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March 29, 2007

Sanity for Iran from Iraq

-Patrick S Lasswell

After accidentally visiting a living museum of revolutionary communists a few days ago, Michael Totten and I didn't know what to expect when meeting the alleged moderates also calling themselves a Komala. Michael was ready in case we were dropped into a bunch of space aliens to take pictures of livestock dissections, ask pointed questions about crop circle creation, and tactfully refuse probing. Anything was on the table.

Jailed by the Shah of Iran, expelled by the Iranian Mullahs, and attacked with Weapons of Mass Destruction by Saddam, the revolutionaries we met yesterday are willing to risk being denounced by the left. Instead of following the herd of Leftist doctrine to shelters of academic comfort, this Komala is moving in its own direction and engaging the real world. Although they have a red star and fly a red flag, their respect for democracy, secular government, and human rights are profound. These aren't your father's communists or the Stalinist thugs from the ANSWER anti-war organization. This is the real, living Iranian Kurdish Komala and they scare the Mullahs of the Islamic Republic of Iran because they are spreading sanity from Iraq.

These people are organizing to achieve non-violent revolution in Iran, all the while training to maintain stability with arms after the overthrow of the Islamic Republic. This is the Middle East and they are not morons. It is much harder to craft an effective organization than it is to build a bomb. Any idiot can detonate something, and around here it seems like most do. Instead of throwing murderous tantrums for attention, these Iranian Kurds are organizing to provide a reasonable alternative to the incompetent, bigoted, and deeply corrupt Islamists in charge in Iran.

Unlike the Commissar who took charge of the last meeting, we were met by the best professor you could hope to have, General Secretary Abdullah Mohtadi. Soft-spoken and gently brilliant, it takes you a while to understand why the Islamic Republic's Mullah's must be terrified of this man. He can quietly build consensus, carefully examine ideas for their value in the real world, and laugh with real joy. None of these are the Mullah's strengths, and they look smaller and less powerful by way of comparison. Oh, and he speaks English fluently because he's studied economics at the University of London, where he was a doctoral student. Alongside Abdullah and free to speak was Abu Baker Modarresi, similarly intelligent and also fluent in English, he has been a Peshmerga Kurdish fighter for decades.

General Secretary Abdulla Moqtida.jpg
Abdullah Mohtadi, Prisoner of the Shah, Expelled from Iran, Targeted by the Mullah's, and Stood Up by Michael Totten and Patrick S Lasswell. Still smiling, you know this is a resilient man.

Totten: You are both from Iran?

Mohtadi: Yes, yes we are.

Totten: 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.

Totten: 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.

Totten: Really. Were you gassed here?

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.

Totten: 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.

Totten: Which regime was more oppressive to you?

Mohtadi: The Iranians.

Totten: Worse than Saddam?

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

Totten: 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.

Totten: 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.

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

PSL: 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.

Totten: 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.

Correcting Term Papers or Organizing a Revolution.jpg
Professor Abdullah Correcting Term Papers or General Secretary Mohtadi Organizing the Iranian Revolution. The Mullah's wish it were the former, and if they hadn't been fascists, it would have been.

Totten: How many Kurds are in Iran now?

Mohtadi: In these four provinces, 12 million.

Totten: 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.

Totten: 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.

Totten: What is it for then?

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

Totten: 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.

Central Committee Members.jpg
Abu Bakr Modarresi and a Fellow Central Committee Member. We got to talk to these people.

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.

PSL: 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.

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

Mohtadi: [Laughs.]

Totten: Well, how different are the dialects?

Mohtadi: They aren’t dialects.

Totten: 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.

Totten: 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.

Totten: 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.

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

Totten: 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.

Totten: 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.

PSL: 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.

PSL: 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.

Totten: 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.]

Totten: Well, that’s alright.

PSL: 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.

Totten: 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.

Totten: 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.

Trio of Iranian Kurdish Revolutionaries 2.jpg
Trio of Iranian Kurdish Revolutionaries in Iraq.

Totten: 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 guerrilla 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.

Totten: 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.

PSL: 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 guerrillas 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.

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

Mohtadi: The Fedayan. And also the Mujahideen Khalq.

Totten: Ok.

Mohtadi: There were two different groups, religious and secular leftist guerrilla 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.

Totten: 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.

Totten: 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.

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

Mohtadi: Yes.

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

Mohtadi: Yes. They are very greedy.

PSL: 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.

Totten: 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.

Totten: 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.

Totten: 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.

Totten: 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…

Totten: Well, I agree with your judgment. 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.

Totten: 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.

Totten: I know.

PSL: 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.

Totten: 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.

PSL: 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.]

Totten: You split with them over what, precisely?

Mohtadi: Over so many things.

Totten: 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.

PSL: 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.

Totten: 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.

Totten: 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.

Totten: 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.

Totten: 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…

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March 27, 2007

Interview with Peshmerga Colonel Salahdin Part One

-Patrick S Lasswell

Today Michael Totten and I had the unique honor of being the first journalists to videotape Peshmerga Colonel Salahdin Ahmad Kareem. Col. Salahdin has been fighting against Iraqi dictators since the 1960s and is currently serving as a liaison to the Coalition in Sulaymani, Iraq. Captured by the Baath in 1977 he was tortured for over two months and then sent to Abu Ghraib prison where he was greeted by a gauntlet of other prisoners beating him severely. For over two years in Abu Ghraib he was repeatedly beaten and tortured by the guards. The Colonel taught himself English while fighting from the mountains and participated in every mission by the 10th US Special Forces Group to liberate Iraq in 2003. Clear eyed and still genial after decades of hard campaigning, this guy is the real deal.

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Col. Salahdin Ahmad Kareem

Colonel Salahdin started our interview with a prepared statement that is the most concise personal history of the people of Iraqi Kurdistan I have ever seen. After his prepared statement we had an extensive unscripted conversation with the Colonel covering many aspects of Peshmerga operations and the Kurdish situation. As time allows, I will be transcribing the unscripted remainder of his interview with Michael Totten and myself.

Peshmerga Colonel Salahdin's Statement

This is a transcript of Colonel Salahdin's statement read to us today by the Colonel in his office using his notes. I have slightly changed the spelling, punctuation, and wording used by the Colonel in his notes in the interest of readability. I have endeavored to keep the Colonel's intention clear.

I am Col. Salahdin Ahmad Kareem, working as a liaison officer between the Ministry of Peshmarga and the coalition forces in Sulaymani Province.

Born in 1949 in Sulaymani city.

I am grown up amid of many historical turning points and dramatic events.

I am trying to recall in [brief] some of the tragic events which happened to my people and made me and my fellow Peshmarga to join Peshmarga forces to fight against the consecutive regimes of Iraq and dedicated our lives to protect our people from obliteration and genocide.

