Michael Totten

Send Me to Iraq

It’s time for me to go to Iraq.
I am not going to embed with the military. While it sounds exciting (as well as terrifying), I’m only going to be there a few weeks. War correspondence isn’t something a person does for two weeks.
Instead I’m going to the part of Iraq most journalists ignore: the North. Erbil, Sulemaniya, Dohok, and Halabja — the city near the Iranian border where Saddam Hussein massacred thousands of people with chemical weapons.
Anyone who has been to Lebanon recently knows how the “if it bleeds, it leads” style of reporting badly skews the West’s idea of what a place is actually like. Just ask my mother. She recently visited me in Beirut and could hardly believe how much nicer the city is than news reports had led her to believe. Every report of a car bomb was true. But there’s a lot more to Beirut than the car bombs.
So I’m going to plug a media hole and write about Kurdistan, the part of Iraq that is stable and prosperous at least relative to the rest of the country.
My friend Andrew Apostolou at the Brookings Institute put me in touch with Bayan Rahman, director of the Kurdistan Development Corporation and daughter of former Deputy Prime Minister of Iraqi Kurdistan Sami Abdul Rahman who was assassinated last year by an Islamist suicide bomber. She is helping me with arrangements and logistics.
She was recently interviewed on CNN about her part of the country.

PHILLIPS: Why do you think you’re having more success right now than what we’re seeing in Baghdad, with regard to the insurgency?
RAHMAN: Well, the reason for that is, as I said, we’ve had the foundations of democracy laid in Kurdistan for well over a decade when the coalition of Britain and America established a safe haven in the Kurdistan region.
With that, we’ve had our own elections, and we’ve been able to govern our own region. As part of that Democraticatization process, the Peshmerga, the Kurdistan forces, have worked hand in hand with the Kurdish public to secure the region, and this is the sort of example, the model, that we think can work for the rest of Iraq, as well as the model for democracy and commerce that we believe Kurdistan can present for the rest of Iraq.
PHILLIPS: Well, and you’re promoting this through a number of new ads in this campaign. Let’s take a look at this one we that found really interesting with regard to travel.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Have you seen the other Iraq? It’s spectacular. It’s joyful. It has an experienced security force. Fewer than 200 coalition troops are stationed here. Arabs, Kurds and Westerners all vacation together. Welcome to Iraqi Kurdistan. It’s been practicing democracy for over a decade. It’s not a dream. It’s the other Iraq.
PHILLIPS: It’s pretty slick. You look at that, you see these pictures and you do, you think, wow, when you see what’s happening in Baghdad and other parts of Iraq, Tikrit and Mosul, you don’t realize there is this other side to the story.
RAHMAN: Well, exactly and that’s why we’ve called the campaign “The Other Iraq.” I think viewers in America may see just from their usual TV channels that everything in Iraq is very gloomy, that all we have are insurgents and terrorist attacks.
But, in fact, there are 18 provinces in Iraq and the fighting is only in four of them. It’s very tragic that we have that in Iraq, and we are taking steps to remedy that. But the fact is, the vast majority of Iraq is more safe and particularly, Kurdistan region is very safe, very stable.
And as you saw in those pictures, our region even looks different from the rest of Iraq. We have mountains, we have greenery. We’re proud of that, of course. And we want people to come to our region and to see for themselves and to understand that there is this other Iraq, which is thankful for being liberated. And I would like to thank the people of America for giving us the chance to get democracy and invite them to come see for themselves and as the campaign says, to share the dream.

Here’s what I want to know: does Iraqi Kurdistan live up to the hype? Is it actually a nice place? Or is Iraqi Kurdistan a backwater that is only pleasant compared to the rest of Iraq because it isn’t a war zone? Is it culturally liberal, moderate, or traditionally Islamic? How deeply has economic globalization penetrated the place? Do people there think of themselves as Kurdish first or Iraqi first? Does their pro-American viewpoint extend to Europe and Israel? What do Iraqi Kurds think of Arabs, not just Iraqi Arabs but Arabs in other Middle East countries? Is there any hint that the Kurds are using the Americans, or is the alliance a genuine and heartfelt one? How is the economy? Is it Third World or is it at least up to Lebanon’s level? Can Kurdish leaders be openly criticized in public without fear of retribution or punishment? How free and liberated are Kurdish Iraqi women? How much traction does Islamism have in Kurdistan among the conservatives? If it really is a wonderful place, what, specifically, makes it so great?
These things are rarely, if ever, written about, so I’m going there to find out and report back.
What I need from you in return is a little help paying for my expenses. Trips from Beirut to Egypt, Cyprus, Jordan, and Turkey are cheap — at least in the off-season. Flying to Iraq and staying in hotels with solid security is expensive.
Of course I’ll make some of my money back selling stories and ad space on the blog. But I don’t know if that will be enough to cover expenses. So I need to ask you to help me out. Please, if you like what I write, click the Pay Pal button and lend me a hand. I am not independently wealthy, and I can’t do this for free.
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I’m going to write down everything I see and hear in my notebook and report back as much of it as I possibly can. A summary or an overview of that part of the world isn’t sufficient. Someone needs to do no-bullshit ground-level photography and documentation. It looks like that someone will be me.
Thanks so much in advance for your help and support.