Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Culture and Women's Rights



By Namo Abdulla -- for Rudaw

On Friday, I was at a dinner event at which prominent businessman Marc Lasry said he used to dance with and have “a secret crush on” US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. “She was quite a dancer,” he added, while calling Mrs. Clinton on stage to speak on women’s rights.

Mrs. Clinton was sitting at a different table than her husband, former US President Bill Clinton, who, like the rest of the audience, laughed. The audience’s tables included Platinum, Golden and Silver, which cost $100,000, $50,000 and $25,000 respectively.

As I am not from this society, I can’t know if Mr. Clinton’s smile genuinely represented his feelings or not. I don’t know if Mr. Lasry’s comments made him jealous at all. But I am certain that even if Mr. Lasry had said his relationship with the Secretary of State was more than just a crush, Mr. Clinton, whose affair with Monica Lewinsky remains historic as much as it is notorious, wouldn’t cause the same reaction as it would in a Kurdish man, who could slay his wife in an “honor killing” over such a comment.

This is, of course, just a matter of how two different cultures treat women. But the question is: Should we leave it this way merely because it is a cultural matter? In post-Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, a woman, no matter how old she is, still can’t get a passport without the approval of a “male guardian” – i.e. a brother or father.

Held in New York City’s Chelsea Piers along the Hudson River, the dinner was organized by the International Crisis Group under the title, “In Pursuit of Peace,” and award four women who have made extraordinary accomplishments in their patriarchal societies.

The women included prominent Tunisian journalist Sihem Bensedrine; Somali human rights activist Shukri Ismail; Guatemala’s attorney general, Claudia Paz y Paz; and Afghan human rights activist Sima Samar.

In a room where the marvelous golden and silver tables had their surfaces decked with glasses of vintage wine, it gave a harmonious feeling to see, for instance, Shukri Ismail, wearing a headscarf and confidently approaching the stage get her award.

“So let us pledge ourselves to the proposition that women must be equal citizens and equal partners with men,” Mrs. Clinton said, “recognizing that the changes we seek and the aspirations of the people that we support will not be realized overnight. That’s true around the world; it’s true even in our own country.”

Mrs. Clinton went on to recall a number of influential examples. With hearing of each one of them, I felt sorry for women in my country. As a journalist working in Iraqi Kurdistan, I remembered the days in which murdering women became so frequent that it no longer became newsworthy.

Of the stories that I recalled that evening was the pale 22-year-old woman who had married a man without the approval of her family. She had miraculously survived an intense shooting that left her husband dead with 17 bullets in his chest. Four bullets struck her hip as well. The culprits, one of whom I interviewed, were at large.

At this time, I was stringing for the New York Times, and finally managed to convince them that the story was worth publishing and different from other typical honor killings.

Another touching event that remains with me was a young woman who was too shy to talk to me over the phone about the miserable situation engulfing her after she underwent female genital mutilation in Kurdistan. “My husband hates me. I can’t fulfill his expectations,” she told a female friend of mine over the phone.

Let me be short and clear. I know, as any other Kurd or perhaps Muslim does, that there are cultural differences between the West and us. I also know when westerners such as Secretary of State Clinton talk about women’s rights, they may speak from a Western point of view.

But there are certain universal things for which cultures truly need to compromise. There has to be no justification for taking the life of a woman.

Men must convince themselves that beating a vulnerable woman does not represent manhood; it rather represents lack of it. When our sisters and mothers want to work outside and show that they have more ability to serve the society than merely being confined to a kitchen, we should not prevent them from doing so. We should admit that it is wrong to determine a girl’s future husband while she is still in the cradle or her mother’s womb.

More importantly, we should pressure our government to enforce the beautiful laws it has passed; otherwise, the society is nothing more than a jungle where only the strongest can survive.

* Follow the author on Twitter at #namo_abdulla, or email him at: naa2138@columbia.edu

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Weird Questions

By Namo Abdulla -- for Rudaw

Instead of going to Starbucks every time, I recently asked my roommate to give me some suggestions on what kind of coffee beans I should buy so that I could make my own coffee here in New York City. Even though he is a constant coffee drinker, he gave no suggestions except to “Google it.”

While I had received this answer previously to some other questions, which are not expected to be asked in Internet-savvy New York, I found my friend’s answer weird.

“In the era and city of advertisements, how could I possibly find on the Internet reliable information judging which coffee is good and which one is bad?” I said.

But the friend introduced me to something called “reviews,” which are qualitative evaluations provided by voluntary customers about products they have tried. The reviews gave me satisfactory answers, perhaps much better than any friend could do, allowing me to buy great coffee of my own choice.

I had to admit that my question was weird and not my friend’s answer.

In a city like New York, where Internet penetration is as deep as it is wide, weird questions are no longer solely about men’s salaries and women’s ages. They include any question whose answer is conclusively available on the web.

In a country like Iraq, where I am from, many of New York’s weird questions are still normal.

The reason is simple: In the English-speaking world, the Internet supported by countless resources can provide a much easier and more convincing answer than a friend. A postmodern and free community such as Facebook, which currently has some 750 million netizens, is more responsive to someone who knows English.

The first weird question I asked was on my second day in America. In a similar Iraqi behavior, I met a prospective classmate and asked him if he could accompany me to find the nearest branch of Bank of America. Like a good guy, he joined me, strolling down Broadway.

Though he was from California and new to New York, he took out the latest version of the iPhone, which, just like Moses’ Staff, found the exact location of and directions to the destination I needed.

To avoid repeating such embarrassing location-related questions, I realized that having a smart phone was a necessary part of New York life.

But in Iraqi Kurdistan, where most houses don’t even have addresses, in order to reach a destination, I needed to memorize and apply a passage as easy as this one: Take the main road until you reach a mosque, then make a left and go all the way down. Stop in the fifth street, our house has a red door facing a dusty children soccer field.

Each time, for instance, I visited a friend of mine in one of Kurdistan’s most affluent neighborhoods, Ainkawa, I had to call him to come and pick me up near a petrol station.

Even before coming to the US, however, I knew that numeric and statistical questions might be weird to ask. I would, for instance, have searched the Internet to find the unemployment rate in 1982 America.

With the recent transformation of the Internet from a “read-only” to a “read-and-write” tool in which users are active participants rather than passive recipients, there are an unbelievable number of weird questions to which people seek answers online rather than in real life. It did not use to be like this a couple decades ago.

People increasingly don’t even need to be physically taught by a teacher or present at a school to learn or even earn a degree. As the number of online schools is increasing, a recent survey shows that the number of American students taking at least one online course has now surpassed 6 million, including one-third of all students in higher education.

In order not be replied with “Google it,” I might have to check to see if the question is answerable on the Internet, or to ask after saying a phrase akin to, “What’s your personal OPINION on…?”

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

From Green Zone to the Big Apple

By Namo Abdulla - for Rudaw

In mid-July, I feared nearing the United States Embassy in Baghdad’s International Zone. Commonly known as the Green Zone, it looked massive and endless, surrounded by multi-layered blast walls topped with barbed wire.

But this time, the fear did not stem from the possibility of a bomb attack; I was instead afraid that I wouldn’t get a US visa by the time my fall semester classes began in New York.

For a couple friends of mine whose names were Mohammed, it took weeks and months to get an American visa. Some Erbil-based US diplomats whom I knew and approached gave a one piece of advice: apply “as soon as possible.”

Beyond anyone’s expectations, however, my visa was issued in just five days. Getting a US visa so soon made me think of and rethink a couple explanations.

First, it was wrong to think that the US government discriminates against Muslims wanting to go to America. It may rather treat those named “Mohammed” differently, because the holy name is enormously popular, and it’s unfortunately too easy for an innocent person to have the same name as a terrorist these days.

The second explanation, which I thought was equally important, was that I’m not from the troublesome part of Iraq; I rather belong to Kurdistan, a safe and pro-American haven in northern Iraq. In Kurdistan, no American soldier, diplomat or businessman has been killed or kidnapped since the US-led invasion in 2003.

Upon my arrival in New York’s massive JFK Airport, there was again no questioning whatsoever. I presented my documents, and in a few seconds, the officer stamped my passport, letting me step into America. I admittedly loved it right then and there. Day after day, the stereotypes I had about this country were now vanishing.

It was about 11 p.m. when I saw New York for the first time. As looked around to see everything, I perhaps looked like a person with wandering eyes. Right there, I got a feeling that it was impossible to draw any comparison between the US and Iraq.

Sitting in a yellow cab, I could see through the window the actual tall buildings that I had only seen in Hollywood movies, which had never given me a true image of what American society looks like. Reading all the English banners on the streets, this time I felt I was in a movie.

Before coming to the US, I had already made my mind that if somebody asked where I was from, the response would be just “Kurdistan.” No mention of the word Iraq at all, a behavior totally opposite what I had done a few days earlier in Turkey. I had, perhaps rightfully, thought that in America if I said I was from Iraq, everybody would suddenly think of bombs if not terrorism. But if I said Kurdistan, everybody would welcome me.

The attempt soon proved to be in vain. Few had any idea about Kurdistan. Each time I had to tell a long story to define it and explain where it was on the map. Hopelessly, I had to change my mind, saying I am from Iraq. The response, this time, has often been a big “wow.”

* The author is a student at Columbia Journalism School. Follow him on Twitter at #namo_abdulla, or email him at: naa2138@columbia.edu

Saturday, December 3, 2011

My First American Thanksgiving

By Namo Abdulla -- for Rudaw

The final Thursday of November, on which Americans eat millions of turkeys, could be “very depressing” for me, said a university professor.

The reason isn’t that I am a vegetarian who disapproves of the massacre of the poor birds for a momentary human pleasure that day. I am actually so obsessed with meat that I could never possibly be a vegetarian. In an email sent to students at Columbia Journalism School, the professor discouraged us from staying around campus or eating at a restaurant on this special day, which is called Thanksgiving.