In 1958 when I was 9 years old the kingdom of Iraq overthrew by a number of high rank officers. Gen Qasim whom he was the commander of the coup d'etat became the prime minster of the Republic of Iraq. [I]n his first two years of ruling Iraq he was a good guy and he [achieved] many good things for the people. [H]e allowed studying Kurdish language in primary schools, permitted KDP to work as a Kurdish political party and promised the Kurdish people to gain all their right[s] as Iraqi Citizens.

But after that the Arab nationalists manipulated him and made him to rescind all his promises and declared a war against our people which obliged our people to establish Peshmarga forces under the command of KDP to defend our rights from the attacks of Iraqi army.

The war between Peshmarga and Iraqi army started in Sept. 1961. The war made the foothold of Gen Qasim weakened. The chauvinist Baath party saw it a good opportunity to conduct a coup d'etat against him. After they killed him they took power and started their first age of tyranny in Feb. 1963. They were very brutal against the Kurdistan people especially against the people of Sulaymani which they were calling it “The Head of the Snake.” For example, from time to time they call for a curfew in the city and round up thousands of youths and put them in prisons without food and water for many days after they torture and kill some of them, releasing them sometimes after two or three months. In one of their round ups my father was one of the detainees. When they released him after tow months I never recognized him because what remained of him was only bones and skin.

At that time I was fourteen years old, a student of intermediate school and the idea of joining into the Peshmarga forces was strongly in my mind. For that I joined Students Union of KDP which was working underground to support Peshmarga forces.

The first age of Baath party ended by another coup conducted by a number of high rank officers and Gen. Abdulsalam became prime minister. [He was] later killed in a plane crash and his brother Gen. Abdulrahman took power in his place. Both of them ruled Iraq until 1968 as two tyrants, though they admitted some kind of autonomy to the Kurdish people. When their foothold became weak they called for a [cease] fire and negotiation. But when they gained again they started with their brutality toward our people again.

In 1968 the Baath party came back again throwing another coup. After tow years of hard war the Baath party obliged to call for a negotiation and in March 1970 an agreement had been signed between Saddam [Hussein] and [Mullah Moustafa] Barzani which according to it Kurdistan became an autonomous region.

In 1970 I graduated from preparatory school and the same year I [was] conscripted into the army. In the Iraqi army the Kurdish soldiers were prohibited to train on [heavy] weapons. The only weapon I trained on was AK-47.

In 1974 the Iraqi government rescinded the agreement and the war started again and the time came for me to join the Peshmarga forces. We fought against the Iraqi regime for one year supported by the USA through the Shah of Iran. In March 1975 there was an agreement between the Shah of Iran and Saddam in Algeria by the mediation of the US State Department. According to it they cut all the supplies and support from the Kurdish movement and so the movement toppled. Half of the Peshmarga migrated to Iran and the other half came back to Iraq in the amnesty which was one of the conditions of the agreement.

After that the way became paved in front of Saddam and the Baath party to apply their hellish plan against the Kurdistan. They started with displacing the Kurdish people from the border area, destroying their villages, collecting them in concentration camps, started also with Arabization of Kurdish cities and they tried hard to subjugate the Kurdish people. But we didn't give up our struggle and the Kurdish people started reorganizing in the PUK. I joined the PUK in 1976 and worked in its underground organization until May 1977 when my activities [were] compromised by the regime's intelligence. After two months of interrogation and torture in Sulaymani and Kirkuk Intelligence [offices] they sentenced me for 15 years. I spent 2 years and 3 months in jail and [was] released on Aug. 20th 1979 after Saddam gave a general amnesty to the political prisoners when he kicked out Ahmad Hasan Bakir from power and declared himself President of Iraq.

In 1980 I joined again the PUK Peshmarga forces and fought Saddam's regime in unequal war when Saddam used chemical weapons against our people and destroyed thousands of our villages and towns and put our people in guarded concentration camps.

Our war was a desperate struggle because we knew that we cannot overthrow Saddam from our mountains without the help of the oppressed Arabs in the middle and Southern Iraq. But they were also subjugated by Saddam and they couldn't do anything against Saddam.

When Saddam made his big mistake and invaded Kuwait and when President Bush instigated the people of Iraq for uprising was a good help for us to attack the Iraqi forces and capture all their bases and liberated our area.

After the mass migration of the Kurdish people to Iran and Turkey and when the Iraqi army returned to Kurdistan, the decision of Mr. Bush by imposing the No-Fly Zone on Saddam was a good help for us to kick out Saddam's army again.

Since 1991 our area was out of Saddam's authority but all the time we were afraid that Saddam will come back and occupy our country again. But when Mr. Bush in 2003 declared his war against Saddam and Ansar Al-Islam, the news came down on us like a gift from heaven. We waited for the 101st Division to come through Turkey to Kurdistan but they refused to allow them to come in an attempt [by] Turkey to save Saddam's regime.

But our Peshmarga fought on behalf of the 101st division by the help of the 10th Group US Special Forces whom they flew from Jordan and landed here in Sulaymani. After the defeat of Ansar Al-Islam [with] the help of the 10th Group USSF we turn back toward Saddam's forces in Chamchanel and Kirkuk. I was one of the Peshmarga who participated in all the missions of Special Forces and I witnessed their bravery and courage and I [will] never forget them, especially 083 team which I was with them during Operation Iraqi Freedom.

More of Colonel Salahdin's Interview Soon

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March 26, 2007

Cold Calling the Communists in Iraq

-Patrick S Lasswell

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Red Stars and Weeds

They were the nicest Marxists I've ever met, even if the meeting was by accident. Michael Totten and I arranged to meet with a group of Iranian dissidents who were described to us as a bunch of former communists who now followed a “Social Democrat” ideology so we could interview them. We figured their take on matters in Iran must be very interesting, and hopefully it will be when we meet later this week. Today, however, we got together with our driver and our translator, headed out for a meeting with Iranian dissidents and found one. Strangely enough, it was not with the group we had arranged with. The first commune you run across is often not the one you're looking for and instead of reformed social democrats, we found hard core, unreformed, Marxist-Leninists. Sometimes proximity to town trumps dialectic synthesis, as the fortune cookie says.

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Marx, Engels, and Somebody You Just Know Was Hard Core Communist

I ask you to imagine the scene of veteran journalist and traveler Michael Totten and I arriving at the village of the dissidents expecting modern Euro-style socialists. At the checkpoint into the village, we are led to a small blockhouse and our names are entered into the book. On one wall is a framed print of Marx and Lenin. The gatekeeper makes a phone call and announces to us that we can proceed. When the gatekeeper said something to the effect that a member of the central committee will speak to us, I could almost see the light bulb form over Michael's head indicating that he had found a story. These people are not reformed at all!

We are led up the road a bit to a house and are invited to sit in a nice rural courtyard. It is a beautiful spring day of the kind you can only really appreciate when you know what a punishing summer is ahead only a few weeks away. We chat for a while with a fellow who toes strictly to the party line of a revolutionary movement circa 1907 or a faculty meeting at an American university circa 2007. This isn't even the oppressive Stalinist garbage of the anti-war movement in the US, this is really otherworldly ideological purity. A nice, intelligent looking young woman arrives and sits at the table with us, carrying a NY Yankees ball cap. She is wearing pants, Kurdish pants, just like everyone else. Her hair is cut short and she is treated like an equal. This is not something you see every day in the Middle East, and nothing to be despised.

