

“Yes, please,” both Patrick and I said. Everyone offers us tea in Iraqi Kurdistan.

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Some buildings in the Komalah Party compound

“Many of the people in Kurdistan especially have been deprived of education because of the regime,” Kamal continued. “All the people are under the rule of the Islamic Republic. If someone wants to go abroad from Iran, everything they do will be spied on. If you are a political man in Iran, what frightens you is the prison. Taking drugs is a widespread phenomenon. The one who is responsible is the Iranian regime. They want people to not care about anything, just to take drugs and things like that. It’s a part of the story. It’s a small part of the story.”

Two women sat down at the table. I assumed they wanted to join the conversation. I offered them cigarettes, the only vaguely hospitable gesture a guest is really allowed in the Middle East.

“No,” said the first. She wore a floral print shirt, the kind you might expect to see in the tropics. She looked like everyone’s mom.

“Merci,” said the second as she declined. She actually looked a bit like a communist, and she had the French to go with it.

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Her short hair, drab gray clothes, and vaguely masculine demeanor set her a ways apart from most women in Iraqi Kurdistan who tend to be submissive and quiet.

“Our struggle has been announced internationally,” Kamal went on. “We don’t only want to work for the Kurdish people in Iran. We work for all the country in order to get their rights and in order to make the regime stop persecuting people and torturing people. We don’t bear arms in order to kill people. We only want to defend ourselves. Again, you are very welcome. I am happy to see you here.”

I had only asked one single question. Patrick hadn’t said anything yet. Kamal didn’t know the first thing about us. He larded his speech with more arcane information about when and where his party was founded. I wanted to get to something more interesting.

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The Komalah Party compound.

“Some of the Communists in Iran were a part of the 1979 revolution,” I said. “Were you a part of that revolution?”

“Yes,” Kamal said. “We were. We were supported by people who were workers and poor people. You should remember that the Komalah Party was the first party that brought women equality. Komalah still wants women to have the same rights that men do.”

“How long did your Party have good relations with the government after the revolution?” I said.

I’m not sure if he dodged my question or if it was lost in translation.

“We have 3,000 martyrs,” he said. “We have hope and we have struggled for many years. We have activities everywhere.”

The problem with the 1979 revolution in Iran is that it, like so many others, devoured its children. It was broad-based and popular at the beginning. Liberals allied with leftists, and leftists allied with Islamists. It wasn’t a cocktail for fascism, but that’s what they got. The Islamists came out on top and then they liquidated the liberals and leftists. Kamal didn’t get a chance to talk about any of that because another man showed up at the table and abruptly dismissed him.

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The new guy’s name was Hassan Rahman Panah, and he is a member of the party’s Central Committee. He told me we weren’t allowed to publish anything Kamal had just told us even though Kamal gave me permission to quote him. I like Hassan Rahman as a person, and I sincerely appreciate his hospitality. But I can’t let a Communist Party Commissar tell me I can’t publish quotes that were given to me on the record. Hassan did not even know what Kamal had said. He was asserting his authority and reaching for information control.

“How long have you been here in Northern Iraq?” I said.

“Since 1988,” Hassan said.

“Are you here because it’s safer, or because the Iranian regime exiled you?” I said.

“We are in opposition to the Iranian regime,” he said. “We are political men.”

If I were working in Iran I would have a hell of time finding someone like him to interview. People like him exist, of course, but the regime tightly controls who journalists can talk to and what the interview subjects can say. It is extraordinarily difficult to file reports from Iran that don’t mirror the state’s propaganda. There is a violent insurgency against the Revolutionary Guards in Iranian Kurdistan, but journalists in Iran can’t get any details.

“I know there is an insurgency in Iran, in the Kurdistan region of Iran,” I said. “What do you know about it?”

“We have details about the events that happen every day in Iranian Kurdistan,” Hassan said.

“Events happen every day?” I said.

“The struggle is going on,” he said. “It’s not every day, but it’s going on.”

“What kind of action is taken against the regime in Iran?” I said.

“Our activities include political and civil activities,” he said. “Struggles for women and workers and education. There are also struggles inside the education system.”

“How do you feel about Iran getting nuclear weapons?” Patrick said.

Aso translated the question and I whispered to Patrick: I want to steer him back to the insurgency. The diversion may have been for the best, though. Neither of us wanted Hassan to feel like we were too aggressively pumping him for information.

“It is a dangerous thing,” Hassan said, regarding Iranian nuclear weapons. “We see that it is not in favor of the people in Iran in general. We see two goals behind that phenomenon. The first is to better rule the Iranian people. The second goal is they want themselves to be known as a strong nation in the Middle East. Before, when the Shah was in power, Iran was a strong country in the Middle East. Now they want such power again.”

