Saturday began early with "Salute to Our Troops" interviews for all of us on Armed Forces Network. Then we left Badhdad on a C-130 for the one-hour flight to Irbil in the Northern Iraq region known as Kurdistan. Once again, the aircraft is terribly hot and packed with soldiers, marines, and equipment and even a country music singer (Mark Chesnutt) who is travelling to perform for the troops.
We land in Irbil where local leaders take us for a tour of the ancient Citadel, show us the weaving of utilitarian but beautiful Kurdish rugs, and welcome us with Kurdish dancers and singing children.
Irbil is a bustling, relatively prosperous city of about 750,000 people. Construction is underway everywhere with major investments by the Turks and the Lebanese.
It is much more prosperous and much more pro-America than the rest of Iraq.
You won't see an Iraqi flag here anywhere. This region suffered greatly under Saddam Hussein. Kurdistan President Barzani told us that that Hussein destroyed 4500 of 5000 Kurdish towns and villages and used poisonous gas to kill thousands of Kurds in one massacre.
Tensions between Arabs and Kurds are running high in Iraq, requiring our troops to intercede to keep the peace in recent months. The disputed cities of oil-rich Kirkuk and Mosel and the allocation of oil revenues are serious frictions between Baghdad and Irbil. The Kurds want almost complete autonomy from the central government. Even though a Kurd (Talabani) is Iraq's president, it is PM Malaki, an Arab, who controls the levers of power.
One positive development is the great improvement in the relationship between Turkey and Kurdistan that has led Turkey to invest heavily in the region.
We met at length to discuss these issues with both President Barzani and Prime Minister Barzani - his nephew. And that demonstrates a serious problem in Kurdistan: two clans, the Barzanis and the Talabanis, control much of the political power and wealth.
That has given rise to a new reform party called the Change Movement. We met with one of its leaders who said that recent elections in Kurdistan were not "free and fair" as the Barzanis claim. It's difficult to judge who is correct, but the fact that the Change Movement, as a brand new party, won 25 seats in the 111-seat Parliament seems an indication that the elections were at least relatively "free and fair."
The overall message that we received from all the Kurdish leaders was: "Please don't send a signal that the U.S. no longer cares about Iraq and wants to leave at any cost." We indicated that we want an ongoing relationship, but ultimately, the Iraqis must reconcile and take responsibility for their own security.
After the day in Kurdistan, we climb aboard a crowded C-130 once again for the flight back to Baghdad where I had the dinner with the Maine Guard members as described in my previous post.