The Commissar Arrives

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Hassan Rahman Central Committee Member

At this point, the social dynamic changed considerably. An older gentleman arrived with a fit young guard in tow. After two weeks in Kurdistan, it gets so that you don't notice the assault rifles when they aren't pointed at you. (Upon reflection, it occurs to me that this young guard had the best muzzle discipline of any I have seen outside the US Army during this trip, a laudable behavior that I hope catches on.) The mood, not the machine guns, is the existential threat in Kurdistan and everybody was still friendly. Nevertheless, everybody stood up and the chairs were literally rearranged. The only one at the table was the older gentleman and two other chairs were moved apart, where the guard could keep an eye on things. Tea was brought by the young woman, and gender roles moved to more traditional ones. The comments of the previous speaker were dismissed and we were told to quote only what the gentleman now at the table was saying. This was the central committee member, Hassan Rahman.

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Intelligent Young Woman and Guard with Muzzle Discipline. Pity we never got to talk to them.

Last night, Michael and I had put together a list of things we wanted to know about the situation in Iran and the view of dissidents here. We had hoped to sit down and just chat with everybody relaxed and the topics naturally flowing from one to another. We dreaded going to someone's office, sitting in formal roles, and presenting a list of questions for review. We got something in between, but it was a beautiful spring day in the foothills outside Suliamaniya, Iraq talking about international politics amicably with Marxists. You don't get this working in a cubicle farm.

We covered our list of questions and got some interesting responses that Michael will be covering in greater detail in his blog. For me the responses were not as interesting as the ideological filter that they were viewed through. The post-Soviet communist filter is tricky. The manifold failures of the Soviet system are so profound that only the most obdurate hack ignores them, and this Hassan was not that obdurate. Similarly, he did not endorse the starvation monarchy of the Kim family in North Korea. The tattered fig leaf of Cuba was sufficiently intact for him to extol the virtues of free medical care and education. Apparently nobody has told him about the boats still landing in Miami. It will be interesting to talk to him again in a year.

Here Commences the Comedy of Manners

We were done with the questions and about to go and invited to lunch when Michael's literary degree and my family background in theater came in handy, because about then we found ourselves in a comedy of manners. Our translator came back from the car with some water and announced that the Iranian dissidents we were supposed to be interviewing were on the phone asking where we were. It turned out that not only were we talking to the wrong communists, but the group we were supposed to be talking with split from the ones we were talking to seven years ago. The ideologically pure, revolutionary communists whose armed camp we were in the middle of were not on good terms with the people we just announced that we actually came to see. If this had been Africa, the situation would have been less humorous; out would have come the machetes, and so much for your intrepid reporters. But this was the middle east, and we had just shared tea and been invited to lunch. More importantly, this was Kurdistan and under no circumstances were guests to be treated rudely, especially American guests!

It speaks volumes about the essential Kurdish decency that not only were we not thrown out on our ears (or worse) but that we were invited to visit their armed camp up the hill after we rescheduled our meeting with the other group. Maybe this speaks volumes about our ability to brazen out a bad situation, but I prefer to think well of the Kurds whenever possible. Instead of talking to people who were unprepared to speak to American journalists due to a communications failure, we had accidentally cold called a group of revolutionary communist Kurds who had then treated us as honored guests and freely shared their best. In the place in all of Suliamaniya governate where we could expect the worst treatment, their hospitality was more gracious than we could expect among friends in America. Here endeth the Comedy of Manners.

Up the Hill to the Armed Camp

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Machine Gun Guarding the Mountaintop

So we went up the hill to the bunkers and the radio station. With the kind indulgence of the PUK that dominates Suliamaniya governate, they are allowed to broadcast their perspectives eight hours a day on FM. The signal reaches a little ways into Iran, but their message is also transmitted by satellite and website. I do not endorse their viewpoint, but their cordiality in extremely strained circumstance deserves at least this respect in turn.

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Hassan Rahman and the Disciplined Guard

They were very free about letting us take pictures, leading me to believe that they were secure about their situation. My military appraisal of the camp is that they are in a good defensive posture, but not training to attack. I did not see anything resembling training camps for offensive purposes. Their primary effort appeared to be ideological, not military. Oddly enough, this is exactly what the Hassan Rahman told us. I suspect that if you want to have belt fed machine guns for the defense of your compound here, that is acceptable, but training for attacks is not.

Down the Hill and Home Again
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Hassan Rahman, Unreformed Communist

These communists really do have people not far away who would like to kill them, which may be why they were so cordial. Unlike American leftists who have to invent horror-movie fantasies of bad guys out to get them, these people have real, known state oppressors, and they are not us. Although Hassan and others paid lip service to the bad things America is supposed to do, in reality none of their 3,000 martyrs were killed by the US. It has been more than a generation since anybody working with the US has been working to oppress them. It is easier by far for these people to be concerned about the spot just down the hill that they can point to where operatives from the Islamic Republic of Iran tried to shut them down and killed some of them. If they were to protest at their homes, they would invite a lot more than pepper spray and bean-bag rounds.

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Young Men Guarding their Radio Station.

There was some common ground I found with Hassan Rahman. Neither of us want religion in charge of education. We both believe that women should be more than servants and baby factories. (Although his grasp of this in practice may need some work. ) The impact of widespread opium abuse in Iran troubles us because we can each see the long-term problems.

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Defended Hill and Village Playground

It was an act of will on my part to avoid confronting Hassan on most other matters, but my purpose there was to cover his story, not engage in debate. That his was not the story I set out to report on is irrelevant. He did not need a lesson on Navy history or American party politics. Asking him to defend his assertion that the US somehow supplies all the arms of all the bad guys with...you know...facts would not get me invited up the hill. Being unkind to him to feel superior now will not get me invited back. It was an interesting day, Michael and I both got good stories from it, and I hope to get more from his former associates soon.

UPDATE: Michael Totten has gotten his more lenghty transcription of events posted.

Photos Added as Internet and Electricity is Available
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March 22, 2007

Is Petraeus Being Played?

-Patrick S Lasswell

At a late night meeting with senior political players in Iraq, concerns were raised about General Petraeus' ability to distinguish friend from foe in Baghdad. The heart of the problem lies with the importance of the former Ba'ath party members and their involvement in the Islamic Party of Iraq. My sources claim to hold documents from April 2003 from Saddam's Headquarters directing Ba'ath loyalists to join the Islamic Party and gain control of it. They are also very experienced in the brutal political realities of Iraq. Of significant concern to my hosts was the movement from Mosul to Baghdad of the leader of the Islamic Party that Petraeus worked with when he was in command of the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault). My hosts also worked with General Petraeus during that time and had met him repeatedly. They assessed him as very smart and quite well organized and had nothing disparaging to say about his character or leadership, however, his political savvy in tumultuous Iraq was questioned.