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The muezzin sang the call to prayer from the minaret of the small local mosque.

No one paid any attention to the call to prayer. No one ever does in Iraqi Kurdistan unless they are already in the mosque, nor does anyone in any other Muslim country I’ve been to. Many Westerners I know assume Muslims stop what they are doing and pray five times a day. The Koran may tell them to do this, but that’s not even remotely how Muslims live in the real world — especially not in an armed Communist camp.

The cows, however, wasted little time before they started mooing in annoyance at the muezzin’s call to prayer.

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Apparently they are Communist cows who are no more religious than I am.

“Do you think that if the mullahs get nuclear weapons they will further oppress their own people?” Patrick said.

“Sure,” Hassan said. “Of course. They will have a stronger authority. People think that if the state has nuclear power, struggling against it will be more difficult. Making a coup d’etat against it will be difficult. So it spreads fear and panic among the people of Iran.”

“[Iranian President] Achmadinejad says that he wants to use — well, sometimes he says this and sometimes he doesn’t — that he wants to use a nuclear weapon against Israel,” I said. “Do you think he is serious, or is he just trying to gain political support from the Arabs?”

“They want to use the Palestine issue as a tool to get support from the Arab countries,” Hassan said. “Achmadinejad knows that Israel has nuclear weapons. It’s not a realistic threat. If they want to attack Israel with a nuclear weapon they know very well that Americans will attack them with a nuclear weapon. American and Israeli governments want to use the issue to strengthen themselves in the region. Mr. Bush’s administration wants to make some trouble outside America to cover or oppress the issues that exist inside the country.”

“Inside America?” I said.

“Yes, inside America,” he said. Hassan Rahman Panah may sound like a neoconservative on the question of the Iranian mullahs, but he can’t seem to resist the coffeeshop foreign policy analysis.

“So do you think American foreign policy is wrong?” I said.

“Yes, it is,” he said.

“What do you think it should be then?” I said.

“The best thing is for America not to interfere with the situation in the world,” he said. “Wherever they meddle they spoil the region — from Afghanistan to Iraq.”

“Was Afghanistan better off under the Taliban?” Patrick said.

“I don’t think it was better,” Hassan said. “But the Taliban was a party established by Americans. They helped them against the Soviet Union at that time.”

Lord only knows how long it will take for this leftist canard to die. The Taliban didn’t exist until long after the Americans left Afghanistan and forgot all about it. Serious analysts of the Middle East know the Taliban was created with Saudi money by Pakistan’s ISI — its intelligence agency — and from the very beginning was an enemy of the United States. But this was an interview, not an argument, so I left him alone about it.

“Ok, so what do you think of the Soviet Union?” I said. I thought perhaps he was angry about the American support for the mujahadeen (not the Taliban) against Soviet imperialism. Maybe he liked the Soviet Union. He is a Communist, after all.

“The Soviet Union was an imperialist country. We were never in favor of the Soviet Union.”

“If the United States wanted to help the people of Iran struggle against the dictatorship,” I said, “would you welcome that assistance, or would you rather the Americans stay out?”

“We think meddling in Iranian affairs is a bad thing,” he said. “There is already the reality of a struggle against the regime. There are many people who are already against the Iranian regime. Let them do what they want to do.”

“Do you think the Iranian people are strong enough to change the regime by themselves?” I said.

“If the other countries in the world stop supporting the Iranian regime,” he said, “it will be very easy for people to topple or oust the regime. All the weapons the Iranian regime uses against the people, where did those weapons come from?”

“The Iranian regime is an enemy of the United States,” I said. “The Iranian regime is also your enemy. Do you really think it would be better for us not to work together since we have the same enemy?”

“We have different interests in such a conflict,” I said.

“Yes, I agree,” I said.

“We are in a struggle for the Iranian people,” Hassan said. “There is nothing which brings us together. There will be a kind of compromise between America and the Iranian regime. If the Iranians accept the demands of the Americans, Americans will no longer have a struggle against them. We have problems with all the systems that exist in Iran — the education, the Islamic system.”

He does, I think, correctly understand the limits of renascent American “realism,” the foreign policy school both Republicans and Democrats (especially Democrats) are swooning over again. Regime-change is no longer what moves most of us, but that is what the Iranian dissidents want. Hassan seems to fear that if the regime capitulates the American government might give it the diplomatic cover it needs to survive.

“We want to have a revolution like the revolution that happened in 1979.”

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The red Communist flag flies over the Komalah compound

“So you want armed revolution,” I said. “Is that right?”

“We want the ordinary people to rise up against the government,” he said. “But in a situation where everyone has a gun, you have to have a gun to defend yourself. We want protests inside factories and a closing of the market. We want a general strike against the regime in universities, in the market, everywhere.”