Thanksgiving celebrations date back to 1621 when the Plymouth colonists and Wampanoag Indians had a good harvest. It wasn’t recognized as an official holiday, however, until 1863, during Abraham Lincoln’s presidency.

Upholding tradition, on the eve of Thanksgiving, US President Barack Obama pardoned a turkey.

“It’s an annual ritual,” said Maura Judkis in her Washington Post blog, “that reminds us of both thankfulness and our elected officials’ power to decide between life and death.”

In a humorous and sarcastic way, Obama said that saving the turkey’s life was one of his recent actions for which he “can’t wait” on a congressional approval. “Otherwise, they'd end up next to the mashed potatoes and stuffing,” he said.

This year marked my first Thanksgiving. Invited by an American family, I was lucky to end up at a big table of food rather than eating with the homeless in a restaurant down the street. After being away from home for months, I needed a homemade meal.

While it was a totally new experience, Thanksgiving reminded me of some similar and dissimilar characteristics of Kurdish life. First, it had a familial atmosphere, which is part and parcel of Kurdish life in Iraq. It’s typically a daily occurrence in Kurdistan that women cook, waiting for men to return from school and work, and then, share the meal altogether.

But in America, family gatherings have become something of an occasional matter. Adopting an individualist approach of life, Americans (here I mean women too) are expected to leave their families after reaching a certain age in which they can depend on themselves. I have friends whose siblings and parents are divided across countries and even continents.

As I entered the house without taking off my shoes, I suddenly took sight of a beautiful white cat roaming freely inside. Unlike our cats, she was not afraid of us, sitting smartly on one of the chairs at the table, a behavior that I had seen only in Tom and Jerry cartoons.

My family used to tolerate cats only when needed to catch mice in our house. But in America, there is much more respect for animals, which have their own rights groups. Dogs and cats are petted and enjoy a much more luxurious life than, for example, some homeless men spending their night outside my apartment on the chilly street.

Last but not least, my Thanksgiving Day had a multi-religious nature: a Muslim at a Jewish family gathering with Christian friends. Despite discussing many sensitive issues from turkey the bird to Turkey the country, from religion to politics and the Iraq War, we remained joyful and tolerant all day.

Last year, I was in Baghdad during Eid al-Adha, which Shiites and Sunnis celebrate separately. I wondered: Why not think of an Iraqi Thanksgiving that brings everybody, regardless of religious or ethnic backgrounds, together?

* Follow the author on Twitter at #namo_abdulla, or email him at: naa2138@columbia.edu

Sunday, November 27, 2011

A Safe Haven For Iraqi Christians

By Namo Abdulla - cover story of ONE magazine

HAMDANIYA, Iraq - “I saw injustice in Mosul. I want to start a new life here,” says Salam Talia, a 23-year-old Iraqi Christian. The young man sits on a sofa between his middle-aged parents in their newly built apartment in Hamdaniya, a historically Christian town about 20 miles southeast of the city of Mosul. On one of the living room walls hangs a large image of Jesus surrounded by photos of family members killed in the war and the sectarian violence that has ravaged the nation for the past eight years.

Despite the trauma they suffered in their native Mosul, Iraq’s third-largest city and capital of the Nineveh Governorate, the Talia family considers itself fortunate and even expresses a measure of happiness with their new lives in Hamdaniya. They no longer fear practicing their faith and attend church regularly. They have made friends and are settling into their new home.

Hamdaniya lies in the Nineveh plains, a region east of the Tigris River. It takes its name from the Assyrian city mentioned in Genesis. The ruins of ancient Nineveh nestle on the river’s eastern bank directly across the water from Mosul. Still today, many residents of the Nineveh plains are Assyrian Christians.

The Nineveh plains are among several disputed territories in northern Iraq. Iraqi Christians increasingly view the area as the future homeland for the country’s Christian community, and many now demand it become a seminautnomous region.

Iraqi authorities also claim other territories in the north, particularly parts of the oil-rich Kirkurk Governorate, currently controlled by Kurdish authorities in the adjacent autonomous region of Kurdistan.

At the end of the first Gulf War, Allies established a no-fly zone in the Iraqi region of Kurdistan to protect the country’s Kurds, who had been persecuted by Saddam Hussein. Though the majority of Kurds are Sunni Muslim, they are not Arab but a distinct ethnic group of Indo-European origin and speak an Iranic language.


In Hamdaniya, the Kurdish flag flying over the main gate and the pro-Kurdish graffiti on the outer walls indicate that for now at least Kurdish authorities control the town.

Local security forces prefer to collaborate with the better armed Kurds rather than allow for the region’s many violent extremists to infiltrate Hamdaniya and terrorize its inhabitants. They operate more than a dozen checkpoints and have erected blast walls and deploy around-the-clock armed guards outside the town’s government offices, social service institutions as well as churches and other places of worship.

“If there is a foreigner in town, everybody knows right away. Residents usually report the person,” says Bhnan Abo, president of the town’s refugee affairs committee.

More than 95 percent of Hamdaniya’s 45,000 residents are Christian. This includes some 15,000 displaced Iraqis.

Many of these displaced families have fled from predominantly Arab Sunni Muslim areas of the Nineveh Governorate. In the last decade, the governorate has become a stronghold for Al Qaeda-affiliated militant groups. These extremists have consistently targeted the region’s Christian minority, whom they view as infidels and collaborators with the West. Killings, death threats, kidnappings and attacks on churches, Christian institutions and homes are rampant.

Mosul serves as the nerve center for the region’s extremist activities. Though historically a Sunni metropolitan area, the city and its surrounding villages were for centuries also home to an array of vibrant minority communities, including Christians, Kurds, Turkomans, Mandaeans and Yazidis. And until the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime, these diverse groups coexisted more or less peaceably with one another and the Sunni majority. But as militant groups gained control of the city in the war’s aftermath, violence against these communities escalated.

Most Christians have left in recent years. In 2008 alone, more than 2,600 Christian families fled the city following a string of violent attacks on the community.

Salam Talia and his family know all too well the hardships of living in a post-Saddam Hussein Mosul.

“In Mosul, a cleric pointed at both Christians and Kurds, calling them infidels,” says the young man. “But the Kurds are powerful and able to protect themselves. We are not.”

Fearing for their lives, the family kept a low profile in the city for years. They never disclosed their Christian identity and actively disguised it. The family refrained from attending church. Mrs. Talia and her daughter-in-law began to cover their heads, following Muslim practice. And while a student at Mosul’s fine arts academy, Salam Talia expressed interest in Islamic calligraphy, often choosing passages from the Quran as the subjects of his paintings.

These efforts, however, were in vain. Salam Talia narrowly escaped two separate kidnapping attempts. And while he was riding a university bus, a roadside bomb blew up the bus driving directly behind his. Finally in November 2007, tragedy struck the family. The eldest son, a police officer, died in an Al Qaeda attack on a police station. Just weeks later, extremists raided the daughter-in-law’s family home, slaughtering the young woman, her parents and a brother. Devastated and terrified, the Talia family hastily moved to Hamdaniya.

Hamdaniya’s residents take great pride in the contributions Christians have made to the country’s civilization. People openly and proudly remind friends and neighbors that it was a Christian who built the first school in Iraq and that Christians introduced the clock and printing press to the country.

The origins of Christianity in Iraq are shrouded in mystery, but most credit the apostle Thomas with the evangelization of the region’s Jewish communities on his way to India. For two millennia, Christians have flourished in the region. As late as 2003, Christians belonged to Iraq’s professional middle and upper classes. Some held high-ranking government positions.

“The first Iraqi government had six Christian ministers,” recalls Bashar Gorgis Habash, who heads an agency serving displaced Christians.

Today, more than two-thirds of Iraqi Christians are Catholic and belong to the Chaldean Church — which maintains the traditions of the Church of the East while in communion with Rome. The remaining third belong to the Armenian, Assyrian and Syriac churches.

Once estimated at one million strong, Iraq’s Christian community has dwindled since the U.S.-led invasion. Though no reliable statistics exist, most experts believe less than 300,000 Christians remain in Iraq. Hundreds of thousands have sought refuge in Jordan and Syria; a small number live in Lebanon and Turkey.

Those unable to leave the country have fled to Kurdistan and Kurdish-controlled territories in the north. According to the Kurdish government, more than 10,000 Christian families from all over Iraq have settled in Kurdistan since 2003.

One man, Sarkish Aghajan Mamendo, has made it his life’s work to develop Hamdaniya and over a dozen other predominantly Christian towns and villages in the region. Kurdistan’s former finance minister and an Assyrian Christian, he has financed the construction of 306 apartment buildings, 10 churches and dozens of other projects in Hamdaniya alone. Many displaced Christians, such as the Talia family, now live in these new apartments.

In August 2006, Pope Benedict XVI named him a knight commander of the Order of St. Gregory the Great for his generosity and activism on behalf of Iraq’s Christians.

Mr. Aghajan’s seemingly endless financial resources have raised a few eyebrows.

“We are not talking about thousands of dollars,” says Romeo Hakari, chairman of the Bet-Nahrain Democratic Party, an Assyrian Christian political group. “We are talking about millions of dollars spent on Christians. Dozens of villages have been built. I don’t think all of this income belongs to one single person.”

An active member in the Kurdistan Democratic Party, Mr. Aghajan no doubt benefits from close ties to its leader and Kurdistan’s current president, Massoud Barzani.

A staunch U.S. ally, President Barzani has earned an international reputation for his commitment to protecting Iraq’s religious minorities, particularly its Christians. In February 2011, the Italian Atlantic Committee and the Italian delegation to the NATO Parliamentary Assembly awarded him the Atlantic Award for his role in promoting peace and religious tolerance in the region. The president also met with Pope Benedict XVI, who commended his leadership in advancing religious tolerance.

Voices calling for the creation of a semiautonomous Christian region in the Nineveh plains have grown louder in recent years.