This is a difficult post for me to write, both because I am a junior member of the active reserves and because of my personal admiration for Gen. Petraeus. I am certainly operating in matters well above my official paygrade, but my responsibility as a citizen and a sailor is to pass critical information on as clearly as I can. The US military had many shining qualities, one of which is its intentional abstraction from politics. Historically this kept the United States from becoming a dictatorship, making this a priceless virtue. Regrettably, politics and security are inextricably entwined in Iraq. Our virtue is being exploited by Ba'athist remnants, according to my hosts. Theoretically, we have other agency support on this front, but indications are that those agencies would rather be meddling in political matters at home.

Their claim is that the Ba'ath remnants are using their local knowledge to facilitate matters for Al Queda. The specific description was that if a suicide bomber from Morocco or Tunisia wanted to kill my hosts, how would they find them? The Ba'ath remnants are guiding and assisting Al Queda attackers, providing them with a vehicle with which to operate, according to my hosts. Based on the extensive security of the Erbil house we met in, I gathered that this was not an idle concern.

My analysis of the situation and the information is that it is no less than a 4 out of 5 datum. It is not just that their story held together, it is that they have strong reasons not to lie. The success of the Coalition is substantially in my hosts interests personally, financially, and politically. Could this just be politicians trying to edge out his competition? Not particularly likely, since the Islamic Party operates in a different sphere than my hosts, and is a minority party besides. Was I swayed by my hosts cordiality and hospitality as he shared with me his cigars, his whiskey, and served me at his table? Possibly, but in the cold light of morning, I still think the datum is solid.

The scenario for how Ba'ath remnants could gain Gen. Petraeus' trust is that they would sacrifice their own people to gain lasting advantage. The Ba'ath are notorious for cutting dead wood with a broad ax and using that violence to keep the survivors in line. By personally delivering to Petraeus' hands various stooges with stored explosives, for instance, the Ba'ath remnants could show their value. The calculus of power here is very rough indeed.

As disturbing as this oversight is, it is a correctable one. Gen. Petraeus has forces in the field with the best Rules of Engagement (ROE) yet issued. Quality control was imposed on the ROE recently when Gen. Petraeus removed restrictions added by excessively cautious subordinates. Subordinates with greater concern for their careers than victory is an endemic problem in all military organizations. With that obstacle out of the way and the surge still ramping up, we are clearly on the attack. It is much easier to shift an attack than to restructure a defense. General Petraeus has repeatedly shown himself to be one of the smartest and most competent flag officers in our nation's history and I'm sure he can adjust to this problem.

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March 19, 2007

Freedom's Sanctuary in Iraq

-Patrick S Lasswell

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The snow covered sanctuary of freedom in Iraq: Kurdistan.

In Iraq, insurgents use Iraq and Syria to avoid the Coalition forces as is normal in this kind of fight, but our troops fighting for Iraq's freedom against the various flavors of fascism have their own sanctuary. Here in Northern Iraq, the Coalition moves freely amongst the friendly and supportive populace. In all the insurgencies the US fought last century, Haiti, Nicaragua, Vietnam, and others, there never was a place like Kurdistan. Good roads, nice markets, and utterly safe from terrorists is literally an unparalleled combination and it must be hurting the Anti-Iraqi Forces.

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Convoy at the Mall. I think the Hummer on the truck [HMMWV on the HEMTT for you military folks] got dinged, but it probably just had an fender-bender and is getting taken to a repair depot.

Yesterday while traveling between Dohuk to Erbil, I saw two convoys traveling through Kurdistan, one moving and one stopped. The stopped convoy was outside the local Mazi mini-mall and resting. There aren't many places in Iraq where the troops can climb out of the tortoise-shell of protective armor, put on their soft caps, and get to know the people here as friends.

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Peshmerga Assistant Rex is alert and on the job in Northern Iraq checking for bombs.

After four years of operating here, the terrorists have not killed a single Coalition troop, a record the Kurds are very proud of. The Kurdish Peshmerga forces are extremely thick on the ground on the border, but they are also awake, alert, and serious about their jobs.

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Driving easy through the land of Zero IEDs. Sign on the lead vehicle indicates that you better get out of the way, in Arabic. No Kurdish translation needed.

A big part of insurgency theory is that you grind the people fighting to preserve freedom down by giving the government troops no resting place. Because the government has to protect everything, they can protect nothing. In Iraq, theory takes a kick to the head in Kurdistan. We can and are shifting forces with impunity beyond the insurgent's and terrorist's reach. This time, freedom gets a sanctuary.

If this informed you, please feel free to help pay my mortgage.

Found on a Mountainside

-Patrick S Lasswell

Rule Number One: Do Not Touch It!

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I saw this lying in a broken culvert on the roadside and had our fixer stop so we could take pictures. This is the first such object I have seen here, and I suspect the only reason we found it is because we were slightly lost on an unused road. (Slightly lost being defined as going in the right direction on the wrong road.) I handled literally hundreds of tons of ammunition when I was on active duty in the Navy and took appropriate precautions. We had driven by the round already before I spotted it and I never got within a foot of the object. It was settled in a stable position and probably came to rest there after a spring thaw.

Rule Number Two: Do Not Think About Touching It!

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There was literally nobody around for miles and it was on an unused road. If somebody was setting this up an IED, they would not have done it so far away from potential victims, foreign journalists, and the opportunity to observe the wreckage. Stafford Clarry, an old Kurdistan hand, told us last summer that we would probably find these things up in the mountains. The chance of this exploding while we were there and not disturbing it was less than the odds of the gas tank in your car exploding the next time you start it. This was a moderate risk.

Rule Number Three: Don't Touch It!

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This appears to be an unfired artillery projectile of some kind. There is a cylinder protruding from the back about an inch long and an inch diameter. I am away from the Internet, as well as power at the moment, and I bitterly regret not having an electronic copy of Gunner's Mate 3&2 on this laptop to help me properly describe the projectile. What I think of as the driving bands show no signs of having been engaged by rifling. The round does not appear to have any distortions consistent with impact at velocity. There is no fusing of any kind in the nose. The projectile is larger than the 76mm rounds I have seen and smaller than the 127mm rounds I have handled. My guess is that it is a 88-90mm anti-tank round.

Rule Number Four: Don't Tell Your Wife About It! Ooops...

I informed the Kurdish authorities about the location of this object. They are used to dealing with Saddam's poisonous gifts. When I told some American soldiers in Dohuk about it this morning, they seemed nonplussed. Artillery rounds without imminent harmful intent seems so mild to people coming from Mosul.

Rule Number Five: Hit the Tip Jar!

This just in:

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This cannon was one of two outside Peshmerga headquarters in Dohuk. Allegedly Austrian, they were captured in 1991 from the Iraqi Army during that uprising. Possibly the gun used to shoot the found shell.