“Do you see signs of a collapse similar to the Shah’s government happening now to the mullahs?” Patrick said.

“Yes, I think so,” Hassan said. “In Iran things are going in that direction.”

It was time to steer him back to the insurgency.

“I know that in Iranian Kurdistan,” I said, “and in the areas where the Azeris live, there is a violent insurgency against the government. Which groups are behind this?”

“There are many armed groups in Kurdistan,” he said. “We are an armed force. And there are other groups and forces in Iranian Kurdistan which are armed. One of the Kurdish groups is responsible.”

“Which group?” I said.

“PJAK,” he said. “It belongs to the PKK.”

The PKK (or Kurdistan Worker’s Party) was established in the 1980s as a Marxist-Leninist party and militia in Eastern Turkey. A terrible civil war raged in Turkish Kurdistan for many years until PKK founder Abdullah Öcalan was captured in 1999 in Nairobi, Kenya. Since then the war in the Kurdish region of Turkey has been reduced to a simmer.

According to an Iraqi Kurdish friend, the PKK says they are now more moderate “social democrats,” rather than Marxist totalitarians, but they still carry out campaigns of terrorism against Kurdish and Turkish civilians, as well as the Turkish army, in Turkish Kurdistan. Recently they created a new branch of the party in Iran — PJAK, which is an acronym for the Kurdistan Restoration and Freedom Party. If indeed PJAK is the only group behind the anti-regime insurgency in Iranian Kurdistan, it doesn’t bode well for the liberals and moderates in that region.

“Do you have any idea where they are getting money?” Patrick said.

“PJAK cooperates with PKK,” Hassan said, “and PKK is a rich party.”

“Is your party friends with PJAK?” I said.

“We have a relationship with all the Kurdish groups in Iran, he said, “except the Islamic groups.”

“You mean like Ansar Al Islam?” I said.

“Ansar as of a few days ago started calling themselves Al Qaeda in Kurdistan,” Patrick said.

“Even if they didn’t announce that,” Hassan said, “we know they are part of Al Qaeda. They have a close relationship with Iran. After the Americans attacked them in Biara and Tawela [in Northern Iraq], they went to Iran. Now they have camps there. We know where they are, around the town of Mariwan. The Iranian government hires them as mercenaries. I would like to invite you for lunch.”

“That would be lovely,” I said. “Thank you so much.”

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Our translator Aso prepares to enjoy his meal of soup, chicken, and rice.

The young woman with the earrings brought us food. She looked like a strong-willed woman when Hassan, her boss, wasn’t around. Now that he sat at the table she reverted to the usual subservient role women tend to assume in this part of the world. This supposedly leftist secular party didn’t live up to its ideals as much as it could. Hassan did not, for example, invite our driver to eat with us. Yusef — the only working class man around — sat on the curb next to his car the whole time.

Aso’s phone rang and he spoke to the caller in Kurdish.

“It is Abu Bakr Mudarisy,” he said. “He said he has been waiting for us for over an hour. We came to the wrong place.”

So that explained why these leftists weren’t as moderate as I expected. Yusef drove Patrick, Aso, and I to the wrong leftist compound. There are two Iranian “Komalah” parties in Iraqi Kurdistan — the moderate splinter faction and the unreconstructed Communists. We ended up with the old school.

I laughed to myself and was abstractly relieved. Finding ourselves in the armed camp of the wrong Communist party is a lot less iffy than finding ourselves in the armed camp of the wrong Islamist party. Say what you will about Stalin (and you’re probably right). I’m a lot more comfortable around the armed radical left in the Middle East than I am around the armed radical right.

“How do you know about Mudarisy!” Hassan said.

“From Aso,” I said.

“Not from me,” Aso said and held up his open hands.

“Oh, that’s right,” I said. “We know about him from Aso’s friend Alan. Do you have good relations with Mudarisy?”

“No,” Hassan said. “We do not speak to each other.”

Sigh. Radical left parties all over the world follow the same pattern, it seems. Even in Iraq and Iran they fracture and retreat to mutually loathing camps. The moderates are always hated by the radicals as sellouts, capitalist roaders, neoconservatives, or what have you. So it turns out Hassan wasn’t being completely straight with us when he said his party has relations with every Kurdish group in Iran except the Islamists. The moderate leftists are shunned just the same.

“He will send a car and pick you up at your hotel next week,” Aso said, referring to Mudarisy from the Komalah party splinter faction. That was convenient. And of course Mudarisy would do this. The moderates can’t let their ideological foes be the only ones who get to speak on the record to journalists. I didn’t mind being used as a tool in a sectarian leftist squabble if it would get me information and access.

We ate our chicken, socialized amiably, and I asked a few more questions while I had the chance.

