Sunday, 26 July 2009

A view from the Hill

Voting is over, and much sooner than expected results are coming in. Varying reports have reached us but it seems as if ‘Change’ has indeed become a serious political player. In this city, now their stronghold, they have taken the lead from the incumbents. Car horns blared throughout the night and will continue to do so for some time. Throughout the rest of Kuridstan the party have come second, and this also is a great victory. Today we met some beaten and bloodied supporters who claim to have been attacked by Kurdistani forces. We have seen some stand offs between factions and we have tracked down stories of election fraud.


Kak Nashirwan, leader of ‘Change’ was also a founder of the opposing PUK. While still a member of PUK, President Talabani gifted him an imposing hill in the centre of town and $10 million. It can be seen from everywhere and on it he was supposed to build the headquarters of his large media empire. Instead he announced his split with the party, fortified the hill and began campaigning under a new manifesto - that of transparency and an end to corruption. To do so was indeed brave and there is no doubt he is a clever man to have pulled together an opposition here without arousing suspicion, and while converting high ranking colleagues.


Today we visited his 'fortress' and at the gate told them our translator’s brother was a party member (he isn’t). Having persuaded them we had an appointment we were allowed in. The road snakes up and up to the very top; lined with guards and offices it is an imposing place. The feeling inside was electric – hundreds of people were milling around, security was intense but the joy could not be contained. We succeeded in getting an interview with the party’s head of foreign relations, who coincidentally had held the same job in the PUK some years earlier. We had to force our way through the throng to reach his office.


He was delighted by the results but he also had many issues with the election. He told us that 1000 people had been ‘purged’ for switching parties and that many people had been threatened with losing their state pensions. Most worrying, he said that the PUK has moved its militia into the city and it is they who will cause any trouble that lies ahead. He also told us that voting hours had been increased to force people in, and that many people who hadn’t voted had their ballots filled in for them.


During the interview some other officials joined us. We had managed to find ourselves in a room with the ex Kurdish Prime minister and the ex interior minister. Both of them are hugely wealthy and had partly bankrolled the campaign. I asked what safeguards were in place to avoid them becoming another corrupt party, and to be honest I didn’t get a great answer, something about following the constitution. The only problem is that so many people are ex PUK with corrupt backgrounds, that there is no way of telling yet whether this movement too will falter.


I also asked about American support for the Party. I was told that while America had not said anything publicly yet they had been in regular contact and that now they had won a serious voice they would be given backing and advice. I was told also that the Prime Minister of Iraq; Al Maliki would soon be voicing his support - we will wait for that. The central government thought does not want a unified Kurdistan, neither do surrounding countries, so perhaps this is their way of splintering the region’s political power. America however does want to show democratic changes so they can pat themselves on the back and push for troop withdrawals in the South.

As we left we came across a man covered in blood and bandages. He had been in prison all night having been beaten with rifle butts for celebrating. Tonight we will eat by the café where it happened and where more demonstrations are expected.


This morning we interviewed a local head of the PUK. He was the first person in a position of power who has acknowledged to me that there are problems with his party – when pushed though he would not elaborate. Part of me thinks that he also supported Change, and indeed as I sat there he was brought the preliminary results straight from Baghdad. His only response was a shrug of resignation.

A Furious Vitality

It has been suggested to me that intricate political rivalries within Kurdistan (such as described in yesterdays blog) are interesting only to those who care about this small part of the world. In response to this I offer a change. Firstly I will explain just how these details affect comfortable middle America, secondly I will tell you more about breaking past Iraqi soldiers, 10 year old gun owners, opium smuggling and the secret habits of war correspondents.


It is widely accepted among those travelling to war torn parts of the world that the horniest lot are cameramen and photographers. I can offer a variety of reasons for this, some of which I have experienced first hand. Firstly the first person running into any inhospitable situation is a photographer. While reporters can observe from behind a car, or step gingerly out once the blood has settled, photographers need it fresh, they need to capture the agony. For them, close ups of death and destruction are their bread and butter / their Pulitzers. It is this sense of adventure that separates them from others –it is a far more adrenaline-based sensation than that felt by an eccentric writer. I have seen them run into a building without knowing what’s inside; I have seen them ignore the cries of armed and angry guards; I have seen them live on the very edge. This then means that the danger posed by sleeping with a crazy girl or of incurring her wrath (most women in war zones are unhinged) is no deterrent to them and they seem all to act as if each night may be their last.