Many thanks to John of Argghhh!!! for his assistance in identifying the shell. It is probably this 100mm round. He remains stumped on the exact identification of the gun, though. It appears to be a Chinese 100mm Anti-Tank gun mounted on a 130mm carriage. Please feel free to chime in if you know.

March 15, 2007

More Photos (and Mystery) from Iraq

-Patrick S Lasswell

I apologize for not putting a more substantive post up, but ten hours of mountain driving on back roads knocked me for a loop. Here are some more photos from Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan.

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There is a shiny new mall going up in Erbil. The person in the orange suit with the mop is from Bangledesh and he is keeping the mall shiny. There is so much work in Kurdistan that they are bringing in guest workers. This is The Other Iraq.

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There is a graveyard in the middle of the construction of the new mall. So far the construction people failed to erase history. They still remember and honor their dead in Kurdistan.

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There are some mysteries of the East one must learn to accept. We will probably never know why this person needed a dozen or more bidets on their roof.

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I'm not certain why this man was taking his tree out for a walk. I've long been a supporter of Arbor Day, but this seems a bit much. Another Mystery of the East.

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LED blogging in Iraq! My friend Mike [inretech@yahoo.com] who made these lights wants me to update my earlier post. The LEDs in these lights are very bright, but they have also been "throttled down" to conserve energy and extend service life. The impressive part is not that they lit up the alley behind my hotel, it's that they did so with very little power and could continue to do so for decades. Anybody can overdrive an LED to make it bright, these are bright while underdriven. Email Mike for technical details.

March 14, 2007

Quick Photo Gallery of Iraq

-Patrick S Lasswell

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You Notice This is Not Baghdad. (Not everyplace in Iraq is sand and palm trees, honest.

Michael is also not in Baghdad, he has taken up work as a wedding photographer in Erbil. Okay, just for the evening.

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So I was just sure that there wouldn't be daffodil-like flowers in Iraq. Kurdistan is full of pleasant surprises. Turns out that for one week during the year, these bloom up in the mountains. I got these flowers for my lovely wife.

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On the way back home from the mountains, we came across these vehicles, part of an Iraqi Army convoy up in Kurdistan. They weren't pointing their weapons at the locals.

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When you hear about the rugged terrain of Kurdistan, please feel free to picture this. This is the Rowanduz Gorge at Rowanduz. Referance the houses on the right for scale. Rowanduz was a stopping point on the Silk Road for several millenia.

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Goat Blogging from Iraq! I raised goats as a child, but never in terrain like this. We also didn't have flowering apricot trees on the Oregon coast.

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Spelunking in a limestone cavern in Iraq. Our fixer really loves the mountains and took us to all the most interesting places. The cavern was used as a shelter for sheep and goats during the winter storms. It took hours to get that off my boots.

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While in the cavern, we tested out some new LED lights a friend of mine is making [inretech@yahoo.com]. This light is 30 of the brightest LEDs available anywhere. It is running off a car battery I bought in Iraq. It produced a very bright spot that lit the cavern for more than 50 yards. Our fixer had never seen so much of the cavern before. With the power in that battery the WorkLED would continue to produce good light for over a week.

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This is our fixer seeing the cavern for the first time although he has often been there. He is now a product spokesman in five languages. He's carrying a QuadLight adapter for MagLite(TM) while I am helping out with the WorkLED. With the QuadLight in hand he went further back into the cavern than he had ever been.

More as energy and bandwidth becomes available.

March 13, 2007

Need Help Tracking Unknown Ordnance

-Patrick S Lasswell

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Everybody Loves Surplus Ammo Boxes

Yesterday we were getting some copies made and I found this in the back of the print shop. If any of the military folks out there can give me a better idea of how this ammo case ended up loose, I would appreciate it. I did not check to ensure it was empty, but this is definitely US issue.

Editor's Note: My wife has just informed me that we have quite enough ammo boxes at our house already. Under no circumstances am I to bring any back with me.

Seven Months of Progress

-Patrick S Lasswell

(Pictures and Editing to Follow as Bandwidth Allows)

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Nothing says "I'm in Iraq" like a Hummer with a turret coming down the road. This one belonged to the Iraqi Army and they were transit somewhere. Anybody sane would rather schedule a convoy through Kurdistan.

Michael Totten and I had a much different, though still badly jet-lagged, journey this time. Instead of creeping in during the middle of the night on a chartered plane from Amman, we arrived on a scheduled flight from Vienna in the middle of the day. The capitol of Austria is an inspired monument to a most uninspiring imperial dynasty. Say what you like about the Hapsburg's...because it's probably true, but they sure knew how to squander funds on impressive stone-cutting and inspire others to do so. If they had a clue on earth about how to govern effectively or respond to change they would probably gotten a good gig as figurehead monarchs hanging out in the lovely palace of Schonnburg. Apparently they weeded the effective governance gene out through selective inbreeding. In order to make up for the lack governmental skill, the national airline has gotten good at competing in developing markets. Because of this behavior, Austrian Airlines is now the official carrier of moderaterisk.net. Take me places nobody else wants to go!

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Michael Attempting to Recover from Jet Lag by Fixating on his Coffee. (Not actually a bad plan, this is Vienna and the coffee is really great.)

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Compensation for Travel Includes Sights Like This

The gaggle coming in to the aircraft was late and prone to excitement. Young Kurdish women with glowing smiles and daring eyes kept shifting seats, giggling, and talking with all the other Kurds. This is very different from last summer's determined crowd of brave people who came in quiet and controlled. While the security was not lax, it was also not belligerently intensive. At the risk of reducing donation flow, it was much less of a grim showing than last trip. The presence of cute, long-legged blond stewardesses does not lend itself to inspiring war stories.

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Also Not Good for War Stories, but My Wife Loves Daffodils. (I found these in Vienna on the way here.)

I landed at Erbil International Airport for the second time in seven months yesterday, but this time I arrived in Kurdistan, not Iraq. Since I left, some tipping point has been passed and the complex of awareness, trust, and money that allows independence has been reached. The Kurds are not pushing for legal separation from the portion of Iraq that wallows in dysfunction, but they are clear now they can manage by themselves. The sense of tentative optimism from the last trip has been replaced by confidence. Last time they were deliberately choosing to hope, this time they are deciding to succeed.

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News Crews Much Thicker on the Ground in Kurdistan.

Upon arrival, Michael got the more interesting stamp on his passport telling him to check in with immigration. Showoff. But the policeman's heart really wasn't in it as much, and Michael really had to work at being nervous about the transit this time. We were also quite fascinated by the BBC crew in the line opposite us, one of whom was carrying a camera that cost about as much as my house. Our filming capacity is much smaller, but our ambitions are higher. Today you can get about 80% of the video quality from a camera that costs 10% as much, but if you are the BBC you have to spend the taxpayer's money somehow. We are much nicer and seeking donations for our upcoming web video projects. Of course, if I was an entrenched British media bureaucracy, I might feel differently. I'd probably be more interested in tea and anti-Americanism, for instance.