“Do you get any support from the Kurdistan Regional Government [of Iraq]?” I said. It would be news to me if the Iraqi Kurdistan government has any connection to armed groups opposed to the state in Iran.

“Yes,” Hassan said. “From the PUK.”

The PUK is the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, the secular leftist political party in charge of Suleimaniya Province.

“Only PUK,” Hassan added.

Iraqi Kurdistan’s other major political party, the Kurdistan Democratic Party, is more conservative, tribal, and has no interest in leftism, international or otherwise.

“What kind of support do you get from the PUK?” I said. “Is it political support, or also financial support?”

“Financial support,” Hassan said.

It may not be strictly accurate to say armed Iranian Communists are supported by the [Iraqi] Kurdistan Regional Government, but they are (according to Hassan Rahman Panah) supported by at least part of that government.

We finished our lunch and Hassan offered to show Patrick and I around their armed camp. He told us we were welcome to take pictures, so of course we did.

*

Kurds in this part of the world have nicknames for all major vehicles. Land Cruisers are “Monicas” because (supposedly, but I am not seeing it) they somewhat resemble Monica Lewinsky.

“We will bring a car,” Hassan said. “We can’t go up to the mountain in your car.”

“We would have brought a Monica,” Patrick said, “but it seemed inappropriate to bring a Monica to a Communist Compound.”

“We have Monicas,” Hassan said and laughed. “Capitalism is not bad in every way.”

So we hopped in a Communist Monica and drove up the mountain behind the compound.

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I was slightly surprised they showed us around. Patrick, Aso, and I could have been anyone, really. They obviously trusted us, or at least their abilities to defend themselves if we decided to try something — which, of course, we would not. They are apparently secure, as well, with photographs of their camp being published. I clicked away at will and no one said boo.

We drove past a watch tower on the left inside the compound.

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Beyond the compound was a moderately rough road that branched into two. One road winded its way up a valley and the other forged straight ahead to the top of a mountain.

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The view on the road up the mountain was spectacular. The mountain inside the camp was shorter than the others, but it was high enough that it provided the illusion of looking evenly across to the tops of the other mountains.

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Near the top of the mountain is a bunker. You would not want to try to take that bunker and mountain by force. The Komalah Party can hurl some real pain down on anybody who tries.

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Just below the top of the mountain in an area beyond a barbed wire fence lay a mine field.

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“Who are you protecting yourselves from, exactly?” I said. “Islamists?”

“Iranian regime,” Hassan said. I was thinking of the Iraqi Islamists, but of course the Iranians are much stronger and more serious enemies.

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“Recently one of our men was killed on the road down below by Iranian intelligence agents,” he said. “They are always coming after us. We need weapons to protect ourselves.”

The area did not look like a camp used to train guerillas for a military aggression, but Hassan did not take us on the road that led up the valley. The party controls that area, too, and just about anything could be up and back there.

A gaggle of young Iranian Communists came out of the bunker when they heard some Americans had arrived. These guys are politically anti-American, yet the looks on their faces made me think of teenagers meeting rock stars. I guess they don’t get too many visitors at the fort.

When they posed for the photo below, most forced themselves to stop smiling and look stern like good Communists should.

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Whatever they think of our politics, they know very well that we are not enemies. Their enemies rule in Tehran, as do ours. 3,000 members of the Komalah Party are “martyrs,” as Kamal had earlier put it, and not one of them was killed by an American.

These unreconstructed Communists are among the least pro-American of the Iranian opposition. They do not want and will not accept American help in the ouster of the totalitarian Islamist regime. I have little doubt, though, that if at some time in the future they become a part of a post-Khomeinist coalition government in Tehran it will be orders of magnitude easier to work with them civilly and diplomatically than it is right now with the murderous fascists of the Islamic Republic.

Post-script: See my colleague Patrick Lasswell’s blog Moderate Risk. He wrote about the same experience in a different way and from another angle.

Post-post-script: I met with the moderate left “splitters” up the road yesterday, and wrote about them here. The moderates are far and away the intellectual and political superiors of the Communists.

Also, please support independent writing and journalism by donating through Pay Pal. These trips to far away places don’t pay for themselves.

(Email address for Pay Pal is michaeltotten001 at gmail dot com)

If you would like to donate money for travel and equipment expenses and you don’t want to use Pay Pal, please consider sending a check or money order to:

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Many thanks in advance.

All photos copyright Michael J. Totten

Back Soon

I’m still working on my consulting job, and will have it wrapped up as soon as I can. Then I’ll be back with more from Northern Iraq. Thanks for being patient.