“We have support from people in the U.S. and Europe who would invest if we have our own region,” says Ziya Petros, head of the political party, Chaldean National Congress. “Our people would no longer have to abandon the country.”

Ano Abdoka, a prominent Christian journalist, lives in Ankawa, an affluent mostly Christian neighborhood outside Erbil, Kurdistan’s capital and largest city. He believes Iraqi Christians have reached a crossroad.

“Either we follow the Jewish model and leave the country altogether,” he says, sitting at one of the neighborhood’s trendy cafes for professionals and diplomats, “or, we follow the Kurdish model and resist to the last point.”

Since 2003, Iraqi Christians have found unlikely allies among their Kurdish compatriots. As tens of thousands of Christians flooded Kurdistan in search of refuge, local residents and Kurdish authorities have for the most part warmly welcomed them. A number of Christians also hold important offices in Kurdistan’s government. And among Iraqi leaders from other ethnic and religious communities, only Kurds have ever indicated support for a semiautonomous Christian region.

“Kurds and Christians are on the same side,” says Mr. Hakari. “Relations between Christians and Kurds have improved as much as the distance between the sky and earth.”

As the Christian politician’s remark suggests, relations between the two communities have not always been so tight. In March 1918, Smko Shikak, a powerful Kurdish tribal leader, and his militia assassinated Catholicos-Patriarch Shimun XXI Benyamin of the Church of the East and murdered 150 of his bodyguards.

The tribal leader’s militia later massacred thousands of Assyrian Christians in the cities of Khoy and Salmas.

While some Iraqi Christians may bitterly remember these darker days, most have set aside whatever ill will they harbor and prefer to greet the alliance with a sense of relief and hope. “I am sure they mean it when they say they support us,” continues Mr. Hakari. “For their reputation in the U.S. and Europe, it’s a great philosophy that they support other communities, particularly Christians.”

However, not everyone shares Mr. Hakari’s confidence in the Christian-Kurdish partnership.
“Neither the Iraqi government nor the Kurdish one pays enough attention to us,” says Bashar Gorgis Habash, head of Hamdaniya’s agency for displaced Christians. “Baghdad does nothing and the Kurds see it as something beyond their administrative control.”

Displaced Christians in Kurdistan and Kurdish-controlled territories live in comparative safety. A surprising number even have managed to get on with their lives. Most, however, struggle. Many have experienced horrific violence and, as a result, suffer posttraumatic stress disorder.
Some grieve for the lives they once knew. In fleeing north, they abandoned their homes and other properties and they have little hope of recovering them. When families first arrive, they rarely have the resources to support themselves, much less purchase a home — a reality that can be overwhelming.

For those from wealthy backgrounds or those who lived in large cities such as Baghdad, the comparatively simple, small-town life they find in Hamdaniya and other similar settlements can be psychologically difficult.

Displaced persons in Kurdistan confront the added challenge of learning the Kurdish language, without which they have little chance of securing a job or performing well in school.
But no matter where they settle in these safe zones, the majority cannot find work that supports themselves and their families.

“Seventy-five percent of the displaced Christians are living not in bad conditions, but in very bad conditions,” says Ziya Petros of the Chaldean National Congress.

Many families scrape by on a monthly stipend of less than $50, provided by the local church. A number of international relief organizations also assist the displaced. But according to Mr. Petros, corrupt officials all too often embezzle the aid channeled through some of these organizations.

“They don’t give the money properly to the people,” he says. “They use it to embarrass them; they use it to buy them out during elections.” (CNEWA provides support through the local churches.)

Thirty-five-year-old Karan Jalal Abdul-Ahad and his family moved to Hamdaniya from Baghdad in 2007. For years, he and his family lived in fear, dodging the sectarian violence that engulfed the capital. He once witnessed henchmen dump a pile of maimed bodies on a street corner. Yet, he refused to leave — that is, until the day he started receiving death threats. Knowing his days were numbered, he made the hard decision to pack whatever his family could carry and head north.

Though relieved to find safety in Hamdaniya, he did not take well to his new surroundings.
“In the beginning when I came here, I was too depressed to go out,” he says. Proficient in English, he landed a job in a pharmacy that needs employees who can understand the English labels on medications.

“I still miss Baghdad. But, I will never go back,” he continues. “My parents both died here and are buried here. Hamdaniya is now my town. This is my world. This is my life.”

Sunday, October 16, 2011

At Occupy Wall Streets Protests, Calls for Change

By NAMO ABDULLA -- Rudaw


New York – Standing on the doorstep of a smart restaurant with a gleaming diamond ring and a glass of wine in her hand, businesswoman Kim Russo was yelling at a group of anti-corporate protesters passing through New York’s Brad Street last week. “Go volunteer,” she shouted upon them. “Go help other people… You’re voiceless.”

Ms. Russo is the chief executive of the multi-million dollar Global Design Network, which makes miniature toys celebrating corporate mergers.

While she agrees with the Occupy Wall Street protesters that the American economy is struggling, she said the protest will only disrupt the market further.

“The economy is awful,” said Ms. Russo. “In lieu of screaming and causing chaos, offer an intelligent solution in a productive way that actually makes sense.”

“I am also part of the 99 percent,” she said, using a common slogan chanted by American protesters here calling for the end of what they see as an unfair and corrupt financial system dominated by one percent of the population.

Given her apparent wealth, however, Ms. Russo is living a life far more luxurious than most Americans.

Many of the Occupy Wall Street protesters, who have grown bigger in number and influence, say they are unemployed or underemployed.

In the US, the unemployment rate is 9.1 percent, the second highest since 1982 and nearly double that in the final years of the George W. Bush Administration in 2007-08. It is also higher than some European countries including the UK and Germany.

Although employers added 103,000 jobs in September, easing fears that the world’s largest economy was falling into recession, estimates say 125,000 people need to be hired every month in order to keep up with population growth.

On Thursday, protests blocked off major streets in New York’s financial district and were closely watched by police. On Friday, police could not expel them from a park where they have been camped out in lower Manhattan. They moved to Times Square over the weekend, one of the most prominent locations in the city.

The protests are perhaps the biggest challenge facing Barack Obama, the first African-American president who is ending his first term as the leader of an economically troubled country hurt by its involvement in three wars in an increasingly tumultuous region.

Despite aggressive initiatives, the president has so far failed to convince Congress to pass a $447 billion jobs plan, a project whose passage could boost his chances of winning re-election next year. The Republicans do not support the plan, criticizing the president for employing a failed economic policy.

Surrounded by corporations and banks, New York protesters have camped out for weeks in Zuccotti Park. It lies on the same street as the World Trade Center, the site of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

However, protesters – ranging from young students to teachers, workers to musicians – do not have a clear-cut set of goals.

Some have criticized them as an anti-capitalism movement inspired by ideas of thinkers such as Karl Marx. Some of their demands such as levying a heavier tax on corporations, however, have gained the empathy of the Democrats including Obama.

“The American people understand that not everybody is following the rules. Wall Street is an example of that,” Obama told reporters at the White House earlier this month.

Students, meanwhile, complained about education costs.

“Too many students are taking a lot of student loans,” said Michael Romero, a university student. “It’s very disheartening.”

Unlike in the Middle East the police have not shot protesters here, but hundreds have been pepper-sprayed and arrested. While in the Arab world protesters demanded democracy, leaderless American protesters want more than that: a kind of society that no one has been able to conceptualize.

With an Egyptian flag draped around his shoulders, an American-Egyptian was one of the protesters hoping to help topple what he called a “disguised” ruler.

“In Egypt, everyone knew Mubarak was a criminal,” said Ahmed Eltouny, who returned to Egypt last spring to participate in his country’s pro-democracy protest. “Here in America it’s disguised.”

“There is little difference between Obama and Bush. We don’t vote for either, we vote for Exxon-Mobil,” he added, referring to one of the world’s largest oil and gas corporations in America.

Another major concern here is healthcare. Many seem to be in favor of a single payer system that covers all Americans and subsidizes costs, similar to that in the UK or Canada. In the US, only people with disabilities, the poor and citizens 65 and older are currently entitled to government-managed healthcare.

“You need to bring the age down to zero,” said Stan Rogouski, a 37-year-old jobless protester.

Despite their fluctuating numbers, American protesters have so far been steadfast and the protests have grown to many US cities and even globally. On Friday, protesters called themselves a “winner” when the company that owns Zuccotti Park canceled its plans to clean the park, which would have forced out the demonstrators. It remains unclear, however, how committed the Occupy Wall Street protesters will remain in the face of an approaching snowy winter.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

The Rise of a More Civilian Turkey


By NAMO ABDULLA - Rudaw -- photo by foreignpolicy.com

Before assuming office, Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey had to spend six months behind bars for publicly reciting a religious poem that a dominant military deemed a threat to the country’s secularism. Now he prays in public, and his government is sending military generals to jail.

It is part shock and part hope that Turkey’s massive military – with a budget proportionately bigger than that of the armed forces in the United States or Russia – is witnessing the demise of its hegemonic position to a civilian government under the leadership of Erdogan, whose influence and popularity reach far beyond the country’s borders.

The Turkish military, the second largest army in NATO, has carried out three coups of elected governments in the past.

But signs of the end of its dominance became clearer in July when the top army general, together with the leaders of the navy, army and air force, resigned in objection to their diminished influence. The government has arrested dozens of other military generals on charges implicating them in past coup plots.

There is, however, no indication that Erdogen’s Islamist-rooted party is turning modern Turkey into a religious state. Conversely, the United States and Europe hail the decline of militarism as a tribute to Turkish democracy, and as a step toward its accession to the European Union. It is even promoted as a model of Islamic democracy for the new Arab world.

“I think Turkey has been on a long track towards a greater democracy,” said Joost Hiltermann, deputy director of the International Crisis Group for the Middle East and North Africa region. “The military being fully put under the civilian control is a positive step.”