After picking up our luggage, which was blocked by the mounds of pelican cases the subsidized reporters put their toys in, we made our way out to meet our new fixer. This was a delicate moment, because your fixer is somebody you have to like and trust immediately based on your most shrewed observations. You also have to make this decision while jet-lagged. Our new guy, whose name I am withholding until he gets a chance to read this post, is an alright guy. He is clearly alert and welcoming and interested in the West. Michael and I have met tens of thousands of people over the years, some of whom liked us, some who hated us to their very core, and some in between. Part of the job is the capacity to assess and deal with the people who you depend upon. Within seconds we can tell this is going to work, because if we couldn't we wouldn't be in the international consulting business.

The trip into town is different this time, too. Okay, the traffic still sucks. Seven months of progress is not going to make driving around town any easier and light rails are only a mad gleam in frustrated would-be city planner's eyes. I see two young women jogging in the late afternoon. This would have been unthinkable seven months ago, not because of oppression, but because in the July heat it would have been suicidal. One of the women is wearing a headscarf, but freedom is where you make it. The people here do not need to make their women unhealthy, exercise is good. After we make sure we have a room we set a time to meet our driver in a few hours so we can recover from the flight. Energy management is key, and you always fail when you meet while exhausted or strange.

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Found in the Souk, Something for the John Ringo Fans. (Obscure reference, but definitely a BPW.)

Instead of napping or showering, Michael and I decide to go for a walk. Due to a conference soaking up all the available rooms, we are stuck in the same space. This is bad in general because we have to work together, and in particular because I snore...loudly. The walk lets us interact with the world instead of staying cooped up in a small space. The sun is just about to set, but we don't take the cameras. Our walk takes us the mile or so to the Souk. I change some money after finding our way through the labyrinth unerringly. On the way back I see a tripod on the street and we buy it for not much at all. This is important because Michael was not interested in camera shops last time and did not believe that we could find such things. A few feet further down we find a camera shop with all but the very latest recording equipment. I'm in charge of selecting and obtaining gear, Michael doubted me, and now I'm being mean to him about it.

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A New Mosque in Kurdistan. (Our fixer showed us lovely video from inside.)

When we meet back up with our new fixer, he is astonished to learn that we have been out and about so quickly. Perhaps some of that is concern that we won't need him, but he shouldn't be worried. There are many things instantly and easily available to locals that we will need along the way. Speaking Kurdish, for instance. We've learned this the hard way and are very clear how to work with our friends. We talk for a long while about the primary job as well as the journalism projects and eventually go to dinner with our fixer. We meet up with some other friends from previous trips. As I thought it would be, the meeting upon return is very nice. There is nothing as sincere as returning to Iraq.

Michael is asking direct questions about Kurdish matters and is getting interesting and new responses. As a consultant, I would have danced towards the issues, but Michael considers himself a journalist foremost. The answers this trip are different in tone, if not official line. The Kurds are not going to split from Iraq until it is absolutely in their interest to do so and not while the American forces are present. While they are not agitating for separation, they are acknowledging now that it is inevitable. The difference to them between the Arab Sunni and Shia is that the Sunni cut your throat and the Shia drill holes in your head. By not responding to the deliberately incendiary violence in Mosul and not wasting their young men on endless rounds of retribution, the Kurds are much more secure and internationally palatable.

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Kurdish Gentlemen Talking on the Streetcorner.

Sincerely they do not want the Americans to leave, and if this means that they do not get independence for fifty years, so be it. On the other hand, with fifty years of American security assistance, this place will make most of the Arab world look like a slum. I'm not just saying that because fifty years ago Dubai was a slum. In the near term, the Kurdish Region needs in their control a refinery to convert crude oil and power generation capacity. Those two can be obtained in a lot less than fifty years and will give them the opportunity they need to keep themselves prosperous and free. They weren't saying this seven months ago which leads me to believe that they don't mind people knowing it now.

I'm paying for much of this trip on my own dime. If you want to help sponsor independent reporting, please donate using the Pay Pal button.

March 05, 2007

Enemy Forces Sighted and Dispatched

-Patrick S Lasswell

This Post Describes Events from the Summer of 2006

Things have been going well for the expedition, almost too well. We decided after accomplishing our goals for
Suliamaniya early, we should use today as a day of rest and recovery. Tomorrow we are going to drive the length of Iraqi Kurdistan on back roads to avoid the exciting shortcut that includes Mosul and Kirkuk. I got hooked watching something on the Discovery channel and was well on my way to lazing my way through the morning. Our first appointment was at 11:00 and I had plenty of time to discover which team would use junkyard parts to plow through a snow wall, or so I thought.

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They Respect Goal Oriented People in Suliamaniya

I heard a commotion in the direction of the hall, but assumed it was just the cleaning staff on its rounds. During a commercial break I went to avail myself of the facilities, and there it was, the dirty rat. No, really, it was a dirty rat in the bathroom. When I turned on the light it jumped a good 12 inches up the far wall. Using my steel-spring reflexes and cold nerve, I closed the door. Years of advanced problem solving skills gained in both the corporate and military arenas led me to my initial solution. If I ignored it, maybe it would go away.

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Diplomatic Solution Often Ineffective at Rat Management

After fifteen minutes of watching welding and waiting for the diplomatic solution to take effect, it became obvious that the rat was obdurate. Perhaps it was a Hezbollah rat. Abandoning diplomacy, I took matters into my own hands. I took a piece of scratch paper and drew a rat on it, then took it to the cleaning staff outside. Experienced world travelers develop communications skills for just these occasions. The cleaning lady in my business partner's room grasped the concept immediately, more of a testament to her imagination than my drawing skills, really.


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The Kurds are Wonderful People, but Not Taciturn

The Kurds are wonderful people, and I greatly enjoy interacting with them, but I would not describe them as taciturn. The cleaning lady gasped and immediately got the assistant manager. Together the three of us went to confront the enemy, two of us communicating volubly with each other in Kurdish. The manager went in first, I followed, and the cleaning woman followed, both of the locals armed with broomsticks. At first it appeared that in the face of overwhelming force, the rat had followed Hezbollah doctrine and scarpered, but then we saw a tail and the manager revealed a fair grasp of the obscene portions of English. The cleaning woman and the manager set to with the broomsticks. Realizing that I was in the way and wearing shower shoes, I adopted an Individual Protective Posture and jumped up onto the sink like a cat. Years of military training allowed me to retain some fragment of my dignity by not screaming like a little girl.

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Found in Iraq: Weapons of Mouse Destruction

After a moment's clubbing, the manager invited me off the sink and out into the hall. The cleaning woman had taken matters into her own hands by then and a succession of thumps and Kurdish words that I may never be allowed to learn came from behind the closed door. By this time a group of young women from across the hall had broken up their meeting and come to see what the excitement was about. So I'm in my t-shirt, sweat pants, shower shoes, and unshowered and I'm sharing my unmade room with the assistant manager, the remainder of the cleaning staff, and a collection of extremely well dressed and coiffed young women who are planning a wedding. Let me give you my most profound assurance that it would be an injustice to describe the Kurds as taciturn.