Ping Pong

By the Sandmonkey

Reports of an Israeli massacare of egyptian POW in 1967 war thanks to an israeli documentary raises the ire of the egyptian government and media , and naturally the egyptian people as well, since, you know, Israel is involved. ("Constitutional ammendments? What constitutional ammendments? The Israelis killed our boys almost 40 years ago!") They all called for the peace treaty to be scrapped or nullified, one nasserite newspaper "Al Karamah" actually went as far as demanding the killing of the israeli ambassador in retribution. Mubarak, for his part, demanded punishment for those who committed those atrocities. Go Mubarak, defender of egyptians!

The Israelis, for their part, are confused, since the documentary doesn't show the killing of any egyptian POW's in it at all. Some started wondering whether the whole thing is a made up crisis!

And now, another Israeli TV documentary- in response to the first documentary- claims that the egyptians killed dozens, if not hundreds, unarmed Israeli POW's in the 1973 war.

I can't wait for the Israelis to start demanding the head of our ambassador on a stick and the scraping of the peace treaty with Egypt. Can you?

Fuckin Hell..

A New Power Rises in Iraq

by Michael J. Totten

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ERBIL, IRAQ — What a difference a year makes.

Fourteen months ago I flew to Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, from Beirut, Lebanon, on the dubiously named Flying Carpet Airlines. Flying Carpet’s entire fleet is one small noisy plane with propellers, cramped seats, and thin cabin pressure. Only nineteen passengers joined me on that once-a-week flight. Everyone but me was a Lebanese businessman. They were paranoid of me and of each other. What kind of crazy person books a flight to Iraq, even if it is to the safe and relatively prosperous Kurdistan region? I felt completely bereft of sense going to Iraq without a gun and without any bodyguards, and it took a week for my on-again off-again twitchiness to subside.

Last week I flew to Erbil from Vienna on Austrian Airlines to work for a few weeks as a private sector consultant with my colleague Patrick Lasswell. This time I didn’t feel anything like a fool. Almost half the passengers were women. Children played on their seats and in the aisle with toys handed out by the crew. We watched an in-flight movie and ate the usual airline lunch fare served by an attractive long legged stewardess. The cabin erupted with applause when the wheels touched down on the runway. The pilot announced the weather (sunny and 60) in three languages and cheerfully told us all to have a great day. Have a great day may seem an odd thing to say to people who just arrived in Iraq, but this is Kurdistan. I did, indeed, have a great day.

A man named Hamid picked up me and Patrick just beyond the passport control booth. He was kindly sent by a friend on the Council of Ministers. “Here is your car,” he said as he led us to his vehicle out in the parking lot.

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New construction near Erbil’s international airport

As he drove us into the city I felt none of the fear and apprehension I experienced the first time I came here. Instead I saw considerable signs of progress. The first time I drove from the airport into Erbil I felt that I had arrived in a dodgy and ramshackle backwater. This time I felt — properly, I must say — that I had arrived in the capital of a serious and rising new power in the Middle East.

Nation-building is a hard and violent slog in the center and south of Iraq, and it might not ever work out. But in Kurdistan, in the north, it already is a reality.

Massive new construction projects are literally everywhere. Most of those that had started when I arrived for the first time are finished, and ambitious new projects are well underway.

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New apartment towers next to the Dream City project.

The Dream City, which only existed on paper when I first got here, is now partly constructed. Fancy new homes in the new city — designed on the New Urbanist model — are everywhere under construction.

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The Korek Tower will be the tallest building in Iraq

The Korek Tower will be the tallest building anywhere in Iraq when it is finished. It will more resemble a tower in Dubai or the United States than anything down south in Baghdad.

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Old road signs are replaced with new ones

Dingy and banged up road signs were replaced in the last couple of months with crisp shiny new ones. It may not seem like much, but the new signs give the city a more serious and modern look and heft.

The so-called Naza Mall recently opened to much fanfare in Erbil, and it made me wonder if the Kurds even know what a mall is. Naza Mall is a store, and it isn’t a particularly large one. But a new Western-style mall under construction next to the old souk downtown will be home for 6,000 stores and offices when it is finished.

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Erbil’s new mall takes shape next to the souk

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Inside the new mall under construction

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Some of the stores in the mall are already open

A whole new town called “American Village” is under construction next to the luxurious Khan Zad hotel on the road between Erbil and the resort town of Salahadin. Foreigners and locals alike are snapping up the properties well in advance.

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A castle just down the road from the up and coming American Village

Iraqi Kurdistan is still a Third World country in many ways — there is no sewer system, for instance, and the electricity fails every day. Unemployment is high. But it’s a Third World country with hope, and it is rapidly moving upscale. New houses cost more in and around Erbil than they do in some parts of the United States. An average sized 200 square meter lot can cost as much as 150,000 dollars — and that’s before a house is built on it. There are literally thousands of brand new houses here in this city, and the population is still just a little bit shy of one million.