Among other Muslim-dominated countries, Turkey stands out as a melting pot of contradictions. It is a secular democracy ruled by leaders who pray five times a day. It even practices a more liberal version of Islam rather than the Sunni or Shiite extremism found in parts of Iraq and Lebanon. Sunnis and a sizable Shiite minority coexist peacefully.

While most Arab countries depend on oil for their state-run economy and use the natural resources as tools to insulate themselves from the people, Turkey boasts a free market in which a vibrant economy is thriving without having abundant oil reserves to rely on. It derives some 23 percent of its gross domestic product from tax, and the rest from trade, industry, service sectors and agriculture – a comparatively large percentage.

On September 12, 2010, a referendum was held in Turkey marking a watershed in Turkish history, just as a coup marked the same day 30 years before. Most Turks approved an Erdogan-backed constitutional amendment that provided civilian courts with the authority to prosecute military leaders, and allowed people to file lawsuits against officers who had been involved in the overthrow of past governments.

In addition to paving the way for reversing the domestic power balance, the referendum showed that none of the Turkish national and secular parties was in a position to challenge Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP), which secured a third four-year term in June.

“Mr. Erdogan has systematically subordinated the military under the control of civilian authorities,” said David L. Philips, former senior adviser to the US Department of State and a visiting professor at Columbia University who often writes on Turkey.

With some 79 million people, Turkey is a country with a mosaic of ethnic and religious groups located in a distinctive location between Europe and Asia. Its geostrategic position is home to one of the major US military bases. Since 2003, it has become the main route for Iraq’s oil and potentially gas to flow to Europe.

Turkey has always been an exceptional country in the Middle East. A non-Arab nation that is Muslim and the center of the Ottoman Empire which was a world power for centuries, it is also one of the few that never experienced Western colonialism, thanks to Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who defeated forces sent by the Western Allies in World War I.

Following his victory, Ataturk established a secular nation-state in 1923. With his portraits and statues adorning every corner of Turkey -- from the famous squares to teahouses, from Facebook profiles to the currency in people’s pockets – Ataturk is widely revered as Turkish national hero.

His legacy, however, remains controversial. Although he brought victory and modernity to Turkey, his authoritarian vision to create an exclusive state based on “Turkishness” failed to contain millions of non-Turkish minorities, leading to decades of bloody conflicts such as the 27-year war with Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) that has claimed more than 40,000 lives.

The minority problem remains the biggest democratic deficit in Turkey. The military-dominated state, backed by a constitution that does not recognize any other ethnic group but Turks, had overlooked the Kurdish issue as a “security” problem.

Erdogan’s vision, however, is wider and addresses the prevalent poverty in the Southeast as a way to end the Turk-Kurd hostility. Erdogan has also lifted the ban on the private use of the Kurdish language, allowing a state-owned Kurdish-language TV to broadcast round-the-clock.

Yet Kurds say he has done nothing to solve their political problem, recognizing them as a separate ethnic group in the constitution, which denies their existence.

The European Union, which Turkey has been a candidate to enter since 1999, sees the fulfillment of minority rights as a key criterion for accession.

As Turkey emerges from the shadow of its military, many expect a more emboldened government to take more concrete measures to advance Turkish democracy and eventually meet the European Union’s demands.

“The government's commitment to genuine constitutional reform will be the best indices,” said Phillips. “Eliminating the current constitution and replacing it with a charter that enshrines individual and group rights is the next milestone in Turkey's democratic development. Constitutional reforms should also go hand-in-hand with reforms of the penal code and the anti-terror act.”

Turkey, under Erdogan, is an even better neighbor. Over the past few years, Turkey has followed a foreign policy promoting its cultural and economic expansionism in the Arab world, a goal pursued through a liberal policy it calls “zero problem” with neighbors.

In addition to promoting harmony, trust and visa-free-travels, the new approach has eased long-held suspicions among Arab neighbors, including turbulent Iraq and its Kurdistan Region where Turkish brands of shoes, clothes, movies and songs are widely sold in upscale shopping malls.

In 2010, Turkey’s trade with Iraq amounted to $6 billion, Turkish officials told the New York Times, and could become Turkey’s second- or third-largest export market.

As countries like Israel and the US remain uncertain, and even worried, about the potential negative implications the Arab Spring might yield for them in the wake of the collapse of their former authoritarian allies, Turkey is emerging as a big winner, and is starting to reorient its polices toward the new order.

Joining many other Muslim countries, it expelled Israel’s embassy in August and has called for an outright support for an independent Palestine. It also sided with the people and called for the end of authoritarian rule and crack down of Arab governments including Syria, a country with which Turkey shares the longest border.

For the US, Turkey’s growing sway is a desirable counterweight to the rise of Iran’s leverage in countries such as Iraq, where American troops are preparing to withdraw by the year’s end.

While the decline of the military’s power means more civilian control, many Turks worry that the country may suffer a lack of checks and balances under one-party rule and Erdogan’s creeping authoritarianism.

“We have to worry about that as well,” said Zafer Yörük, a political scientist at Izmir Economy University in Turkey. “Although the generals don’t have as much power as they used to, all the power now goes into the hands of prime minister and the government.”

In his tour to Egypt, Erdogan made a statement that answered critics who level harsher criticism than Yörük, accusing the premier of seeking a religious state closer to Iran than a democracy akin to the US and Europe.

“The Turkish state is in its core a state of freedoms and secularism,” Erdogan said on Egyptian television, as quoted by the Times. “The world is changing to a system where the will of the people will rule. Why should the Europeans and Americans be the only ones that live with dignity? Aren’t Egyptians and Somalians also entitled to a life of dignity?

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Iran's War on Iraq Border

By NAMO ABDULLA



SWUNE, Iraq— Now in Istanbul heading to New York City on Monday to start my master’s at the University of Columbia School of Journalism.

But last week, I was on my final assignment for Reuters in Iraq. I went to Swune, a village on the Iraq-Iran border that was deserted by Iran’s artillery shelling in pursuit of the Kurdish rebels in the Qandil Mountains, a range that separates northern Iraq from Iran.

It was a very strange moment when I, along with a villager and a taxi driver were at the sites which had been bombed by Iran a few hours before. The villager had reasons to fear as he had just escaped a rocket by 10 meters two days before. Chilly ideas crossed my mind too: if the Iranian soldier triggers a rocket to the same target, I would not make it to study at Columbia, my longtime dream.

But lucky was I and I believe in such situations a journalist would only have to hope that nothing bad happens.



Iranian shelling in clashes with Party for Free Life of Kurdistan (PJAK) guerrillas on the border with Iraq's northern region has killed two civilians and forced hundreds to flee their homes, local officials and aid agencies said on Monday.

In Swune, Iran’s bombs hit through roofs of villager’s houses, burnt farms, and even hit the primary school destroying parts of its wall and windows.



Fleeing residents had settled in makeshift tents along the roadway near their abandoned villages near the Iranian border, leaving behind farmland, livestock and homes.

The International Committee of the Red Cross said on Monday it was providing assistance to more than 800 displaced people in northern Iraq, all driven from their homes by the recent shelling in the mountains of Qandil.



Local Iraqi Kurdish officials have blamed Iranian bombardments for the displacements.

Ali Muhammad Ibrahim, general manager of local Sidakan Hospital, said two civilians had been killed by shelling.

Fleeing residents had settled in makeshift tents along the roadway near their abandoned villages near the Iranian border, leaving behind farmland, livestock and homes.



"There were bombs inside the village. It could happen any time. Sometimes the bombardments were at 3 a.m., sometimes in the dawn and sometimes in the evening," said Muhammad Abdullah, 26, who escaped the village of Swune near the Iranian border.

The Geneva-based International Organisation for Migration said it had also supplied a temporary clinic and relief supplies to the displaced on the border region.

Iran said on Friday a commander of Iran's Revolutionary Guards was killed in an explosion during clashes with Kurdish rebels in northwestern Iran. In April, Iran reported four Iranian border guards were killed by a grenade attack.



PJAK, which has has bases in the mountains where the borders of Iran, Iraq and Turkey meet, is branded a terrorist organization by both Tehran and Washington.

Iran has pledged to step up military action against the group, which is seeking greater autonomy for Kurdish areas in the country.

But the group says that it refrains from killing civilians and is engaged in a liberation struggle for ethnic Kurds in the northwest of Iran.

But the people here are complaining against both the Iraqi and Kurdish governments for what they see as the lack of response to the border crisis that breaches of Iraq’s sovereignty in the presence of US troops.

Abdullah’s wife, Sazgar, is 9 months pregnant. She said her doctor has advised her to stay in healthy environments not in a dusty tent like where she struggles now.

“The environment has been highly polluted. Animals and humans live and sleep together. It’s so hot here. Some people have started vomiting,” said Dr. Jafar Magdid who provides first aid to the patients there.

While expressing sorrow over the life he left behind at home, Abdullah Hammed, 58, is worried that there might be bigger humanitarian consequences if Iran’s bombardment lasts longer.

“Living for one hour in your village is better than living for three years in such a place,” said Hammed. “I have a pool, farm, and fruit trees. But here I have nothing and must buy everything. How can I buy it, I am not a rich man.”

Friday, July 22, 2011

From The Mountains They Fight For A Different World

Slideshow created by Namo Abdulla.

By NAMO ABDULLA
QANDIL, Iraq--PJAK is an armed group of largely young men and women guerrillas. They control thousands of acres up in the stony mountains of northern Iraq. PJAK is an acronym for the Party for Free Life of Kurdistan. It has taken up arms to establish an autonomous zone for ethnic Kurds in northwest Iran.

Here in the no-man’s zone, PJAK fighters have a distinctive social life from elsewhere in Iraq and even the world. They have banned themselves from marriage and sex to win a struggle whose enemies are much more than its friends.

The rebels are estimated to be several thousand fighters designated as a terrorist organization by both the United States and Iran.

In the last couple of weeks, the fight between Iran and PJAK has been so intense in which the rebels claim to have killed more than a hundred Iran Revolutionary Guard soldiers. Iran rejects this figure claiming that it has dealt a big blow to the group by dismantling three of their hideouts.