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Wedding Planning in Kurdistan Everywhere: There Must be a Lot of Experienced Planners By Now

After a few minutes of conversational Kurdish lessons that I entirely failed to study for, the cleaning woman emerges victorious with an almost entirely dead rat on the bathroom floor. The assistant manager offers me another room, but since I no longer have to share it, I decline. The rat is unceremoniously removed in a plastic shopping bag and we go back to our activities. The cleaning woman proceeds to clean the battlefield and I go out into the hall. About this time Michael Totten arrives to observe the proceedings. He asks if I got any pictures, and I hadn't. On the plus side I will never have to explain to my lovely wife what all those attractive young women are doing in my room and find myself envying the rat his fate.

March 03, 2007

Day Five: Entering Iraq, Keep Your Talcum Dry

-Patrick S Lasswell

This Post Describes Events from the Summer of 2006

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The Tools of the Consulting Trade in Iraq: Talcum, Booze, and Money

The duty-free store at Queen Alia Airport in Amman, Jordan is a marvel of middle-eastern compromise. Although the people of Jordan are substantially Palestinian and deeply infected by the problems of the last sixty years, they sell the least expensive Johnnie Walker Black I’ve ever seen there, and lots of it. Never to miss an opportunity to compromise with indigenous peoples, Michael and I purchase a liter, a bottle of wine, and a couple of cartons of wildly under priced cigarettes. They take their security quite seriously in Jordan and we are more likely to be hit by a truck on the second floor of the airport than receive a scolding about our provisioning.

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Compromise Failed One Month Later: Site of Attempted Tourist Massacre

The people going to the Northern Iraqi city of Erbil (Hawler in Kurdish) in 2006 are just as interesting a group as you would expect, but the smell is not what I anticipated. Everybody making this flight has money, but you wouldn’t guess that a one in the morning on the bus to the flight. If you closed your eyes you could swear that you are aboard a metro in a bad neighborhood. Royal Jordanian Air and the people actually operating the flight are absolute professionals. The aircraft is an essentially unmarked and monochromatic old regional commuter bird that has nice seats and the capacity to fly onto small runways. The same aircraft and crew that services safe and prosperous Hawler and Suliamaniya in Iraqi Kurdistan also serves less convenient and flourishing Basra and Baghdad. I wonder if they use the same flight profile, but flying in during the dead of night has a certain appeal, regardless.

Michael had some problems getting through the ticket point because he did not have a visa or work documents for this visit. Royal Jordanian asked him to sign a document indicating he knows that Iraq may refuse him entry due to lack of visa. Showing my Department of Defense ID card opens all doors to me. You never know there’s a serviceman’s discount until you ask. As proud as I am of my hard charging Navy Reserve unit, [unit name redacted for security reasons] , it seems a shame that members of muffin-eating units get the same consideration. I’m sure that the Special Forces operators feel just about the same way about me. Little bugs have littler bugs on their backs to bite them…

Other than the smell of unwashed and nervous bodies, flying into Iraq is very normal. The captain and lead attendant are quite British, or excellent at pretending to be. The attitude helps keep the passengers relaxed, and that is a good thing. On the flight are a handful of young mothers bringing their children into Kurdistan. Everybody on the flight has made a courageous choice to ignore the hysteria and get on with their lives, we don’t need any unprofessional behavior to cause review that decision. I wonder if this is technically a violation of the foxhole rule to never share a confined space in dangerous territory with anyone braver than you are. Onboard the aircraft there is certain to be somebody with way more guts than Michael and I have put together.

When we get to Iraq, I sail through passport control with a wave of my Navy ID. Michael has to chat his way through and gets more interesting stamps on his passport. The easiest route is not the best for bragging rights and tokens. Getting a long term visa seems like a very good plan for return visits.

We are met at the gate by Michael’s friend at the Council of Ministers. Michael is embraced like a brother. I expect that the Kurdish people get some practice with that. Picking people up at the airport is probably the best part of their week; they get to see old friends returned from the outside world. I’m really looking forward to my next trip when I get to show that I have not abandoned my Kurdish friends. Michael shows a copy of his article in Reason magazine extolling the virtues of Kurdistan to the libertarian world. This is a good fit in a lot of ways, and further proof that Michael has been doing his part to share the truth about Iraqi Kurdistan.

We are taken to the Erbil International Hotel by Michael’s friend, but our reservations do not start until noon and the house is full. More goes on than meets the eye, with people of importance and wealth taking their friends from the early flight to the hotel. We are told that we should go to a hotel just out of town so we can get some rest before starting the day. Driving through the streets of Hawler (Erbil) before dawn is an easy adjustment for me. There are security checkpoints of greater and lesser extent all over, and their watchfulness relaxes me. We get to the Khanzad hotel at the very edge of the Mesopotamian plain and check in for a morning’s rest. It is later than we expected to be at this stage and we are going to have to postpone our meetings later in the day.

Although it was not our intention, going from the airport to the Khanzad hotel is incredibly good. I wasn’t particularly nervous yet in the trip, but if I had been, the location and layout of this hotel would have helped immensely. If ten caterpillars with bad intent approached this hotel, they would be spotted a mile away and dealt with long before they could cause harm. From our rooms we can see the dawn rise, and Michael and I break out the scotch and toast our arrival into Iraqi Kurdistan and paid consulting. The grounds behind the hotel are beautiful and Michael and I take pictures of each other forced to endure the perils of wartime in five star hotels with premium scotch.

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Overlooking the War Torn Landscape with Woe: Alexander the Great Fought Just Down the Road from Here

We each go to our rooms and get some much needed sleep. Michael calls to wake me up for a first. I’ve been having a very bad time staying asleep, but I’ve figured out a plan that works like a charm. I take the clothes I’m going to be wearing and soak them completely in the shower. I hang them out where they can dry near the bed and the humidity where I’m sleeping is increased substantially. I grew up in a small town on the Oregon coast where it rarely got above 70 F or below 70 percent humidity. While I don’t think my wife is going to all that keen on me using this at home, as a travel method for arid regions it works great.

Breakfast is different, not bad at all, just very different from what I’m used to. Bread with glorious dollops of cream and cream cheese and Kurdish cheese and an apricot preserve that is simply marvelous. As someone who has experienced upset stomach while traveling since 1969, that is a matter of some concern to me. (Note: As of day seven, the intense amount of cream has triggered upset stomach. Something about eating the equivalent of a half-pint of heavy cream every day has triggered lactose intolerance. Thank God for Imodium.) [Second note: Further experience reveals that it is not lactose issues so much as good old fashioned dysentery rearing its ugly…presence. I take a lot of naps and get it under control.] We arrive late for the buffet, but the waiters graciously provide us with a meal, pointing out with especial pride the Kurdish cheese. The local pride in distinctive products makes me feel right at home as an Oregonian. Now, if we can get a good brewery going to take advantage of all that barley and wheat they grow here, it’ll just be a happy, malty extension of Eastern Oregon.