Arabs are moving up here from the center and south — when they can, and as long as they are cleared by internal security — and they’re hired to do menial jobs the Kurds no longer want. Sunni Arabs were once the oppressors of Kurds. Now they are reduced to the same low status as migrant Mexican workers in the United States.

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The outer walls of ancient Erbil

The ancient old city walls next to downtown are an impressive sight, but inside the walls is a vast slum. Well, it was a vast slum until recently. A few months ago the residents were moved out so the city government can fix it up and restore it.

Erbil isn’t pretty, as Paris and Vienna are pretty. Some of it is aesthetically brutal, and much of it is still rough around the edges. But it’s stimulating and interesting all the same. The go-go-go and build-build-build attitude is infectious. Every time I come here it looks cleaner, and richer, and more like a normal place.

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Most of Erbil is still a bit ramshackle and rough around the edges

I’m less prone to boredom here than I am in Europe’s splendid capitals even though there is little in the way of entertainment culture. Erbil is the most ramshackle of Iraqi Kurdistan’s cities, but there is real raw power rising in this city and land.

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This is what nation building looks like

I have never seen so much construction going up so quickly anywhere. (There is more in Dubai, but I have never been there.)

The Hilton hotel chain is building a massive full-service tourist resort that will take five years to construct. It may seem dumb to build a tourist resort in Iraq of all places, but this is Erbil Province, not Anbar Province — there is no war, no insurgency, and no terrorism here whatsoever. The Middle East is a funny place. One part of a country may be consumed by blood, fire, and mayhem, but that rarely means the whole country is dangerous — even when that country is Iraq.

*

I met two old friends for dinner and embraced them both. We knew we would see each other again, but it was nice to confirm it with another actual visit. This trip is my fourth to Iraqi Kurdistan in just fourteen months. A year and a half ago I could not have imagined that anywhere in Iraq would become a part of my life, let alone a pleasant part of my life. Iraq is strange, though, and more complex than it appears from far away. The civil war and the insurgency in Baghdad are real. But the civil war and the insurgency are not all there is.

“So much has changed since you were last here,” one of my friends said at dinner. “Kurdistan is a different place now.”

“What changed?” I said. Of course I had to ask, but this was a social dinner and not a formal interview. So I’ll leave their names out of this and paraphrase what they told me. Understand that they are in a position to know exactly what they are talking about.

Iraqi Kurdistan is de-facto independent already. The three northernmost provinces exist as a liberal-democratic state-within-a-state with their own parliament, their own laws, their own immigration policies, and their own military, border guards, and police. That much was already known. The region now, though, is even closer to formal sovereignty and actual independence than it recently was.

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The United Nations doesn’t recognize the existence of Iraqi Kurdistan because the United Nations is hung up on state sovereignty. But the individual governments that make up the United Nations are coming around. More diplomats from all over the world are coming here now, and this is exciting to the people who live here. Foreign dignitaries who meet with local officials recognize there is a government in Iraq that isn’t in Baghdad. 99.8 percent of Iraqi Kurds voted to secede from Iraq in a non-binding referendum, and recognition of their de-facto independent country is as welcome as love letters.

Both the Democratic and Republican parties in the United States have sent people here recently. One of my Kurdish dinner companions, who never wants to be quoted by name but is in a position to know, says the Democratic officials who come here support Kurdish interests as staunchly and reliably as the Republicans.

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High tech equipment is now as easy to find in Iraqi Kurdistan as it is in Israel and the United States.

I still hear complaints about the Kissinger Betrayal in the 1970s, when Secretary of State Henry Kissinger summarily abandoned the Kurds to Saddam Hussein after promising them support for their resistance and liberation. But I don’t get the sense that too many Kurds are bracing for another round of that kind of statecraft even if the U.S. does withdraw its forces from south and central Iraq.

Three major obstacles to independence remain. The first is Iraqi Kurdistan’s relationship with Turkey. That relastionship is bad but improving despite the Turkish military’s well-publicized threats to invade Northern Iraq to eject the (Turkish) Kurdistan Worker’s Party, the PKK, from using Iraqi soil to launch attacks against military and civilian targets in Turkey. Relations between the (Iraqi) Kurdistan Regional Government and the Turkish government have quietly improved at the same time. Iraq’s Kurds genuinely want a civil relationship with Turkey because they can’t safely declare independence without it.

The Turks fear nothing more than Turkish Kurdistan declaring itself independent and attaching itself to a free Iraqi Kurdistan. A bitter civil war is still simmering in Turkey between the PKK and the Turkish state. Ethnic Kurds make up almost 25 percent of Turkey’s population. If they leave and take their land with them, the Turks will lose a huge amount of the eastern part of their country. A truly independent Kurdish state in Iraq would likely embolden Kurdish militants in Turkey — or so the Turks fear.

