Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Kurdistan (Part I)

Last Thursday I arrived with Ambassador Khalilzad, former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, Kurdish-Iraqi parliamentarian Rosch Schaways and two other aides at the Irbil airport. Irbil is the seat of the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG), the region within Iraq comprised of the three majority-Kurdish provinces in northern Iraq that have been semi-autonomous since Operation Provide Comfort and the establishment of the northern No Fly Zone at the end of the 1991 Gulf War. We were visiting Kurdistan as the guests of Massoud Barzani, the President of the KRG.

Our party was met at the airport by a delegation from the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP, as opposed to the other Kurdish party, President Talabani's Patriotic Union of Kurdistan -- more on the difference later). The delegation was dressed in tailored suits, wearing sunglasses, and standing outside a fleet of white SUVs. The entourage looked part Secret Service, part Sopranos.

Barzani's father, Mustafa Barzani, was a legendary guerrilla leader affectionately known as the "Father of the Kurds" for founding the KDP in 1946. After Mustafa was exiled in 1977, Massoud assumed the mantle of leadership in the Kurdish independence movement and fought against Saddam's regime for more than 20 years. (Well, except for the time in 1996 he invited Iraqi troops into Kurdistan to allow them to attack the PUK's forces). So Barzani is kind of like the George Washington of the Kurds, if General Washington's family subsequently had a share in most of the business activity in the colonies after the Revolution.

From the Irbil airport we drove about 45 minutes up into the mountains to Barzani's guest house in Salahaddin. Along the way, we passed the flourishing construction cranes and burgeoning apartment complexes of "Dream City." We passed at least six soccer games en route, raning from rag tag groups of boys playing on gravelly fields, to older men wearing uniforms and accompanied by a crowd of onlookers. People stopped by the side of the road to watch the motorcade of 10-12 SUVs and police escorts pass, including the ubiquitous Pesh Merga that seemed to guard every intersection and strategic point of high ground. Also along the roadside were groups of men sitting by parked cars with their trunks open sittin gon the ground and enjoying a picnic with friends as the sunset over the mountains.

At the guesthouse, we were greeted by "Kaka" (Brother) Barzani, wearing the traditional olive green Kurdish dress with cummerbund and a red and white Kurdish headdress. He greeted the Ambassador and other VIPs warmly, and guided them into the same receiving room where I sat with him and Secretary Rumsfeld in April 2005. Shaways, Allawi, and Ambassador Khalilzad sat along the far wall beneath a portrait of Mustafa Barzani, while Barzani sat in a large chair in the corner.

The receiving room of Barzani's guesthouse.

Dinner was another stellar exampole of Kurdish hospitality. I counted at least twelve different courses arrayed before, including lamb and okra in tomato sauce, grilled lamb, lamb kabobs, grape leaves and onions stuffed with rice, fish, and a sald comprised of chopped cucumbers, tomatoes, corn, and cilantro. I sat next to Dr. Shaways, and tried to engage him in a conversation about wines. (He owns his own vineyard and label in Kurdistan). But he was understandably more interested in joining in the raucus conversation amongst the Ambassador, Barzani, Allawi, and himself that floated between Arabic and Farsi.

After dinner, we moved out to the back terrace, from which we see the valley below Salahaddin filled with lights. We sat around two tables as large plates of peaches, watermelon, cherries, apricots, and pastries were brought out. Finally, a little after 2200, President Barzani stood up to leave. His entourage of KDP officials graciously said goodnight, and left with him. I went to bed shortly thereafter, but as I headed up to my room, a waiter was bringing a bottle of red wine and fresh glasses to the remaining guests.

The back terrace of the Barzani guesthouse.

The view from the terrace in the morning.