This is me interviewing two PJAK guerrillas.

A more neutral source from the Iraqi Kurdish government gave me an off-the-record figure on Wednesday: 50 Iranians and at least 10 PJAK fighters have been killed.

PJAK fighters follow a philosophy written by Abdullah Ocalan, imprisoned leader of the PKK—the Kurdistan Workers’ Party—that has been in a bloody conflict with the Turkish government for more than 27 years to establish a Kurdish homeland in Turkey.

More than a week ago, just a couple of days after Iran resumed its attacks on the guerrillas, I visited one of their hideouts in Qandil Mountains. It was not an easy visit because we had to drive on a long unpaved road to bypass checkpoints setup by the Kurdistan Regional Government, which under pressure from Iran and Turkey has limited visits to those areas.

More details on the daily life of the fighters and the group’s ideology are explained in the slideshow provide above.

To read another blog on PKK guerrillas, click here:

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Kurdish nationalism rises with Arab unrest, Sudan split

* Region sees inspiration from secession of South Sudan

* Kurds have oil riches, some autonomy in northern Iraq

By NAMO ABDULLA -- Reuters



ARBIL, Iraq, July 20 - On the day the newest African nation, South Sudan, was born, Iraqi Kurdish leader Barham Salih used his iPad to tweet his feelings to the world: "Watching history in (the) making as South Sudan goes independent."

"Moral of story, right to self-determination cannot be denied by genocide."

With the emergence of a new nation in Africa and uprisings against autocracies across the Arab world, Kurds in Iraq's semi-autonomous north are speaking in louder voices about the possibility of increasing autonomy if, as some Kurds fear, Iraq's central government becomes more authoritarian.

In parts of Turkey, Syria and Iran, Kurds are also seeing new possibilities of freedom beyond governments who have historically repressed their Kurdish minorities.

"There is a lot of inspiration from southern Sudan," said Salih, prime minister of Iraqi Kurdistan, where Kurdish flags and colours -- red, white and green -- are far more common than the red, white and black of Iraq.

"But more important is the deep concern that most of us feel about the direction of the politics of Baghdad as it goes towards centralisation and authoritarianism."

Iraq's central government and the Kurdish region -- three of Iraq's 18 provinces -- have unresolved issues over borders and oil rights. Iraqi Kurdistan has 45 billion barrels of crude reserves.

With a population of about 30 million, largely living in Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey, Kurds are an ethnic group whose culture and language separate them from Arabs, Turks and Persians, with whom they share land.

Largely Muslim, they have been subject to repression by other Muslims who see them as separatists.

After the first Gulf War in 1991 Western powers provided a safe haven for Iraq's Kurds, allowing them to use their natural resources to start building a modern state.

Notions of Kurdish nationalism were reinforced by the 2003 invasion that toppled dictator Saddam Hussein as much of Iraq tumbled into sectarian warfare that threatened its survival as a single state.

IN ASCENDANCE?

"For the first time in their modern history, the Kurds in Iraq and Turkey, at least, are cautiously ascending," said author Michael Gunter, who has written on the evolution of Kurds in the two countries.

He said Turkey's desire to join the European Union has forced Turkey to improve Kurdish lives in the southeast. Kurdish music is heard in Turkish cities such as Diyarbakir, and a Kurdish-language TV channel broadcasts round-the-clock.

After 27 years of conflict between Turkey and Kurdish rebels, both Kurds and Turks appear to prefer more peaceful solutions to end the hostility.

Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan has acknowledged the existence of a Kurdish problem, long denied as a "security issue", and promised to solve it. In June elections, Kurds won 36 parliament seats, almost double their previous total.

From the streets of Syria's Qamishli, where Kurdish protesters call for freedom, to the Citadel in Arbil, where a Kurdish flag waves over Iraq's biggest boomtown, many Kurds see a promising future for pan-Kurdish nationalism.

"There is no such a thing as half-revolution," said Khalid Ali, a Syrian Kurdish activist in Arbil.

"Syrians have decided it. The toppling of Bashar al-Assad is just matter of time," he said, referring to the Syrian leader who has cracked down on pro-democracy protests. Syria blames armed groups linked to Islamists for stirring violence.

Exiled Syrian activists living in Iraqi Kurdistan are using social media tools such as Facebook, and collect donated money to support protesters at home.

"If this regime falls, it would be better for the Kurds. They will be free to work in their own regions," said Mahmoud Ya'aqub, 34, who administers Facebook groups in Arbil.

David Romano, a Middle East politics professor at Missouri State University, says the success of the Syrian revolution would have profound impact on other countries, including Iran.

"Iran will be more isolated if Syria falls," said Romano, the author of The Kurdish Nationalist Movement.

From a hideout high in the Qandil Mountains, Amir Karimi, a senior anti-Iran rebel leader, espouses a more radical vision.

"If Syria falls, Iran would be the next target," he said. "Turkey would be left with two choices: Either to wipe out the Kurds completely ... or surrender to reality." (Editing by Jim Loney and Elizabeth Piper)

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Peacock Worshipers

By NAMO ABDULLA


Earlier this week, I paid one of my most interesting visits to Shaikhan, a northern Iraqi town boasting one of the oldest and most distinctive religions of the world. That is the Yazidi religion.

It was a 3-hour drive going from Erbil, the capital of the oil-rich semi-autonomous Kurdistan region. After passing by a few newly discovered oil fields, I arrived at the gate that takes me to Lalish, Yazidi’s holiest place where I saw hundreds of flames. But this time they are not oil flames.

Lalish is the sole and non-duplicable shrine which Yazidis from around the world visit. It is a resemblance to Islam’s Makkah in Saudi Arabia where Muslims go on pilgrimage every year.

The security gate was created to ward off attacks from Islamic extremists who see Yazidis as “infidels” or “Satan worshipers.” Yazidis worship peacock, a bird that they see as a representation to their God or Angele.

But the security man opened the gate for me without checking. It’s perhaps due to the fact the place is under the control of Kurdistan, a region praised for its safety and religious tolerance.

In September 2007, followers of this tiny religious group living in other parts of Iraq came under most bloody attack since the US-led invasion in 2003. That attack for which Al Qaeda claimed responsibility took more than 400 lives.

However, Yazidis say their religion is much older than Islam dating back to before Prophet Abraham. They say it currently has 500,000 followers in Iraq. Yazidis exist in Europe too particularly Germany. Most of them have fled the country inthe past few years.

Yazidi religion is, indeed, distinctive from most other religions especially Islam and Christianity. As an essential difference, Yazidis don’t have missionaries as they refuse to accept anybody else converting into their religion. Yazidis should be born as Yazidis, a difference that has far reaching social consequences such as refusing to allow inter-religious marriages.

On the other hand, just like how it’s in Islam, a Yazidi can’t switch their religion to another religion; doing so would lead to the converted person be damned, if not killed.

When it comes to praying, Yazidis practice prayer three times a day: At sunrise, at sunset and at night (before going to sleep).

Each time before they pray, they set more than 300 fires in wall holes, as a sign to the fact that Yazidis have a special respect to fire. Yazidi is said to have been the religion for all Kurds before Islam conquered the area.

Like Yazidis, Kurds, who are now overwhelmingly Sunni Muslims, have special respect to fire. On March 20, Kurdish New Year’s Eve, Kurds set big fires on high places such as citadels and mountains to celebrate Nawroz.

One interesting thing that I realized while I was at Lalish was that everybody I met there was barefoot. However, I was allowed to be wearing my shoes except when going to the actual temple, which includes an old stone-made house and a water cave.

Fresh and drinkable water stemming from the mountains flows through the cave 24/7.

In addition to praying, Yazidis are a strong believer of fortune telling. Inside the temple, men and women throw a piece of cloth onto a smooth stone placed high on the shrine’s wall. Everybody can only throw the cloth three times; the lucky person is the one whose piece stays on the stone at least once,

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Mobile technology, broadband flourish in Iraq Kurdish zone

By NAMO ABDULLA - Reuters

ARBIL, Iraq (Reuters) - Like many young people hungry for change in the Middle East, 21-year-old student Meran Mubarak is embracing social media as fast as telecommunications advances allow in his Iraqi Kurdistan homeland.

He is lucky to live in Iraq's Kurdish zone, the prosperous northern territory whose semi-autonomous status and relative stability in the war-battered nation has allowed 3G mobile technology and faster Internet services to flourish far beyond what most Iraqis can expect.

"I am connected to Facebook and Twitter almost 24/7," said Mubarak, using the latest version of Apple's iPhone on the network of local provider Korek Telecom.

While the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein opened up the mobile phone industry and Internet access in Iraq, communication lines outside the Kurdish zone are still patchy.

But the Kurdish region was freed from Saddam's grip over a decade before 2003, and manages its own telecoms sector.

It has enjoyed virtual independence under Western protection since the end of the first Gulf War in 1991, attracting foreign investors as a relatively safe haven compared to the rest of Iraq, where gun and bomb attacks and assassinations occur daily.

The Kurdish telecoms industry, along with other investment sectors including oil, has boomed and avoided problems like military jamming as it has largely been spared the sectarian violence and insurgency that has afflicted the rest of Iraq.

Outside Kurdistan, poor data services and jamming of mobile phone frequencies by the military to prevent insurgents from detonating bombs remain a common complaint among Iraqis.

"The situation of telecommunications is very good in Kurdistan," said Hameed Akrawi, vice president of Korek Telecom, a mobile phone firm established in Arbil in 2001.

"We have more experience than the rest of Iraq, because we had freedom (earlier)."

FAST CONNECTIONS

In the Iraqi Kurdish city of Arbil, which boasts smart shopping malls and Western-style coffee shops, citizens and visitors are able to use Mobitel's 3G mobile phones and connect to the Internet using Wi-Fi.