Iraqi Kurdistan is land-locked and surrounded on all sides by hostile people and states. They cannot survive on their own without first building a physical infrastructure that will allow them to survive border blockades as well as military invasions.

Kurdistan, unfortunately, is still connected to Iraq’s main electrical grid. And that means, as often as not, there is no power. If you want 24-hour electricity, buy a generator. And keep it topped off with fuel. (Generators are everywhere, and the large ones are louder than lawnmowers.)

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A new electrical grid is under construction

Erbil Province is building a brand-new electrical grid that should work 24 hours a day and can’t be shut down by sabateurs in the Sunni Triangle or by a hostile government in Baghdad. As soon as all of Iraqi Kurdistan is electrically severed from Baghdad, the Kurds’ only remaining physical need is an oil refinery of their own.

The Kurds have enough oil. Huge new fields near Zakho were just discovered. Gasoline is expensive here, though, because oil has to be exported and then reimported.

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Even without reliable electricity, Erbil is fairly well lit up at night thanks to ubiquitous generators.

The Kurds of Iraq may not need to bother with a declaration of independence. It may fall from the sky, my source said, if the Sunni and Shia Arabs break Iraq in the course of their civil war. “What would we do, decide if we want to remain with the Sunni Arabs or the Shia?” he said. “We don’t want to remain with either of them.”

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Businessmen without bodyguards or guns check email in the lobby of the luxurious Khan Zad resort hotel just outside Erbil.

The Kurds couldn’t stick with the Shia if they wanted to. The Shia and the Kurds are on the opposite side of the country, with the Sunni Arabs wedged in between from Baghdad north to the southern portions of Kirkuk and Mosul. The Sunni Arabs are the Kurds’ principal enemies, and there is no way the Kurds (who also are Sunni Muslims) will stick with the Sunni Arabs if the Shia Arabs decide to go their own way. If the Arabs break Iraq, as they seem hell-bent on doing, the Kurds will be freed by default. There will be no more “Iraq” for them to stay shackled to.

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The gate to a Turkish-style mosque. Mosques never get blown up around here

In the meantime, the Kurds are doing their best to cultivate civil relations with the Sunni Arabs while digging a massive trench on the Green Line to keep the insurgents, the car-bombers, and the suicide-bombers out. The trench is more like a castle moat, really. It’s 5 meters wide, 5 meters deep, and it drops straight down. Anyone trying to cross it without building a bridge will find themselves in a free fall. It’s an inverted version of the wall that separates Israelis from Palestinians. Walls and trenches can be still be crossed, to be sure, but they can’t be crossed quickly, and they certainly cannot be crossed with any vehicles.

My dinner companions were shocked when I told them I’m going to Baghdad next month with the American military. (I’m going, that is, unless the Department of Defense delays my trip yet again.)

“Are you sure you want to go down there?” one of them said. “The Sunni militias cut throats and the Shia militias drill holes in people’s heads. That’s Baghdad.”

Recently some terrorists from one of the militias dumped three dead bodies on a street and broadcasted an announcement for the neighbors: Anyone who tries to bury one of the bodies will join them. For three weeks everyone walked past decomposing corpses as dogs tore at and ate the flesh. Innocent children who do not yet understand the cruel ways of their terrible city asked their parents why those people were sleeping so long in the street.

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A residential neighborhood in peaceful Erbil

Kurdistan is safe even without its anti-terrorist trench, and that’s not because it is protected by American soldiers. Only 50 or so troops remain in this part of Iraq. There is no anti-American insurgency (because there is virtually no anti-Americanism) and there is no terrorism. If the Arab Iraqis were as peaceable as the Kurds, the American military could have folded its tents a long time ago.

Iraqi Kurdistan is technically occupied by a foreign power, but this occupation surely ranks among one of the most absurd in human history. Dr. Ali Sindi, advisor to Prime Minister Nechervan Barzani, told me that South Korea is the official occupier of “Northern Iraq.” Korean soldiers are stationed just outside Erbil in a base near the airport. He laughed when he told me the Kurdish military, the Peshmerga (“those who face death”), surround the South Koreans to make sure they’re safe.

Every couple of weeks another government somewhere in the world drops their travel advisory for Iraqi Kuridstan. The regional government sends me an email every time it happens. It is always seen as yet another milestone passed on the road to independence from Baghdad. Not only is Kurdistan recognized as separate from Iraq, it is also recognized as different from Iraq. Iraq is dangerous, but the north really isn’t.

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New houses in Erbil

Kurdistan’s rise flips Iraq on its head. The Kurds are ahead, but they started from nothing. Under Saddam’s regime they had the worst of everything — the worst poverty, the worst underdevelopment, and worst of all they bore the brunt of the worst violence from Baghdad. 200,000 people were killed (out of less than four million) and 95 percent of the villages were completely destroyed.

