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Michael J. Totten: Kurdistan. Iraq Without a Gun; Dream City of the Kurds; Massive Reconstruction ^ | February 13 - 16, 2006 | Michael J. Totten

Posted on 02/16/2006 8:50:30 AM PST by Tolik

Michael J. Totten: It’s probably the most pro-American place in the world. Certainly the most pro-American place I’ve ever been

The following is (unfinished) series of articles by Michael J. Totten about his travel to Kurdistan. Michael J. Totten is American living in Beirut, Lebanon. More is coming, visit his website for his first-hand experience in the Middle East. He is a very good and independent observer. His articles can be found in Wall Street Journal and  TCS Daily,

See also an interview with him by NRO's Stephen Spruiell

Iraq Without a Gun,   February 13, 2006

The Dream City of the Kurds, February 15, 2006

“This is Your Country”, February 16, 2006

To the Scene of “Massive Reconstruction”. Kurdistan today

Iraq Without a Gun,   February 13, 2006

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


Erbil Skyline 1.jpg


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

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

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

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


Erbil Water Tower.jpg  Erbil Sidewalk.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“He told you what?” he said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Dream City of the Kurds, February 15, 2006

Dream City Children.jpg


ERBIL, IRAQ – Kurdistan is a place of the mind. It doesn’t exist on any maps unless the maps are made by the Kurds. Southern Kurdistan is known to the rest of the world as Northern Iraq. Northern Kurdistan is described as Eastern Turkey. Southwestern Kurdistan is Northeastern Syria. And Southeastern Kurdistan is Northwestern Iran.

In no country are Kurds closer to realizing their dream of freedom and independence than they are in Iraq. They are wrapping up the finishing touches on their de-facto sovereign state-within-a-state, a fact on the ground that will not easily be undone. And they’re transforming the hideously decrepit physical environment left to them by Saddam Hussein – a broken place that is terribly at odds with the Kurdistan in their hearts and in their minds – into something beautiful and inspiring, the kind of place you might like to live in someday yourself.

The heart of the new Kurdistan is soon to be known as the Dream City, a massive construction site going up on the outskirts of Erbil.


Dream City Construction Site.jpg  Dream City Model.jpg

The Baath regime’s agoraphobic totalitarian urban planning model will be replaced with a cityscape fit for human beings. Neighborhoods will be built for people, not cars. Tree-lined streets will be pleasant to walk along. Open public green space will beckon people outside their homes and into their community. Restaurants and shops will add the perfect grace notes. Erbil, as a city, is a hard city to love. That may not be true for very much longer.

Korek Tower.jpg

The Korek cell phone company is building a tower near the Dream City that will be the tallest building in all of Iraq when it’s finished. It certainly will be the country’s most aesthetically pleasing tall building. The sleek modern design looks more “Dubai” than it does “Baghdad.”

Dream City Towers.jpg

Not everyone in Iraqi Kurdistan can afford one of the nice houses being built at this time. They cost around 150,000 dollars apiece, and they have to be paid for in cash. The banking system is still in shambles, and mortgages are not available. But lots of people want to live in the Dream City. So a series of more-affordable apartment towers are already partly constructed.

American Suburban House in Iraq.jpg

One already-completed house next to the Dream City is a dead-ringer for a house in the American suburbs. It came complete with a garage and even an oversized yard.

Several Dream City Houses.jpg  Dream City House 1.jpg

The “Sheraton” hotel hosted a Dream City exhibit while I was a guest. 3-D models of the urban plan were set up on tables. Sketches of soon-to-be-real houses lined all four walls.

Dream City Kitchen.jpg

Two fully-stocked kitchens, the kind that will be installed in the houses, were set up in corners.

Nice Houses in Erbil.jpg

Some lovely new parts of Erbil are already finished.

Row Houses in Erbil.jpg

And the Dream City is only one massive construction site among hundreds. Reconstruction in Iraqi Kurdistan is absolutely explosive. These photos are only a miniscule sample of what’s going up right now as you read this.

