The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Getting Along (10)

April 16, 2006

Iraq is a flat country. No, mean really flat. Even the topographically challenged Nile valley comes across as lumpy compared to the pancake flat perfection of Iraq's landscape.

I took a chopper up north the other day, stopped by Tikrit, home of the big guy, and then moved on to Kirkuk the next day. The countryside below me was stunning for its flatness and aridity.

No wonder the Sunnis are so scared about the north and south splitting off-those areas have water and oil--the Sunni center of the country (from what little I've observed from the chopper flightpaths) has, um, some severely moisture-challenged farmland.

Totally flat desert alternates with scraggly crops that slowly give way back to desert like worn velour on an old armchair. And then suddenly the chopper will veer towards the Tigris and belt of orchards and wheat fields, a few dozens meters wide, will appear, and then dissolve back into desert a few minutes later.

I'd always been under the impression that pre-war, pre-sanctions, pre-wrath of Bush Iraq was a fairly wealthy country. And perhaps there are signs of that in Baghdad, but in the countryside, it's mostly mudbrick houses that wouldn't have looked out of place a few centuries, erm millennia, ago.

I have the rather dubious distinction of having been inside a number of Iraqi houses, usually walking behind booted invaders who've come to have a look around to see if the home is carrying more than just its allotted house Kalashnikov. I'm always surprised how even the most impressive concrete façade is little more than a barren shell inside with a few grubby blankets, a television sets and the same cheap aluminum cookware I remember from Egypt.

I liked Kirkuk. It's far enough north that spring means rolling grassy fields filled with yellow wildflowers and endless collections of sheep. And along the horizon, the distant promise of mountains - maybe a bit reminiscent of the high plains in the US.

And large ugly black patches of oil leaking from underground pipelines. The place has the constant whiff of petroleum products and at night, as I wandered through the US army base trying to find my CHU (combat housing unit), I would orient myself by the bright flares of gas burnoff from the nearby oil plant.

In the middle of a square in Kirkuk, which is your typical low lying, slightly battered medium size Iraqi city, there is a bizarre statue of entwined arms wrapped around each other building up to reaching, grasping and finally cradling an oil well.

That's Kirkuk, Iraq's oil town. But guess what? Cars wait for hours in line to get gasoline in a town that smells like smoking could be a bad idea.

And gas stations are fortified redoubts surrounded by concrete blast walls because insurgents (or frustrated taxi drivers?) occasionally lob rocket propelled grenades at them.

The thing is, even though it's kind of an insecure place with a few drive by shootings every day, the odd assassination and a fairly nasty insurgency broiling out in the west of the province, Kirkuk is doing pretty well all things considered.

And the things to consider are manifold. Roughly half the population is Kurdish, or at least it is now after the US-led invasion/liberation, ever since a lot of angry Kurds came boiling out of the northern and eastern mountains and reclaimed homes they'd been ethnically cleansed from 20 years earlier by the big guy.

A lot of the Arabs settled there in the last two decades, mostly poor confused Shia from the south, pulled up stakes and went back to their homes as soon as they could, others have been little less enthusiastic by the recent changes.

Of course back in the good old Ottoman days, the dominant group were the Turkmen, who are still there, just now only 20% of the population-enough to want their rights as well-and to make things even better, not only are there Sunni and Shiite Arabs, but Sunni and Shiite Turkmen as well. Finally just to give the ethnic stew just that much more spice, there are Assyrians as well.

Mind you, I hear they haven't been running things for a at least a few millennia, but the remnant of Iraq's old Christian population are especially numerous in Kirkuk and make up 10% of the population.

But that said, everybody isn't killing each other in the same 15-tortured-corpses-found-in-every-morning way as Baghdad.

I managed to show up on the eve of an impromptu 4-day weekend so couldn't visit the government house until the last day, but what a fascinating place. Everywhere armed men were swaggering round, some in police uniforms, others in the baggy trousers and turbans of the Kurdish peshmerga, others just thuggish guys with guns, guarding the doors of the various Kirkuk politicians.

The long corridors of the place are filled with offices of council members who, as much as they hate each other and squabble and denounce each other, or working together and getting something done.

Back in the day's of the big guy, Iraq was not only really flat, but also extremely centralized. That's all changed with the new constitution approved in October which gave new powers to provincial governments... except that constitution hasn't gone into effect yet because Baghdad's politicians, four months after elections, haven't gotten around to forming a government.

It was a theme that came up again and again in Kirkuk. Army generals who couldn't get supplies because the ministry of defense is in upheaval, the governor who has no budget to run his province because it comes from Baghdad, a council that wants to tax its citizenry but can't yet because it doesn't know the extent of its powers.

And most importantly for Kirkuk, the funds to compensate Arabs who've lost their land to returning Kurds haven't been released.

Yet, they are still finding ways to talk to each other and have come up with projects (that they agreed on!) to implement with the few funds tossed their way by Baghdad.

The Americans I met working with the council are very cautiously optimistic about what's going on in Kirkuk. It could be working there in a way it really isn't elsewhere in the country.

It was funny talking to these American major and colonels as they explained to me the intricacy of the local politics, which leaders are doing what each community hopes to achieve--a lot of them are incredibly switched on about how it all works here.

Interestingly enough, a lot of these guys keep mentioning their experiences in Bosnia. This is the 101st Airborne's second deployment to Iraq, they were here in 2003, but prior to that, they did peacekeeping in Bosnia.

I don't know if anyone remembers, but at the time, in the 1990s, the Republicans in the US were yowling about our wasteful involvement in peacekeeping missions and how it was resulting in a hollow military. At least for these commanders, they learned valuable skills of negotiating between warring parties that they've say they've been applying to their work in Iraq.

Ominously they say the big difference between Bosnia and Iraq is that by the time the US showed up in Bosnia, the sides were exhausted from fighting and ready to talk. "I don't think they're quite tired of fighting yet here," said one major.

Don't get me wrong, there are some issues in Kirkuk. The Kurds are in the midst of the major power grab and they control the governor's office, the head of the provisional council as well as the chief of police, the head of the local Iraqi army brigade and countless other positions-the Arabs are scared shitless and in the face of such an organized onslaught of machine party politics they only know to start burying explosives on well traveled highways.

The Kurds have had more than a decade to figure out what politics are while the Arabs and the Turkmen are just getting a taste of it and they are desperately outmatched. The Kurds want to make this town, and all its oil, part of Kurdistan, the sort-still-part-of-Iraq three provinces in the north.

But it's holding together. Which is some of the better news I've run across in a while. Certainly better than the news in the office when I came back from Kirkuk, where the Kurd and two Sunnis left in a largely Shia office are thinking that maybe immigration is the way to go in the wake of the office manager's kidnapping.