The Kurds seem happy and well-adjusted. Scratch the surface, though, and any one of them can tell you tales that make you tremble and shudder. Everyone here was touched by the Baath and by the genocide. If living well is the best revenge, the Kurds got theirs.

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A bookseller in the souk in Erbil

“You see this place now with its government, its democracy, and its system of laws,” my guide Hamid said. “It wasn’t like this even recently, believe me. Before, it was a jungle.”

Baghdad, the Sunni Triangle, and Shia South are still jungles. No one I know here thinks the Sunni and Shia Arabs will be able to reconcile and live with each other in peace — there is too much bad blood between them. I don’t know if that’s true or if it’s not. The Middle East is an unpredictable place, and I’ve made a fool of myself often enough by thinking I know what will happen.

What I do know for sure is that Baghdad is burning and Kurdish power is rising. The question up north isn’t whether Iraq will come apart, but only when, how, and into how many pieces.

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All photos copyright Michael J. Totten

Breaking news: 31 demonstrators arrested!

By the Sandmonkey

My laptop is going to be operational tomorrow, so that's when I am going to be back at posting things. However, this, couldn't wait!

There was a demonstration planned for the day, to protest against the egyptian constitutional changes, which pretty much outlawed independent candidacy, and made the emergency law permenant under the guise of the terrorism law. I had passed by the area today, and there was about 20 state secuirty soldiers trucks. The area was flooded with black uniforms. Apparently the demonstration went as planned and the police cracked down on them and arrested 31 demonstrators, amongst which are bloggers Mohamed al taher and Meit.

The way it worked was as follows: The police seperated the area of Talaat Harb from The Tahrir square, so many demonstrators couldn't get to Tahrir square. So a group of 100 of them made a demonstration and were chased by the police into a dead end alley and were kept there. There were fringe demonstartions all over the surrounding area, of groups of 2-5 demonstrators staging their own demonstrations independently from anyone else. The Police reportedly cracked down on them in the alleys and the streets surrounding the area. An eye-witness friend informed me that she saw 2 demonstrators getting the shit kicked out of them in a side street and then getting arrested. The Police has reportedly arrested 29 others the same way.

As you can see the terrorism law is working effective immedietly, and used as expected as a tool against political opposition. If this is anything, it's an omen of dark times ahead.

The tone, has already been set!

The list of the names in arabic can be found here.

Hello from Iraq

by Michael J. Totten

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Yep, that’s me in Iraq, in a photo taken earlier today. Obviously I am not in Baghdad. Iraq is big, and diverse. Not all of it is a hot, flat, dusty plain, and not all of it is a war zone.

I’ll have something a bit more substantial shortly.

Please Welcome the Sandmonkey

by Michael J. Totten

I’m working in Iraqi Kurdistan right now on a consulting job that isn’t writing related, so I won’t be able to blog full time for a bit. When the consulting job ends I intend to stick around, though, and do some text and video blogging.

The Egyptian Sandmonkey is going to help me out as a guest blogger in the meantime. Give him a big welcome, and please be nice in the comments. I’ll see you here as time allows.

A Middle-east democracy success story

By the Sandmonkey

It's hard not to get excited over what's going on in Muritania. I mean, a country that was ruled by a despot for 21 years gets a military coup, that gets done by a group of military officers who chose not to rule the people but hold fair and democratic elections, where not a single one of them or anyone backed by them gets to run, and where they will resign from power and the military after the new government is in place, and this is the middle-east? And they did this totally by themselves, without foreign intervention or pressure? How could you not love that?

Power in Mauritania has never changed hands at the ballot box,

although past votes have been held by dictators amid opposition cries

of fraud. The last president, Maaoya Sid'Ahmed Ould Taya, took power in

a 1984 coup and held it until a popular military junta led by Col. Ely

Ould Mohamed Vall toppled him in August 2005.

Vall has been praised for ending the nation's history of

totalitarian rule, making good on promises to ensure a free press and

establish an independent judiciary. In June, he oversaw a successful

referendum that enshrined basic constitutional liberties and limited

future presidents to two five-year terms. Municipal and legislative

elections took place in November.

"We have big hopes for democracy," said Ahmed Ould Daddah, a leading

candidate in Sunday's race and a longtime opposition figure who ran

twice against Taya in past ballots and spent four years under house

arrest. "People are afraid of a return to the old ways. They are

paranoid about this."

And they won't. Once given a choice, no one would take tyranny over democracy!

Let's hope the entire middle-east follows suit one day!

Bin Laden Turns 50

By The Sandmonkey

Remember those old looney tunes cartoons, where a character would be given a birthday cake, and the candle is really a dynamite stick and it blows up in his face?

You do?

Can you think of a more appropriate gift for this guy?

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