It goes without saying that none of this was possible when Saddam Hussein did everything he could, with the fourth largest army in the world, to destroy these people. Even though Kurdistan has been free of Saddam since the Kurdish uprising drove out him and the Baath in 1991, real reconstruction wasn’t possible until 2003. When the embargo was lifted, and when everyone knew that the bastard could never come back, the Kurds finally had the nerve to build their dream country in earnest.

Postscript: If you enjoy my posts from Iraq, please don’t forget to hit the tip jar. I can’t do this for free. Thanks!

“This is Your Country”, February 16, 2006

ERBIL, IRAQ – Iraqi Kurdistan has an official tourism board, but that doesn’t mean the region gets many actual tourists. Despite the fact that it’s by far the safest and (almost certainly) the most pleasant place to visit in Iraq, it has a long way to go before it becomes a holiday destination.

Travelers (rather than “tourists”) who don’t like running into other travelers, who yearn to be “off the map,” and who would rather learn about the world than take a break from it, might appreciate Kurdistan, though, as long as they don’t expect too much modernity or too many Western amenities.

Entertainment culture doesn’t really exist there yet. Don’t go and expect to have fun. Egypt, for example, is far more grim and depressing than Kurdistan, but it’s easier to have a good time if that’s what you’re looking for. Guatemala is much poorer and more dangerous and more politically dysfunctional, but it’s still a better place to go as a typical tourist if you want good food, hotels, and attractions.

I don’t mean to criticize when I say this. The Kurds have been through decades of fascism, genocide, and war. They suffered more than any other group of Iraqis. Northern Iraq endured more recent hardship than any other place I have ever been in my life. Scratch just beneath the happy veneer of Iraqi Kurdish adults and you’ll find people with family members murdered by Baathists, who experienced unimaginable oppression by a regime that wanted to completely erase them, and who fled to the mountains during the uprising in 1991 when the cities of Iraqi Kurdistan were emptied of people. They still have no sewage system, and they still only have a few hours of electricity each day. Having a good time just isn’t a priority for them right now.

But they do what they can with what they have. I went to a Turkish restaurant for dinner after sunset on the outskirts of Erbil on the way to the Christian suburb of Ainkawa. The entire neighborhood was dark. Not even a street light was on. The place had an eerie end of the world feeling to it. When I stepped into the restaurant, doubting it would even be open, a sharply dressed waiter led me upstairs to a room full of tables lit by candlelight. The restaurant was half full even in the dark, and the kitchen was serving hot food. Each table was draped in a white tablecloth. European-style mouldings framed the windows and the tops of the walls. Beautiful chandeliers hung from the ceilings. The place had class even in darkness. The waiters all spoke Turkish amongst themselves. They were Turkmen – in other words, Iraqi Turks who speak a slightly different dialect of Turkish than is spoken in Turkey. Dinner was amazingly good, much better than anything I expected to eat in Iraq. The food tasted all the better because it seemed so unlikely in a place that didn’t even have any light.

It’s impossible not to admire these people. Their attitude is go-go-go, build-build-build. They won’t let a little thing like a permanent power outage get in their way. They are the last people in the world anyone dare call lazy or apathetic.

Getting to know the people is the best reason to travel to Kurdistan, actually. Every Middle Eastern country I’ve been to has a tradition of hospitality that can’t be overstated. But the Kurds are even warmer than usual. Several Iraqi Kurds said “This is your country” when they first met me. How could I not love people who greet me this way? Especially when I know very well that it isn’t a polite (and culturally compulsory) cover for quiet anti-Americanism.

Iraqi Kurdistan is more pro-American than America. People there refer to George W. Bush as “Hajji Bush” (meaning he made the Muslim pilgrimage, the hajj, to Mecca), an incredibly high honor for a Christian from Texas whom most people hate. Bill Clinton may have been America’s first “black” president. But people in at least one part of the world say Bush is the first “Muslim” president. Weird and amazing, but true.