Mobile phones were first introduced to the Kurdish region in 1999 when AsiaCell was established as the first phone company in Sulaimaniya. It has a customer base of 8.5 million users throughout Iraq.

Korek, owned by a nephew of Kurdistan president Masoud Barzani, leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), was established in 2001 in the region and has 3 million customers, while Kuwait's Zain started operations in the zone last October.

All three firms secured $1.25 billion licenses each to operate in Iraq in 2007.

However, as in the rest of Iraq, companies operating in the Kurdish region also complain about a monopoly over fiber optic cables.

Allai Newroz Telecom, which introduced a fiber optic network to the Kurdish area in 2009, has a four-year renewable contract with the Kurdistan Regional Government and provides services in Arbil, Sulaimaniya and Dahuk.

Its network has become so overloaded that each separate neighborhood coverage hub, catering in theory for 1,500 customers was often crowded with around 6,000 users, said Fateh Esmael, public relations director for Allai Newroz Telecom.

Telecoms companies say a lack of cooperation between Iraq's telecoms regulator, the Communications and Media Commission (CMC) and the Kurdish authorities is also hampering their work.

"The lack of fast broadband Internet has hindered Iraq's economic progress," said Diar Ahmed, chief executive of AsiaCell.

"CMC has no say here (in Kurdistan) ... There is chaos in the telecoms field in Iraq," he added.

But even though Internet download times are much faster in the Kurdish zone than in the rest of Iraq, they are still not speedy enough for tech-hungry young people like Mubarak.

"The Internet doesn't download fast enough. But I can still open e-mails and use Facebook," the university student said.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Military presence halts protests in Iraq's Kurdistan

By NAMO ABDULLA- Reuters

SULAIMANIYA, Iraq- The deployment of thousands of heavily armed troops in Iraq's Kurdish city of Sulaimaniya appears to have quelled, for the moment, two months of protests against corruption and authoritarian rule.

The protests in the semi-autonomous northern Kurdish region were the largest and most sustained of rallies across Iraq, which followed uprisings around the Middle East. Thousands protested every day for weeks, demanding the removal of their government.

"They failed 100 percent," said Jamal Anwar, commander of a military unit deployed in Sulaimaniya's main square, where protesters had gathered daily since February. "They thought they could topple the government. Their agendas have all failed."

"It was not a demonstration staged by the people. It was staged by opposition parties. We don't allow that," he added.

At least 10 people, including two members of the peshmerga security forces, have died in the protests, and hundreds have been wounded.

Rights organization Amnesty International criticized the Kurdish and Iraqi governments for using excessive force against protesters.

Kurdistan has often been referred to as "the other Iraq" because it was spared much of the violence and sectarian strife that ravaged the rest of the country after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that toppled dictator Saddam Hussein.

OIL INCOME

The Sulaimaniya protesters had persisted until this week in their demands that the two long-time ruling parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), led by the Kurdish president Masoud Barzani, and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), led by Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, loosen their grip.

The region, funded by 17 percent of Iraq's oil income, has seen an economic boom in the past eight years but Kurds complain that Barzani and Talabani, like other Middle East leaders, failed to use oil riches to build a vibrant economy and democracy.

This week, Sulaimaniya's Liberation Square, where protesters had camped out for weeks chanting "freedom, freedom, freedom," was a military zone watched over by hundreds of armed forces.

The ruling parties have said the demise of the protests represented a success over "trouble-makers" staging "politically motivated" demonstrations.

"What the authorities did here was beyond expectations," said Asos Hardi, manager of Awene, one of the few Kurdish newspapers not tied to the political parties. "Thousands ... of troops were brought in to suppress civilian protesters, who are students, artists and professors.

"I did not even see as many troops present in 1983 and 1984 while we demonstrated against Saddam," Hardi said.

Nasik Qadir, a protest organizer, accused the Kurdish security forces of hunting, arresting and torturing protesters.

"We can't live under such autocratic rule," Qadir said in a telephone interview. She refused to meet with a reporter out of concern for her safety.

"If we have done anything wrong, let them tell us and we will go before the courts. They don't have to chase us and raid our houses. This looks like mafia behavior."

Since February 17, security forces harassed, arrested, wounded or tortured more than 200 journalists, said Rahman Gharib, manager of the Metro Center To Protect Journalists.

Payam TV in Sulaimaniya, a channel belonging to an Islamic opposition party that offered extensive coverage of the rallies, has been surrounded by soldiers for eight days. On Wednesday, more than 300 people were living in makeshift tents as a "human shield" in front of the TV station.

"It's the only Islamic channel which tells the truth," said Basoz Ali, 27, who carried a 7-month-old child. "We don't love our lives more than the employees of the channel. If they kill them, let them kill us too."

Hardi said the government's use of military force might maintain the status quo longer, but it would be temporary.

"Losing a battle does not mean losing the war," he said. "Any new revolutionary success in Yemen or Syria could trigger an even bigger protest in Kurdistan."

Monday, April 4, 2011

Protesters demand resignation of Kurdish government

By NAMO ABDULLA - Reuters

ARBIL, Iraq-- Thousands of protesters in Iraq's semi-autonomous Kurdistan region called on Monday for the immediate resignation of the entire regional government, saying it had failed to provide democracy and justice.

The Kurdish zone, dominated for decades by two political parties, has seen continuous protests for more than a month against corruption and a lack of freedom, inspired by uprisings throughout the Middle East.

Protesters have camped out since February in the main square of Sulaimaniya -- the second-largest city in the Kurdish region -- to press for change.

"Because of social injustice, the waste of the region's resources and the lack of law enforcement, we have decided to no longer accept living under a system of governance which is unjust and undemocratic," the protesters said in a statement.

The statement, which was issued by the Interim Council of Liberation Square, a body organizing and representing the Sulaimaniya protesters, called on the Kurdish president, prime minister and cabinet to resign and demanded parliament be dissolved.

Vahal Ali, a spokesperson for Kurdistan President Masoud Barzani, dismissed the demands.

"We have not come to power through a coup d'etat," Ali said. "The president was elected. Ballot boxes are the only way to achieve any changes."

"When it comes to other issues such as fighting corruption, fighting nepotism, they are being addressed as we speak," he said.

Barzani announced plans last month to shake up the regional government and enact reforms, but demonstrators have said these fall short of their demands.

Throughout Iraq, citizens emboldened by protests elsewhere in the Middle East have been protesting for weeks against corruption and a lack of basic services, although rallies outside of the Kurdish area have subsided somewhat since at least 10 people died in a day of violent protests in February.

At least nine people have died in the demonstrations in Iraqi Kurdistan, including two members of the "peshmerga", the two ruling parties' former guerrilla armies which are now the region's official security forces.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Protests revolutionise political culture of Iraq Kurds

By NAMO ABDULLA -Reuters


Iraqi Kurds protesters take part in a demonstration in Sulaimaniya, 260 km (160 miles) northeast of Baghdad, March 11, 2011.Photo by Reuters.


SULAIMANIYA, Iraq- Protests sweeping North Africa and the Middle East have transformed Iraq's Kurdish region, where an angry public is awakening to political life beyond the authoritarian leaders once seen as heroic liberators.

In other parts of Iraq, protests inspired by the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia have tapered off over the past month.

In Kurdistan, where two political parties have jointly dominated public life for two decades, demonstrators have remained steadfast, camping out for more than a month in a square in the region's second-largest city, Sulaimaniya.

At least nine people have died, including two members of the "Peshmerga", the two ruling parties' former guerrilla armies which are now the region's official security forces.

Many Kurds say it is the first time they have been able to envisage a Kurdistan that does not revolve around the parties, whose epic struggle against dictator Saddam Hussein dominated Kurdish culture as much as their patronage dominated politics.

"What is happening now in Kurdistan is a radical change in the Kurdish political landscape," said Bachtyar Ali, whose 1992 poetry collection "Sin and the Carnival" and magical realist novels marked a Kurdish cultural renaissance that flowered after the region broke free of Saddam's grip in 1991.

"We are abandoning the classic form of 20th century governance which indoctrinated us with the notions that ideologies, parties and the president were all sacred," he told Reuters. "We will certainly never return to pre-February 17th Kurdistan," he added, referring to the first day of protests.

BOOM NOT SHARED

President Massoud Barzani's KDP party and its sometime rivals, the PUK of Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, have been revered as founding national liberation movements since the U.S.-led Gulf War against Saddam in 1991, when their fighters secured de facto independence shielded by a Western no-fly zone.

It was the first time the Kurdish people -- who have also fought for autonomy in Turkey, Iran and Syria -- had ever secured control of the apparatus of a modern state.

The two parties' rival Peshmerga units fought each other in a civil war in the 1990s, but since Saddam was toppled in 2003 they have held to a deal dividing power between them.

The region has flourished as the only part of Iraq spared the ethnic and sectarian war of the last eight years. Sulaimaniya and regional capital Arbil have seen building booms.

Baghdad gives the Kurdish regional government near-total autonomy and 17 percent of Iraq's oil wealth, an annual budget of about $11 billion for a region of some 4.5 million people.

Foreign investors have arrived en masse, including more than 40 oil companies negotiating deals with the Kurdish authorities, even though rules have yet to be set for how to share export revenues from Kurdish oil with Baghdad.

But many Kurds complain that they have seen little of the new wealth. Far too much power has been concentrated in the hands of the parties, and their duopoly has allowed corruption to run rampant and dissent to be stifled, protesters say.

Sulaimaniya's protesters have been chanting "down, down, down with the authorities," echoing slogans heard across North Africa and the Middle East this year.

Protests have been more tense and bloodier in less-developed towns such as Chamchamal, Kalar and Halabja -- notorious site of a poison gas attack by Saddam's forces in 1988. At times they have taken on the character of a class struggle, with poor protesters demanding clean water, electricity and jobs.

Foreign investors complain too. Khalil Shocair, general manager of Green House, a Jordanian firm which has provided 70 percent of Sulaimaniyah's greenhouses since 2003, said business deals require the blessing of one of the ruling parties.

