Dateline, Kurdistan (Almost)

Published Thursday, August 21, 2008 in The Register-Guard.

(FRANKFURT, GERMANY) Datelines matter. I’ll be writing for the next two weeks from Iraq and neighboring Jordan, but I won’t be going to Baghdad for several reasons.

The Baghdad where most news accounts originate is inside the fabled Green Zone, a two-square mile “gated community” built by the Americans to house its embassy and other government offices.

It’s safe mostly, but insular. Military briefings and government policy statements come from inside the Green Zone. These details are important and certainly newsworthy, but it’s not the same as being there. Reporting from Baghdad’s Green Zone is no different than watching the Super Bowl on TV. You probably have a better view of the game than those in the stadium, but you’re not really there.

The Green Zone may have a Baghdad ZIP code, but it resembles Baghdad in very few other ways. Reporting from inside the Green Zone would be as if you were at Disney World, but describing for others what you’re seeing in Orlando.

Outside the Green Zone is what soldiers and contractors refer to as the Red Zone. Red, as in Stop, Danger, Do Not Enter. Employers of military contractors forbid passage into the Red Zone without authorization. The Green Zone has been built to include every necessity, including many necessities unavailable outside it.

My goal for this excursion is to gather and tell stories from real people, to help myself and others understand the human costs connected to this conflict, while not recklessly endangering myself or others. Neither Baghdad fits my goal. The Red Zone is unsafe. The Green Zone is unreal.

The small group I’m traveling with will convene in Amman, Jordan for orientation. After a couple days, we will fly into Suleimaniya, Iraq. This area of northern Iraq has been relatively stable for several years. “Sulie” is an urban center of more than a million people. It’s considered the “most liberal” city in the region. American military presence is near zero in the area, but more than 100 NGOs (Non-Government Organizations) have offices there.

Almost all of its residents are Kurds, who never miss an opportunity to remind others they are of Indo-European ethnicity, unrelated to their Arab countrymen. They have kept a separate language and culture, preserving their heritage and independence. They hope that independence will someday be rewarded with nation-state status, but for the last 35 years, it has brought them mostly abuse and abandonment.

The region I will be visiting is best described as “Iraqi Kurdistan.” The modifier helps define the place in unexpected ways.

Although you can find Kurdistan on many maps, Kurdistan does not officially exist. Kurdistan is the Middle East’s unincorporated Santa Clara. Its residents insist they are independent or they could be, but they have no government to call their own, no autonomous taxing authority, no fire department, no police force, no post office, no status as an official place.

Three of Iraq’s northern provinces have banded together in an alliance to form a semi-autonomous region known as Kurdistan, but the Iraqi Parliament, centered in Baghdad would prefer the term “Iraqi Kurdistan.” This acknowledges that their mail is delivered to and by Iraq. If the metaphor holds up, Iraq believes eventually their northern Santa Clara neighbors will have sidewalks and sewers and become fully annexed.

Nobody expects this integration to happen quickly. But we’re talking about the Cradle of Civilization here. The long view isn’t hard to sustain.

On the other hand, the Kurds don’t dislike the “Iraqi Kurdistan” moniker at all. The Baghdad bureaucrats use the modifier as a limiter, but Kurds see it expansively. In the minds of many Kurds, Kurdistan extends into parts of Turkey, Iran, Syria, and even Armenia and southern Georgia. The most optimistic maps of Kurdistan extend a finger west to touch the Mediterranean Sea.

Kurds may lack the status that comes with having their own nation-state, but as long as “Kurdistan” is only a state of mind, the Kurds are free to draw their dotted lines wherever they like.

Iraqi Kurdistan offers stability, strong-mindedness, and a substantial separation from Baghdad. I hope to bring you stories of real people there, whose lives are not neatly zoned into Green and Red.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) will chronicle his excursion almost daily for the next couple of weeks, exclusively for The Register-Guard and the readers of his blog.