Thomas Friedman once described Poland as “a geopolitical spa,” a great place to visit if you’re tired of reactionary anti-Americanism. Iraqi Kurdistan may be a better “spa” than even Poland.

Before I went to Iraqi Kurdistan I asked a friend of mine who has been there about politics, economics, and security in the region. She thought my questions were a bit strange and not what she expected. She said that, for her, Kurdistan is a place to connect to through the heart. I first thought her response was “girlie.” I don’t so much anymore.

To the Scene of “Massive Reconstruction”. Kurdistan today.

Q&A by Stephen Spruiell

Michael J. Totten has written extensively on the Middle East and the conflict in Iraq for outlets such as the Wall Street Journal, TCS Daily, and his own blog, Totten just returned from two weeks in Iraq, and for the next three weeks he’ll be blogging about his travels there. Totten spoke by phone with National Review Online's media reporter, Stephen Spruiell, from Beirut, Lebanon on Wednesday.

National Review Online: You’ve just gotten back from Iraq and already posted a few stories on your blog. How much more can readers expect in the coming weeks?

Michael J. Totten: I’m going to be posting stories on the blog from Iraq for the next three weeks. I was there for two weeks and gathered an amazing amount of material. I’m going to be trying to go to Iran pretty soon, but I’ll be blogging for three weeks and writing a few freelance articles. Yet some of what I learned won’t ever get out of my notebook. That’s how experience-rich the place is.

NRO: Why did you limit your travel to Kurdistan?

Totten: I couldn’t go south of Kurdistan without quite a large security detail. Nobody goes to Baghdad without bodyguards. I raised enough on the blog to cover all the expenses, plus a small profit, but if I’d have hired bodyguards it would have been a whole other story.

NRO: You don’t read a lot in the major newspapers about Kurdistan these days. Did a desire to tell that story factor in as well as security concerns?

Totten: It was very much both. I have a pretty good idea what’s going on in Baghdad — at least the bad stuff. It does look like Baghdad is pretty much a bad place. But I know the whole country isn’t like that, and journalists tend not to go to the places that are quiet. If I were reporting for a wire service where I had to file every day, I would want to go to places where things are happening every day.

But since Kurdistan is quiet, there are going to be a lot of things happening there that can’t happen in those other places. Things that are positive and things that I didn’t know were happening until I got there.

NRO: Such as?

Totten: Massive, and I mean massive, reconstruction. In Sulaymaniyah, there are 300,000 people living where three years ago there were only half as many. Like all massive urban immigration, most of the people are settling on the outskirts. But unlike in the most of the third world, the outskirts aren’t slums. They are so nice, in fact, that you might not believe you were in the Middle East. You would look at some of these pictures and swear that this wasn’t the Middle East at all.

The only exception is Halabja. Halabja still looks like a third-world country. This is the city that was gassed by Saddam Hussein. It was totally destroyed and had to start over at zero.

NRO: Why aren’t we hearing more about this kind of rebuilding in the U.S.?

Totten: The only thing you can really do is feature pieces or blogging. There’s not much wire-agency news that comes out of there. If I were a wire reporter, there would only have been one story I could have filed during the entire two weeks I was there. That would be the unification of the two Kurdish political parties to form one. In Erbil you had the Kurdish Democratic party, and in Sulaymaniyah you had the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. They had parallel governments, parallel administrations, and they are merging together to form one unified government.

But that’s a pretty big reason you’re not going to read about Kurdistan in the New York Times or Washington Post. But you can get it in periodicals. National Geographic had a terrific article about Kurdistan last month. It’s places like that where you’re going to get good reporting on Kurdistan.

NRO: Some people who were against deposing Saddam Hussein are now discounting Kurdistan’s success by saying, well, under Saddam, Kurdistan was protected by the no-fly zone, so Kurdistan would have been fine without U.S. action.