"If you don't have the support of a political party here, you will never win," he said. "You will not get a work visa, for example."

Barzani has issued dire warnings to protesters about the perils of trying to overthrow the authorities from the streets, but, like other Middle East leaders caught in the tide of public anger, he has also acknowledged the validity of the discontent.

"Your demonstrations are a legitimate act... Meeting your demands is my obligation and the government's," he said in a speech this week promising "radical reforms" within four months.

Shukriya Mohammed Kareem, a 53-year-old housewife, said the government was not using its wealth to look after the poor.

"My husband is 31 years retired. But I only get 200,000 Iraqi dinars ($170) a month. I have a son and six daughters. I have come here just to say I don't want this government," she said at protests this week in Sulaimaniya.

"What's the good of a government which does nothing for you and just fills its officials pockets up with money?"

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Biggest Rally Yet Held Against Iraq's Kurd Leaders

By NAMO ABDULLA -- Reuters

SULAIMANIYA, Iraq, March 20 - Thousands took to the streets on Sunday in the biggest protest yet against the government of Iraq's semi-autonomous northern Kurdish area, inspired by uprisings across the Middle East.

Protesters say the regional government, funded by a share of Iraq's oil wealth, has become corrupt and undemocratic.

Demonstrators have camped out since last month in the main square of Sulaimaniya, the second largest city in the Kurdish zone, calling for the ouster of the regional government.

Iraq's Kurdish zone enjoys near total autonomy and has been dominated for decades by two political parties whose former guerrilla militias are now the regional security forces.

Thousands of people packed the square on Sunday to celebrate the traditional Kurdish and Persian new year festival of Newroz.

The celebration turned into a protest rally, with crowds waving Kurdish flags and chanting slogans calling for reform and an end to corruption. A giant traditional bonfire burned in the square. Parents held children up to get a better view.

"We are gathering in thousands today to celebrate the festival of Newroz and to stress that we still ask for our demands of reforms to be answered," said Nasik Qadir, spokeswoman for protesters in Sulaimaniya. "We are here to say that our demands have still not been met."

Iraqis, inspired by uprisings elsewhere in the region, have been protesting for weeks against corruption and a lack of basic services, although rallies outside of the Kurdish area have subsided somewhat since at least 10 people died in a day of violent protests last month.

In Sulaimaniya, where protests have been an almost daily event, mass anger has been directed at the regional government, dominated by regional President Massoud Barzani's KDP party and the PUK party of Iraq's national President Jalal Talabani and Kurdish regional Prime Minister Barham Saleh.

"I always come here. My voice is with the voice of all the young people here," said 28-year-old housewife Shiraz Mahmoud, who was dressed in traditional attire for Newroz and protesting in Sulaimaniya's central square.

"My father is a PUK martyr, but I believe the PUK is all corrupt. It has done nothing, it's a facade. I don't want the prime minister, I don't want the president," she said.

Sunday's protests in Sulaimaniya, although the largest so far, were peaceful with a minimal security presence, contrasting with last month when protesters trying to storm the KDP's headquarters clashed with security forces.

(Additional reporting by Shamal Aqrawi in Arbil)

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Chomsky On The Prospect of Kurdish Independence

By NAMO ABDULLA - Rudaw


Noam Chomsky, one of the world’s most influential thinkers. --------Photo/IOA.


Noam Chomsky, one of the world’s most influential and sought-after thinkers, recently agreed to an interview with Rudaw English’s editor-in-chief, Namo Abdulla, on the longstanding Kurdish question in the Middle East and the prospect of an independent Kurdish state in the north of Iraq. Abdulla here introduces Chomsky and discusses the significance of the man and his work:

Five months ago, I sent Noam Chomsky an email asking if he was interested in giving an interview on the Kurdish question in Iraq and Turkey. Chomsky’s reply indicated that the 84-year-old American philosopher and political activist was still closely following the Kurdish issue.

“Just back from Istanbul, a conference on freedom of speech, concentrating mostly on the Kurds,” he wrote. “I wish I could manage another interview. I'm afraid I've had to turn down all requests until at least January. Just not a moment free before that, hard as it may be to believe.”

Chomsky’s first interest in the Kurdish issue perhaps dates back to 1975, when he joined a group of some of the world’s most renowned thinkers in signing an open letter to the international community entitled “Plight of the Kurds,” which strongly condemned the Iraqi government’s atrocities against the Kurds and called for the Kurd’s right to self-determination.

Although I have often read Chomsky’s political writings with great interest, it has always been a difficult task for me to try and say who Chomsky is. Actually, I don’t think anybody could do that in a few lines, or even a few paragraphs. Although he is perhaps beyond conventional description, Chomsky has been described as a thinker, linguist, philosopher, anarchist, anti-American, anti-West activist, and a supporter of the oppressed. “Judged in terms of the power, range, novelty and influence of his thought,” wrote the New York Times, “Noam Chomsky is arguably the most important intellectual alive today.” He has written over 150 books and hundreds of articles.

The following interview was conducted by phone on February 15th, with Chomsky speaking from Boston, United States, where he now lives:


NAMO ABDULLA: In my last interview with you, we focused on the Kurdish question in Iraq, but this time, I want to be broader and talk to you about Iraqi as well as Turkish Kurds. Given all the changes we are seeing in the Middle East, and what happened in Egypt and Tunisia, I am interested in having your thoughts on the Kurdish situation in general, especially in Turkey and Iraq?

NOAM CHOMSKY: Well, it is not just Turkey and Iraq. It is also Syria, Iran, parts of Russia. Kurds, you know -- I don't have to tell you -- are the largest national, cultural group that has never been able to achieve a national territory. There are steps forward. So, for example, in northern Iraq, there is a degree of autonomy that never existed before, and also a security. There is a question of how the Kurds there will be able to exploit this opportunity to create a really decent society for themselves and a model for others.

In Turkey, where actually I just was a few weeks ago, the situation has improved. First time I was there, over 10 years ago, it was pretty awful. It was right at the end of the period of extreme violence, repression and destruction. People were afraid to use Kurdish colors and could not talk their language except in secret, and so on. So that's improved slowly. So now, there is some recognition by the government, and by a large part of the population, of the legitimacy of Kurdish identity. Kurds no longer have to be identified as “mountain Turks,” just speaking some strange dialect. So now, Kurdish is recognized to an extent. There are options for a Kurdish broadcasting of radio and television. There is a promise about teaching Kurdish in schools -- [an issue] that has not been resolved. And there are steps backward. When I was there in October, there were trials coming up of 150 Kurdish leaders, including some well-known ones, like Osman Baydemir, the mayor of Diyarbakir. [They were] non-violent activists and the charges were completely frivolous, but they were there, and I think they have been delayed. The government likely doesn't want to pursue them. In general, there are steps forward, there's some degree of progress. But, I think over time that could and should unify somehow with the Iraqi Kurds, and then there is a serious problem [about] what happens elsewhere.

Turkey has improved its government-to-government relations with Syria and with Iran, but, as far as I know, it has not affected the status of the Kurdish minorities in these countries. So there is a long distance to go, but I think there are…steps forward, and the relative autonomy in northern Iraq has given many impetuses to this, and opened up opportunities that can be pursued.

NA: As you said, there are definitely developments happening in Turkey, but, it seems that the Kurds are not happy with those developments, especially the BDP [the Peace and Democracy Party] and the PKK [Kurdistan Workers' Party].

CHOMSKY: In fact, the current trials are about organization of political party. It still has not been possible for a legitimate Kurdish political force to be recognized within the country [Turkey], and that is a struggle that is going on. But there are possibilities I think. I mean, the conference I was [at] in Istanbul just in October, was a conference of mostly Turkish journalists, artists, intellectuals, activists, and some foreigners were there, like me and others. There is a growing recognition, considerably more than in earlier years, that the suppression of Kurdish identity is illegitimate, and will have to be overcome.

It is true the Kurds have a lot to be dissatisfied with, like the persecution of the political party and these completely frivolous trials that are coming. They may or may not happen, I don't know; they are being delayed. But still, overtime, there is progress that I think we should be encouraged by and regard it as an opportunity, as a kind of legacy that you can build on to proceed further.

NA: Do you think these developments that you mention in Turkey are a result of the fact that an Islamic party is in power, that is the Justice and Development Party [AKP], under the leadership of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan?

CHOMSKY: I mean, it's complex. You can't sort of give it a grade. But there have been some positive developments. And in general, I think the policies of the Erdogan administration have been pretty sensible, like the policy of opening toward the East and having no enemies. That is in general a sensible policy, I think, and has improved things. For example, Erdogan is now the most popular figure in the Arab world, in recent polls. If you take a look at the Egyptian uprising in the last few weeks -- a spectacular uprising in Egypt -- Erdogan is about the only political leader who has given a very strong support from the beginning. Everyone else was isolated, and that has an impact on the region.

NA: But recently, [Abdullah] Ocalan, the imprisoned leader of the PKK, called on the Kurds to just do what the Egyptians did to get rid of Hosni Mubarak, their president. He said the Kurds could only be free if they pour on to the streets and call for their rights in the Kurdish cities, like Diyarbakir. Is that a reasonable thing?