I saw this very case today. I arrived with Rick at a rural polling station, dust and sand everywhere, heat unbearable, and surrounded by 1000 excited Iraqis of all parties waiting to vote. 150 of them were soldiers loyal to the current corrupt government. We had no pass to cover this little known rural district and our translator was unwilling to help in the melee. So a few establishing shots later, taken from the top of a water tanker and off we were heading. Suddenly, of course we realise that Rick has gone. Bored of the photos outside, he had marched straight through the crowd of guns waving an old id card. Faced with a crazed red head waving a university of Westminster card, they had given in and let him pass. Having allowed Rick to dip his toe in first, I followed suit. With only a passport and expired BBC visitors card raised high above me, in I went. Pushing a bemused Iraqi ahead me as if to interview him I continued past the guns and with repeated convictions insisted I belonged. Amazingly enough it worked – we were in!


Talking about it later, Rick and I concluded that the 70% illiteracy rate may have helped. Never before have I revelled in someone’s lack of education but over here people here would rather fain understanding than appear ignorant. Any documents in English can be passed off as official. It is in these rural, poor and generally uneducated regions of Kurdsistan that the new Goran party (using Obama’s own slogan of change) has its support. These are the people who have seen no progress or any of the oil wealth prevalent in cities. They are the ones who want change and transparency in government. They are the ones who want the oil fields in Kirkuk back from the central government and the ones who will decide the future stability of this country. Many of them today had to ask officials to help them with the ballot sheets so poor was their reading. This of course has led to more election discrepancies.


At a time when America is trying to pull troops out of Iraq the Obama administration are desperate for smooth elections here. Knowing full well that Americans cannot differentiate between north and south Iraq, they intend to use what has been (so far) a peaceful election, as an example of their success in the wider conflict. In reality however the two areas have nothing in common. The situation South of here is worse than ever, and will only continue to fall apart further should America leave. People are begging them not to go but this has little effect on domestic US rhetoric.


One important government member who we interviewed yesterday told us that he dreamt of a system like that of US involvement in post war Germany. It is everyone’s hope that America will have long-term bases here, and that they should act as peacekeepers while continuing to fix the situation. Another person we spoke to used the analogy of a china plate help up by a lone matchstick. Were the matchstick to be pulled away the plate would smash into a thousand pieces.


While I understand America’s desire to focus on domestic issues in the current financial climate, there are many other serious issues here which affect them too. Take the drugs trade for example and the smuggling route from Afghanistan through northern Iraq and onto Turkey, Europe then America. Allow this to flourish (as may well happen in a splintered Iraq) and the opium trade grows fat on Western demand. On my last visit here I met smugglers on the Iraq / Iran border. While you may imagine them all to be vicious, angry and aggressive they are merely plying the one trade they can. Most of them would rather sell wheat and I was even told by one that he dreamed of being an electrician. They are forced to smuggle because they have nothing else to do, because their families have been traders for generations and because America and Europe is fuelling the trade.


What else happened today? The streets were empty due to the curfew allowing us to drive around alone at 100mph. Restaurants list 100’s of items on their menus but only ever have 2 – chicken or meat. Our hotel does have taste; despite the faux gold frieze throughout the foyer they play Faure’s requiem every morning. Old men think that playing the piano means pounding the same 2 notes for 30 minutes straight (one of them is doing it now). The Swedish ambassador is a nice but rather boring man (we met him in the middle of the countryside as he observed elections). It can take only 3 days to drive from London to Sulemaniyah. They breed squid in a swimming pool here for visitors to eat. Most staff at the hotel are from Nepal.


We ended the day by breaking onto the roof with beers and re-enacting scenes from Live from Baghdad. Rolling around on the roof, peeking off the top floor of this high-rise we imagined ourselves watching B52s overhead. Then I made a tourist video for the country – just doing my bit to help. I have borrowed a firewire cable off the BBC team so will upload these soon. Welcome to the wide variety of Iraqi entertainment.


I know I promised something about 10 year olds and their guns so attached is a photo.


Until tomorrow.