Kurds present image of a different Iraq

by Jenn Buck | 4/12/04 5:00am

Editor's note: This is the first in a multi-part series chronicling a student reporter's time spent in Kurdistan, located in northern Iraq. The Dartmouth was one of the few news organizations in the province, covering news there over the past three weeks.

ERBIL, Iraq -- In a time when images of bloody battles with outraged Iraqi militants are flooding American news outlets, it's hard to imagine there could be any other reality in the Middle East.

But there is another Iraq. An Iraq where peace is flourishing, schools are being rebuilt, and Americans are hailed -- even welcomed -- as heroes.

Kurdistan, Iraq's ethnically distinct northern province, can be thought of as the perfect model for the "New Iraq" that the Coalition Provincial Authority -- the U.S.-led interim Iraqi government -- wants to build. The Kurds have been governing themselves for 12 years, since the United States designated the region a "no-fly-zone" at the end of the first Persian Gulf War.

So why don't Americans hear much about Kurdistan now? The northern province of Kurds accounts for about one-fifth of Iraq's population, and a big chunk of its oil. And in this part of the Middle East, democracy is in bloom.

But the most sensational stories are often the ones to make it back to news desks in the United States.

This raises a question. Is there news to report where conflict is not escalating, but rather being diminished?

The Kurds will tell you there is.

"The people of Iraq should look to Kurdistan," said Nassif Amin, a Kurdish man who now works with the CPA as a developer. His voice was thick with pride, choking back tears as he talked about his homeland. "If they saw what we have here, maybe they would want to find peace."

Amin and many like him are working alongside U.S. military and civilian forces to rebuild the region, where power and water are often unavailable in outlying villages. Even in the capital city of Erbil, electricity blinks on and off during the day.

A branch of the U.S. Army known as Civil Affairs is coordinating a vast amount of work in the province. Members of CA teams may look like ordinary soldiers, but they work alongside non-governmental organizations, often interacting directly with local families and small-town mayors.

In Erbil, a relatively small team of Civil Affairs enlisted and officers from the 416th battalion monitor and encourage progress in the region, creating communication networks between town and state governments.

This is no small task, considering that many villages are a three-hour drive from the city over snow-capped mountains, where a single winding road climbs its way up sheer rock faces.

"We're lucky to be doing what we're doing," said Cpl. Joe Patrick, a 2001 University of Vermont graduate. "The [Kurdish] people want to work with us. They want to learn about democracy and to run their country peacefully."

Patrick is the NGO/IDP coordinator for the 416th. He works with humanitarian organizations to help them coordinate their efforts, and helps supervise the care of internally displaced persons -- otherwise known as refugees.

One part of Patrick's job is to prepare security briefings for NGOs. Though the war is over in Kurdistan and its people are largely pro-American, insurgents nonetheless find their way in. Terrorists have targeted many humanitarian workers and journalists. Hoping perhaps to demoralize the American public by watching civilians die in explosions, insurgent groups know that civilians have the least protection.

That's where Patrick and his team come in.

"We're like NGOs with guns," he said, grinning. Civil Affairs soldiers are heavily armed and protected by a guard corps of Iraqi soldiers. But they work with civilians.

It's an odd juxtaposition, seeing them sit in a local mayor's office sipping sweet tea and planning school construction with rifles leaned casually on the wall by their heads.

Patrick, a thoughtful young man from Pennsylvania, joined the Army as a Reservist after college to get experience in international relations. And like most of the 416th, he is a kind, enthusiastic young college graduate. Out of uniform, you'd never guess he was a soldier.

Because in Kurdistan, the army is more than a violent military machine. There are more stories to tell here than those of life and death, of terror and struggle and pain.

Not that the Kurds haven't experienced their share of all these things.

The first Gulf War began three years after Saddam Hussein's 1988 deployment of chemical weapons, including mustard gas, on the Kurdish town of Hallabjah. The attacks, which he blamed on Iran, killed upwards of 5,000 Kurds according to CNN sources.

Within the province, he routinely evacuated Kurds from their villages and handed their homes over to Arabs, hoping to ethnically cleanse the area. Many thousands of Kurdish people are refugees to this day, having lived in tents for twenty years or more.

As the IDP liaison, Patrick has a difficult job. U.S. government policy is not to try to put the IDPs back in their former homes.

"That's up to their government," Patrick said. "We want them to solve their own problem, not tell them who should live where. We're here to help them, not to impose our will."

That doesn't help ease the heartache he feels every day when he drives by the fields of tents, where refugee families are eking out an existence on the edge of the civilization that had been their home.

The work that Patrick and his compatriots do here is hard. There is so much heartache, so many bad memories. So much has been destroyed.

But like a new future is dawning in Kurdistan, which could show hope for a future -- and potentially peaceful -- Iraq.