Totten: That’s not true. What people say and what you just said… and I didn’t realize that it wasn’t true until I got there. Almost all this construction I’m describing happened post-invasion. For two reasons. First, all of Iraq, including Kurdistan, was under sanction. The reconstruction was not economically possible. The second reason is that nobody had any confidence when Saddam was in Baghdad. Nobody could be sure that he wouldn’t come back. And it should be noted that not all of Kurdistan was protected by the no-fly zone. The city of Sulaymaniyah was not protected by the no-fly zone ever. Saddam could have rolled back in there and no one would have been there to stop him.

NRO:How would you describe the economy of Kurdistan? Could it be described as a free-market economy? How much does the government in Baghdad play a role?

Totten: It’s completely and utterly separate from the rest of Iraq. It’s all regulated by the Kurdistan regional government. Baghdad effectively doesn’t rule Kurdistan. It’s almost a foreign capital, and it’s treated as one. They describe themselves as a free-market economy, which is sort of true and sort of not true. The administration has its hand in most of the economy. They don’t regulate it — they take their cut, so to speak.

NRO: Is it corruption or is that just the way the government works?

Totten: It’s sort of both. Kurdish people describe it as corrupt because the government takes a percentage of their profits, but you could look at that as taxes because there is no formal taxation in Kurdistan. It infuriates a lot of the Kurdish people, but if you think about it as corporate taxation, then it’s not that different from other places.

NRO: What is the U.S. military presence like in Kurdistan?

Totten: I saw some off-duty soldiers at a hotel when I was checking in. I don’t know what they were doing there, but they were not working and I never saw them anywhere else. There are only 200 soldiers stationed in that entire region.

NRO: Is there still a lot of good feeling toward the United States?

Totten: It’s astonishing. It’s probably the most pro-American place in the world. Certainly the most pro-American place I’ve ever been.

KEYWORDS: iraq; kurdistan; kurds; michaeljtotten

1 posted on 02/16/2006 8:50:40 AM PST by Tolik
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To: Lando Lincoln; quidnunc; .cnI redruM; Valin; King Prout; SJackson; dennisw; monkeyshine; ...

Very Interesting!

This ping list is not author-specific for articles I'd like to share. Some for the perfect moral clarity, some for provocative thoughts; or simply interesting articles I'd hate to miss myself. (I don't have to agree with the author all 100% to feel the need to share an article.) I will try not to abuse the ping list and not to annoy you too much, but on some days there is more of the good stuff that is worthy of attention. You can see the list of articles I pinged to lately  on  my page.
You are welcome in or out, just freepmail me (and note which PING list you are talking about). Besides this one, I keep 2 separate PING lists for my favorite authors Victor Davis Hanson and Orson Scott Card.  

2 posted on 02/16/2006 8:53:20 AM PST by Tolik
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To: Tolik

Vietnam! Quagmire! They hate us!

3 posted on 02/16/2006 11:18:16 AM PST by BJClinton (Let slip the Viking Kittens!)
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To: John Robinson

I missed to make a TOPIC designation, and this good article is not showing anywhere. Its a shame because we need some good news from Iraq.

I can't add a TOPIC now, and hope you guys can. Can you set it up as editorial and wot, please?

Many thanks

4 posted on 02/16/2006 11:50:52 AM PST by Tolik
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To: Tolik
Beautiful pics. Sunny skies, clear air, peace, prosperity. What's not to love?
5 posted on 02/16/2006 5:51:10 PM PST by starbase (Understanding Written Propaganda (click "starbase" to learn 22 manipulating tricks!!))
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To: Tolik


6 posted on 02/17/2006 3:39:21 PM PST by minus_273
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To: All

Next installments

Michael J Totten reports from the Kurdistan:

7 posted on 02/23/2006 7:46:00 AM PST by Tolik
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To: Tolik

Excellent read, thank you!

8 posted on 02/23/2006 7:53:54 AM PST by Reborn
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To: Tolik


9 posted on 02/23/2006 8:06:56 AM PST by Sally'sConcerns (Native Texan now in SW Ok.)
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To: Tolik


10 posted on 08/07/2014 5:10:16 PM PDT by Valin (I'm not completely worthless. I can be used as a bad example.)
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