CHOMSKY: They should call for their rights, but you have to have goals. In the case of Egypt for example, there was a very narrow but explicit goal: get rid of Mubarak. Then there was a broader goal: get rid of the ruling elite. They are just now beginning to formulate broader goals. In fact, just yesterday, or a few days ago, I think for the first time, the coalition of human rights and activist groups [in Egypt] came out with a longer-term program for civil and political rights that they want to see achieved. That is actually the first time that was done since January 25th. That makes sense and they have got to do. It is going to be a struggle to achieve those rights. There's plenty of established power that is not going to give it up easily. But what they are doing in Egypt is kind of an inspiring model, but you can't duplicate it elsewhere. So for example, what is happening in Tunisia is not identical to what is happening in Egypt. They have different circumstances and different problems. The same is true with the Kurds. They have to consider carefully what the circumstances are they are facing, and ask, what are the right tactics in these circumstances? I mean that is an old problem. It goes back to the origins of the revolutionary or even reformist movements in the nineteenth century, and think of, say, what Marx wrote about revolutions. Karl Marx was in favor of socialist and communist-socialist revolutions, but he had a pretty nuanced view about it. For example, he said that, in England, where there was more or less a functioning parliamentary system, he believed that it would be possible for the workers to gain their rights, including control over production, industry establishment, the socialist state and society, through parliamentary measures. There are now other places that would take popular revolutions. He may have been right, or he may have been wrong, but his general attitude was correct: you have to adjust tactics to existing circumstances and situations. There is no mechanical rule as to what the right tactics are.

NA: But as far as I know, sir, you are an anarchist and a great supporter of civil disobedience. Don't you think it's time for the Kurds in Turkey -- whose political parties are still banned, and they still can't study in Kurdish in schools -- to just do what the Egyptians did to have a more democratic state?

CHOMSKY: Take civil disobedience: I have often participated in it and been in jail or faced long jail sentences, but it is a tactic; it's not a principle. You do it when you think it is going to be effective. Civil disobedience's main goal typically is to try to arouse and inspire others to join and do something. Well, sometimes that is a good tactic, sometimes not. As for the Kurds, the Kurds cannot demonstrate on the streets of Diyarbakir and say get rid of the president. That is not a sensible tactic. But it was a sensible tactic in Egypt, in Cairo. But it is not a sensible tactic in Diyarbakir, because the circumstances are different. And, remember that the Egyptian protest -- while quite spectacular and [it showed] courage and dedication -- right up until the present has had a pretty narrow goal: Mubarak must leave. That was the goal and there is no comparable goal for the Kurds in Turkey, northern Iraq, or Syria -- or anywhere else. I mean the goals are broader. Again, a much broader range of civil rights, and you have to ask yourself what tactic would be useful for that: would civil disobedience be helpful or are there better ways? That is a delicate problem. I would not even try to give any advice from the outside. It needs careful evaluation of the circumstances and the likely consequences.

NA: Talking about Iraqi Kurds here: as you said, there has been a lot of economic prosperity, and massive oil reserves have been discovered here in Iraqi Kurdistan, and it is much safer than the rest of Iraq. You know, many Iraqi Kurds, especially in the Kurdistan region itself, are now saying that is time for them to secede from Iraq, a country that is still war-torn and volatile. They say it is the best time -- after what happened in the broader Middle East -- for them to breakaway from Iraq. What do you make of that?

CHOMSKY: I think there are a lot of questions to think about seriously. For one thing, Arab Iraq will of course be strongly opposed. Turkey would probably be opposed. Iran will certainly be opposed. The end result could be that a move for an independent Kurdistan in northern Iraq, even if it could be implemented, which is very questionable, could lead to a country with no access to the outside world. That would be devastating. So if any moves in that direction are going to be taken, you have to think carefully about the relations with the neighboring regions and neighboring states. You can't move towards that without bringing those questions into consideration. Now maybe, on balance, when these things are thought through, it will appear to be a good thing to do, but you can't just say let's do it, it's the right thing. It could lead, for example, to a major military conflict, which could be devastating. Look how hard it is just to try to settle the issue of Kirkuk.

NA: As you said, there is the issue of Kirkuk and the other areas that are disputed between the Arabs in the south and center of Iraq and the Kurds in the north. But, many people believe that remaining part of Iraq will be more dangerous for the Kurds, if the Iraqi central government, dominated by the Arabs, becomes stronger. They believe the sooner they “get rid of” the rest of Iraq, the better it will be for them, and they think the possible closing of borders by neighboring countries will not be something long-term.

CHOMSKY: Well, I wouldn't be so sure that, even in the long-term, Turkey would be pleased to have an independent Kurdistan next door, just because of its impact on southeastern Turkey. So it could be a serious long-term problem. However that's the kind of thing you have to think through. Look, I just returned form Taiwan and China a couple of months ago. In Taiwan, there is a very extensive and serious discussion about how they should deal with relations with China. China, of course, regards Taiwan as part of China. They don't consider it a separate area. If the Taiwanese were free to make an independent choice, most of them would probably choose independence. On the other hand, there are consequences to your actions. You have to ask yourself, well, what are the best means to achieving your basic goals. And, I think a rather general feeling is --probably sensibly -- that the best method there is to just not do anything at all dramatic, let events take their course, [and] overtime there will be more cultural contacts, commercial contacts, and people flowing up and back. There will be some kind of integration…maybe some kind of a federal structure. Well, ok, they have to wait to see how things work out. And, it is different in other places, I mean, it is different in the Palestinian occupied territories, for example. In fact, anywhere you look, you find problems like this. Kashmir has its own problems, very serious ones. Kashmir, as the most militarized part of the world, has a very serious problem. But they can't just say, well, what they did in Egypt, we will do the same thing. You can't mechanically carry over the lessons of one partial success into another dilemma. You have to think through the consequences of any actions that you undertake, in the circumstances which you live, and they differ in different places.

NA: Talking about the issue of Kirkuk and other disputed regions, some people here believe that as soon as the American forces are withdrawn from Iraq, there could be an Arab-Kurd war over those issues. How possible is that?

CHOMSKY: You know better than I do. I don't think anyone really knows. For another thing, I don't really think that it's very likely that the American forces will be completely withdrawn. It doesn't look like it, but it is a hard problem. I have not seen a sensible proposal about Kirkuk. I am not in a position to make any sensible prediction about it.

NA: In our previous interview, by email, you made a great comment: that the Americans “did not invade Iraq in order to withdraw.” Do you now think they are going to completely withdraw from Iraq and leave the country like this?

CHOMSKY: Well, we don't know. There is a commitment to withdraw, but there is a long distance between commitments and actions. So for example, take the status of the military bases that the US has been building throughout Iraq. Well, there is very little information about them, but, as far as anyone can determine, they are still being built. What is called the “embassy” in Baghdad is a city, basically, within a city. There is no embassy like it in the world, and it has not been built in order to be abandoned. It's actually increasing in size under Obama. So I think the Americans are just feeling their way to see how much control they can maintain -- how much of a position they can maintain within Iraq. It is worth remembering that the Iraqi invasion was a serious defeat for the United States. The United States had pretty definite war aims. They weren't stated clearly in the beginning -- because, you know, it's not nice to state them -- but, as the US had to back down step by step and abandon its aims, they were finally stated quite clearly. So by 2007 and 2008, the Bush administration came out with official pronouncements about what it intended and what its minimum objectives were. They included, stated in January 2008, an agreement which would allow the US to have a major military base in Iraq to be able to carry out combative operations in Iraq, and to have arrangements with the Iraqi government that would privilege US corporations in oil exploration. That was January 2008. Within a few months, Washington had to abandon those aims in the face of Iraqi nationalist resistance. In fact, if anyone was the victor of the Iraq war, it was probably Iran.

NA: Some people believe that it will be very strategic for the Americans to build a military base here in the north of Iraq, given the fact that there is Iran on one side and Syria on the other. Would that be strategic?

CHOMSKY: I don't doubt that the United States would like to do that. Whether Iraqi Kurds should accommodate that, or they should permit it, is another question. In my view, they shouldn't. I don't think it's a good idea for Iraqi Kurdistan to turn into the major US military base in the region. That is a recipe for oppression, violence, constant wars and so on. I mean the US has had major military bases in eastern Turkey, and it doesn't have the same access to those as it had in the past. And they are used. I mean military bases are there for a reason; they are there for oppression, violence and repression. The best thing for the region would be to extricate itself from the grip of the imperial powers. That is pretty much what is happening in much else of the world. Take, say, South America: I mean, South America has been the US backyard for a long time. But, by now, the South American countries have excluded the US from all military bases in South America. And I think that is quite a healthy development. It's good for them and it's good for the world. NA: But certainly, the Kurds' neighbors have not been historically friendly with them, and the Iraqi Kurds view only the US and the West as their staunch allies. They don't trust Iranians; they don't trust Turks or Syria, because of historical wars.

CHOMSKY: But it is good to have a little bit of memory. Remember in the 1970s, when Kurds trusted the US to defend them against the Shah of Iran, and they sold them out. And there was a massacre. In fact, you know better than I do, the famous Kurdish statement that “Kurds have no friends but the mountains.” Well that is basically true; you cannot trust outside forces. They are looking out for themselves, not for you. There may be a temporary alliance, which will be helpful, but you cannot place your trust in outside forces. Kurds know this better than anyone else.

NA: My final question: will there ever be a state for the largest stateless nation of the world, that is the Kurds?

CHOMSKY: I think we can look forward to such a development, but it is going to have to come step by step. I think the prospects are better now than they were ten years ago, but there is a long way to go. Just think for a moment about the Ottoman Empire: I mean, nobody wants to restore the Ottoman Empire. It was brutal, harsh, corrupt, and obliviously you don't want it. But, nevertheless there were some things about the Ottoman Empire that are worth recovering. For example, during the Ottoman period, you could travel from Cairo to Baghdad to Istanbul without crossing any borders. You did not have to have a visa; it was all one region. Partly because of its corruption, the Ottoman Empire left local regions more or less to themselves. The Armenian community could run its own affairs; the Greek community could run its own affairs. They had many close interconnections -- commercial, cultural and so on -- but they had a degree of autonomy. That long-term structure is not a bad one to move towards, I think. In fact, Europe is moving towards it to an extent with recognizing regional autonomies like, say, Catalonia within a broader federal structure. I think, overall, those are pretty healthy developments. They have plenty of problems, lots of unpleasant conflicts can arise, but it makes sense to think of it as a kind of long-term vision.

NA: Finally, thank you so much for your great comments. I really appreciate them.

CHOMSKY: Good to talk to you.