Saturday, April 07, 2007

Our Friends In The North

7 April, 2006

A year ago to the day, our friends in the Kurdistan Workers' Federation (KWF) took our visiting delegation on a fascinating tour in which we viewed the mountains of Iraq. The beauty of the area is shown here, if you access the photographic gallery. It is very unlike the baked and caked mud which is characteristic of so much of Iraq.

On Arriving

We first met the KWF (who are known locally as the Kurdistan Workers' Syndicate) at Arbil Airport after we landed there in the dark at 7 pm on 1st April. They were our hosts, programme planners and guides.

Our friends were led by Hangaw Abullah Khan, who had made such an impression when he addressed the UNISON Annual Conference in this country in 2005.

After comradely introductions they rushed us to a restaurant and we sat around a large table mixed in with our hosts and their friends. The latter included representatives from the Teachers Union and the Deputy Governor of Arbil, who made a welcoming speech to which I responded on behalf of our delegation.

It was a fine start, so it was after midnight by we booked into our hotel which was protected by huge concrete blocks and had a checkpoint at its entrance guarded by the local peshmerga with guns.

After passing through security, the board said "It is not allowed to enter with or to carry any hand gun inside the Hotel. Your co-operation is kindly appreciated." Prior permission was also required to book into the hotel.

The Best Of Programmes

Hangaw and his colleagues arrived the following morning to start our planned programme. As we left the hotel we passed the offices of the Metal Workers' Union which was pock marked with the signs of bullet shots.

The traffic was heavy, taxis abounded and the roads were sound. The National Assembly building which we later visited had its security blocks painted in patterns and had towers with armed guards.

We drove to a building in the Saui Abdul Rahman Park where we joined a UNISON funded Trade Union Training Course. Before becoming an MP in 1987, I had taught for 21 years in classes for Trade Unionists and I recognised that this was a first class provision.

I liked the fact that the numbers of men and women amongst the adult students and the tutors balanced. And I was later impressed by the strong feminist interest expressed amongst Trade Unionists we met in Sulaymaniyah.

A Neat Mix

Over the next two days we had lively, informative and often lengthy meetings with (1) their Speaker, his Deputy and various Kurdish Assembly MPs, (2) the Minister of the Interior, (3) the Hewler Governor, (4) the Kurdish Communist Party, (5) the Health and Social Service Minister with a host of officials and (6) the Minister of Education.

On top of this we visited a Printing Works and linked up with a Shop Steward we had met on the Training Course. We also had a fascinating visit to the ancient Citadel of Arbil which I mentioned in an earlier item I posted. Then we had that historic meeting with the Trade Unionist who had flown in from Baghdad Airport.

The Grand Tour

I turn now to our tour on 7 April to the Zargros Mountains.

Abdullah Mushin is the International Representative of the General Federation of Iraqi Workers and was a key member of our delegation. When we reached Shaqlawaq, he pointed out that he had hidden in the mountains to the east when he had escaped from the Baathist regime in the late 1970s.

After we had moved beyond numerous check-points into the rural highlands, I felt the safest since I had arrived in Iraq. It was then pointed out to me that we were invariably being observed from the mountains by the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) who had a record of paramilitary action in Turkey, Iran, Syria and Northern Iraq. So relaxation in any part of Iraq is only a relative term.

Apart from the water falls and snow capped mountains, we passed old forts used by Saddam Hussein for troops and prisoners, a water pipe project with Turkey and a vast area earmarked for flooding to create a lake for hydro, leisure and tourism.

Border Country

We had two main stopping points.

First, at a village near Barzan near the Turkish border we met members of the Barzani clan who took us to lay flowers at the grave of Mulla Mustafa Barzani the legendary Kurdish hero who founded the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP). His son Massoud Barzani is the Prime Minister of Kurdish Regional Government, whom we only missed meeting the following morning when the time for the departure of our plane was brought forward.

Next we moved to Hargaw's home to be welcomed by his parents and the rest of his family. The house was prominent, being large and near the top of his village on the edge of a massive snow capped mountain near the Iranian border.

Having a fine Kurdish meal whilst seated on a huge Kurdish carpet, with the companionship of friends and comrades is an experience of the highest order.

Taking in more scenery and important stops, we made our way back to our hotel in preparation for leaving the final morning.

Good Night, for Now.

Our stay in Iraqi Kurdistan had involved visits to Sulymaniyah, a day in the mountain areas which I have just described and a whole host of activities in Arbil, including the meeting with those who came to meet us via Baghdad.

Tomorrow I will conclude these reports with some of the details of our finals hours and the flight home which took us a lengthy route from Arbil and by air covered Baghdad and Basra. I will add some of my general impression of the visit.

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