On The Road To Sulaymaniyah
The Observer ran a dramatic extract from Jason Burke’s book On the Road to Kandahar. They selected the piece he wrote about his experiences in Iraqi Kurdistan on 4th April 2003, during the invasion of Iraq.
Jason Burke’s piece started with him telling us about his experiences close to a bridge some 20 miles south of the Kurdish-held city of Arbil; where Saddam Hussein’s troops were counter attacking after the Kurdish peshmerga had driven them from the bridge earlier in the day.
As luck would have it, I was on a delegation to Iraqi Kurdistan involving “Labour Friends of Iraq” (LFIQ) exactly three years to the day afterwards and just missed out travelling over the same bridge.
On 4th April 2006 we went by road from Arbil to Sulaymaniyah. The quickest route would have been to travel south to Kirkuk, crossing over the bridge at Qosh Tepe. But as our activities had been splashed over the local media, our hosts from the Kurdish Worker’s Federation didn’t wish us to travel through Kirkuk which is volatile as it is disputed territory between Arabs and Kurds. We could have been targeted.
Instead we took a longer, but equally fascinating route to Sulaymaniyah.
The centre of Arbil is dominated by regular road checks plus huge concrete blocks around public buildings and hotels. Whenever we were checked out by troops, police or peshmerga, we felt that we could trust them. It would have been a different story in Baghdad, as someone would have passed on the information to ensure our later interception and kidnapping.
Leaving Arbil we passed through the district of Sawaran and as in the town centre, the roads were well kept. It reminded me of the Basra I knew 50 years ago when undertaking my National Service with its wide variety of housing in close proximity to each other. Yet all set on mud dominated surrounds.
The big difference was the considerable amount of private house building that was taking place. This was a common pattern in all urban areas for the rest of our journey, added to by an impressive Council Housing estate under construction on the outskirts of Sulaymaniyah.
Via An Impressive Kui Sarjaq
The road checks thinned out in the countryside, but those in the front seats of our car hurriedly fastened their seat belts for the first time as we approached the check point at the town of Koi Sanjaq.
With its surrounding villages, this is an area of 100,000 population. We passed an impressive new library, which would have put some of our own equivalents to shame. As in Arbil, the streets were full of many older private cars and taxis. Everywhere you turned there were Satellite dishes.
Smart young girls in school uniform, walked up the steep high street. As we left the town we saw extensive new university student dormitories.
It wasn’t a sign of opulence, but of a great deal of individual and community effort in circumstances of a new found freedom.
Once we moved into the countryside there was little sign of armed troops. The first pot holes appeared in the road, but we soon passed them by.
I was travelling in the back of the car with a young interpreter. He was a University Graduate who had been a primary school teacher until recently. He had disliked the boring nature of teaching in his village school, with its culture of domination by many of his fellow teachers over their pupils.
These attitudes in teaching arise from a strong tradition of what took place under Baathist rule. It is a problem that had been brought very openly to our attention by Abul-Arziz Taib, the Minister of Education, the day before our journey. He said that it even spilt over into a practice of physical violence by some teachers, although hitting children is now officially banned in Iraqi Kurdistan and in the rest of Iraq.
Our interpreter confirmed what we had been told. The Minister having spelt out for us the efforts being made by his Kurdish Regional Government to overcome these disturbing matters.
The interpreter’s ambition was to study for a Master’s Degree in America. Before we had exhausted my limited knowledge on Jean Piaget and the development of children, we reached a check-point flying the flag of Kurdistan.
We now travelled down a more problematic road, alongside a mountain range which obscured our view of Buhayrat Dokan. This lake is used for the hydro-electric station at the township of Dokan at its southern end.
Plans are in place to extend such hydro-electric supplies to overcome the periodic interruption of electricity services which we had experienced in Arbil.
After a stop for char, we were soon diverted onto a lengthy mud track round a kilometre of a new section of road that was being built. There was some frustration expressed by our Kurdish friends, as it had already taken three months to work on this stretch of road and it was still nowhere near completion.
Cement, Construction and Comrades
When we got back onto the main road, we passed a cement factory and were soon joining the road that came from Kirkuk on our way to Sulaymaniyah. This was a fine highway, which had been built whilst the invasion of Iraq was in full swing.
At Sulaymaniyah we passed a large Guard Centre, blocks of University flats, the industrial area (including another cement factory), and holiday chalets with a tourist resort that is still under construction.
This did not look like a society on its knees. Construction and especially house building is massive. They are keen that when privatisation arrives, it will not be of the Russian turbo capitalist variety. But a wise investor would move into construction, cement and (once you see the mountain’s and their plans for lakes) tourism - which will initially be home based.
Our first port of call at Sulaymaniyah was really something. We went to the offices of The Kurdistan Workers’ Federation. Outside was a line of thirty Trade Unionists to welcome us and to vigorously shake our hands. Inside the building there was another large reception committee.
The President welcomed us and I replied introducing our delegation. We had detailed high level discussions with Trade Union leaders in both Arbil and later in Sulaymaniyah, but this was a very relaxed, welcoming and getting to-know each other session.
Another Democratic Infrastructure
We then went straight to our hotel to ready ourselves for the evening meeting at the Bureau of Civic Organisations.
This body draws together Trade Unions, Farmers, Youth and Women’s Organisations, M.P.s, groups of those blinded (often from mines) and those with genetic problems (arising from the consequences of chemical attacks) including a Dwarfs section.
It covers 400,000 members in Iraqi Kurdistan, links with 40 NGOs (who deal with issues such as corruption), provides an intellectual centre, has produced 35 books on civic society and social problems, runs a weekly magazine and has a radio station.
Our Trade Union friends were fully involved in the discussions.
At the moment Iraqi Kurdistan circumvents much of the anti-social legislative framework which hits the rest of Iraq.
Saddam Hussein’s law 150 still exists and declares Trade Unions in the public sector to be illegal. Yet 80% of those in work are public employees. Whilst a more recent decree 8750 allows the State to act as a sequester of Trade Union funds. NGOs activities are also curtailed.
Thankfully, none of these measures have yet impacted upon Iraqi Kurdistan. Whilst the most outspoken people at our meeting were a group of women, who were
persistent in seeking to protect and further equal rights. Women Trade Unionists were also prominent on the shop floor when we visited a couple of works the following day.
The Civic Organisations need our understanding and help. LFIQ attempts to do this, especially via our links with the Trade Union Movement both in Iraqi Kurdistan and the rest of Iraq. On our visit we met representatives of the bulk of the Iraqi Trade Union Movement, which peaked at over 1 million strong. It is, of course, now under massive pressures outside of Iraqi Kurdistan.
Our 4 April in Iraqi Kurdistan showed the extent to which things in many areas have progressed since Jason Burke examined the fighting itself. There are still, however, the special problems I have referred to in Kirkuk, whilst Mosul is targeted as a forces training centre. Even our trip to Halabja had to be cancelled for safety reasons when shortly before our visit it experienced riots leading to the destruction of the monument to the memory of those who were gassed.
Our April 4th was massively important for our understanding of developments in Iraqi Kurdistan. It provides a pattern of hope for the rest of Iraq, especially if we assist its Trade Union Movement.