After we finish breakfast, we pack up our gear and head back out to the original hotel. The bill is amicably resolved because hotel prices are always negotiable, especially when you are using rooms that would otherwise go empty. A “taxi” is hailed and Michael and I resume our load plan from Amman with his longer legs behind the driver and my reduced length behind the empty passenger seat. This doesn’t make sense except that as the stronger security component of team, my getting in last and out first provides an edge. The taxi is just somebody’s buddy with a car, and the driver hits us up for 5,000 Iraqi Dinar (ID) [$3.33] more when we arrive at our destination because the driver always is smarmy. On the way over, we are stopped at a checkpoint where the guard really looks us over. I get out my magic Navy ID and things go much more smoothly. We resolve to include that with every passport check from now on.

When we get to our destination, we are thoroughly searched again. Every item is examined, but politely. After a few moments Michael realizes that we have left the duty free bags behind in the taxi. A bit of discomfort goes on because forgetting things in Iraq is a lot more weighty a concern than elsewhere. Also, the bottle of JW Black Label has barely been touched! Michael relaxes a bit when he remembers that we did not get a regular taxi, and that the people at the Khanzad desk who called him will surely know his name and be able to get in touch with him. We resolve to call as soon as we get done with the luggage inspection. Within ten minutes, however, the driver shows up with our provisions. He may be smarmy because his profession requires that attitude, but Kurds are not thieves.

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New House in Hawler (Erbil): Note the Expansion Option, You Can Build Another Right Alongside. Different Sense of Community Amongst the Kurds.

Our second arrival at the Erbil International Hotel front desk is much more receptive. The reservations are found and we are whisked up to our rooms with the aid of an attendant bellhop. In our rooms we unwind a bit more and start preparing to work. I go to Michael's room to obtain local currency. While we are doing this the wads of cash we had to carry are laid out, and then we get silly. We fan out the massive stack of Iraqi currency, then we each fan out our stack of US currency. Then we add our other work tools to the display, computers, cameras, tobacco, Michael's wine, my scotch, a set of handcuffs I brought in case I carried a gun, and the best talcum powder available in London. We take several pictures and entitle the display “Talcum, Booze, and Money” in reference to Warren Zevon's timeless ode to mercenary travel.

We are able to reach Birzo our translator, who we have been calling all morning. He is studying for his final exams, but he makes time for us. We meet in the lobby, have coffee, and explain our job here. Birzo immediately grasps the concept and improves on our tentative plans. Michael had said the much of our work here would be sitting and having tea with the locals to arrive at an arrangement, and that is exactly how things go.

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Tea Glasses: Essential to Business in Kurdistan [Tomorrow's Headlines: Turks Bomb Tea Glass Factory!]

We talk for a few hours, having coffee and catching up while waiting for the heat of the day to subside. Nothing is done between one and five in the afternoon during the summer. Additionally, we arrived on a Friday, so most stores are closed. Our first stop is the Souk for cell phones and SIM cards. There is some extended negotiating for what kind of phone and the exact number to get. SIM cards, the wee devices that determine a cell phone’s identity and billing are often sold and re-sold. Some of the new numbers are less successfully reached and older numbers are more valuable. Or perhaps it is astrology; we are literally in the shadow of the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world, so you have to allow for these things. Michael has brought a really spiffy phone from the US that he wants to mate a local SIM card with, but it is a marriage denied. We both get the cheapest Nokia available, which means it is durable, feature packed, lightweight, small, and functional. Newest technology, oldest city; sure, why not?

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Electrical Safety: A Contrarian Perspective

After that we take a stroll through the Souk, a newer trading center that has only been operating since slightly before Leviticus. The wiring has been around about as long, but without the same rigorous interpretation or analysis. I start to annoy Birzo with my incessant focus on electrical safety, but years of living aboard steel hulls inform me that I am in severe peril. Generations of living in fireproof mud brick and reinforced concrete informs Birzo differently, and I try not to be obnoxious about my attention. Still, I can’t stop taking pictures of the train wreck that carries electrical power.

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Cute Kid in Erbil (Hawler) Souk Posing for Americans

The archeological wiring is the only peril for us here. We are arriving unannounced and following no particular plan. Still people come to see and hear the real Ameriki. Most reassuring is the presence of children and women in the sparsely populated Friday Souk. The armed Peshmerga wandering around the town also help keep things relaxed. It is important to remember that Iraqi Kurdistan is populated by over five million people, but the US presence here is less than 200 troops. One fifth of Iraq requires less than 0.1% of the total Coalition forces to secure because Kurdistan looks after itself so well.

It is still hot in the late afternoon, and although I am holding up fairly well, I make it a point to get some water before continuing. Michael is constantly amazed at how much water I consume. A big part of it is the Imodium screwing with my hydration. Until the rigors of travel stop messing with my insides, I am taking on water like an old steam train. I only brought one container of powdered Gatorade, and it has to last until I get out of here. The sports drink did wonders in London, and I need it to be able to hold up until I get out.

After the Souk, we go to the latest shopping experience in Kurdistan, the Nazza Mall. It is more of a Fred Meyer’s than a true mall, although there are independent vendors inside. The selection is amazing and we are able to get a host of things we needed and some we just got because they were cool. We stocked up on bulk water to avoid buying out the mini-bar every day. I got a lighter and Michael forgot to with the insouciant belief that fire is always available that smokers so often operate with. Michael later steals…borrows…the lighter with the insouciant kleptomania that smokers so often impose upon their acquaintances.

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Biscuits and Happiness at the Nazza Mall. The Owner Let Us Take Pictures Because We Were Americans.

After a bit of shopping, we get back to the hotel and rest for a while before dinner. Taking these things in stages is important because we really need to be on top of our game for brief periods. There is no pressure and there is no reward for powering through without a rest. What is important is that when we have a meeting, we are 100% on track with the meeting. It is also important to not get sick of each other, so away time is key.

We get back together for dinner and await a phone call from Michael’s friend in the Council of Ministers. Dinner is in the garden where tables are laid out for the evening cool. We relax and enjoy an excellent mixed grill with a flatbread that covers the large plate. Michael’s friend arrives and we explain our purpose here. Once the situation becomes clear, a plan of action is developed. We are to meet with important people, explain our situation, and with their assistance, everything will happen. Just like that. It helps a lot that we are here to accomplish something that the Kurdish Regional Government really wants done, and that we are representing an organization that can do the job. It also helps that we are friends, we have returned to accomplish something worth doing, and we see past the hysteria to realize that Iraqi Kurdistan intends to succeed.

It is a long day, and we accomplished much. At the end of it, I feel like I have been here for a week. Michael and I spend some more time talking and planning the upcoming days. My bed is comfortable, the room is cool, progress is being made, and I rest well. Altogether, a very interesting birthday.



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