We all know that it is not only my friend who thinks that way. Only a few of us have an idea of what's going on in northern Iraq; and frankly, I was one of the skeptics before this journey. So for this reason, I took up an offer from Erkam Tufan Aytav from the Journalists and Writers Foundation (GYV). The opening of Işık University in Arbil was the focus of our trip. Over the following three days, we would visit Kirkuk and Sulaimaniya, where we would meet local writers, politicians and journalists. The itinerary was useful enough for those who wanted to get a firsthand experience of what is going on. Our trip, with fellow passengers Ardan Zentürk from the Star daily, Gürkan Zengin and Suat Toptaş from CNN Türk and Ömer Laçiner from Birikim magazine, started in the early morning of Nov. 21.
After a two-hour flight, I felt worried while we approached the airport building, with the flag of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) of Iraq fluttering in the wind. I carefully examined the stamp on my passport after we cleared customs. We were now in an administration which bears the name “Kurdistan,” despite the fact that it is not recognized by Turkey and its existence is still controversial in international politics.
Iraq: a country of multiple governments, divided regions
Regardless of its name, this place is a goldmine for historians and political scientists. The heavily armed police and security forces in different uniforms told us that there was a problem with security and authority. While it looks like a united entity, the KRG is led by a coalition of Jalal Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and Massoud Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP). It does not have a real capital; some of the ministries are seated in Barzani-dominated Arbil while others are in Sulaimaniya, known as the stronghold of Talabani. Government posts are assigned in such a way to observe the delicate balance of power between these two prominent actors in Kurdish politics.
The status of “Kurdistan” depends on the central government in Baghdad. While it is still formally an autonomous region which is part of Iraq, the northern Iraqi administration gives the impression that it is a separate state, with its own flag, currency, bureaucratic order and military. The greatest concern is the probable repercussions of the full American withdrawal from the country and the subsequent void of authority. Other grave concerns include the status of Kirkuk. The central Iraqi government will not allow Kurdish domination in the city because it is in an oil-rich region; however, the northern Iraqi Kurds are eager to take control of the oil in Kirkuk.
The situation in Kirkuk also concerns Turkey, which has expressed its opposition to Kurdish domination over the city. The conditions are really heartrending in the city because of the tension between the central government and the northern Iraqi administration. The city looks like a disorderly town of refugees, lacking development and construction works. Turkmen people argue that the Kurds are interfering with the city’s demographics, that their lands are being transferred to Kurds via forged land registrations and that they are doing everything to erase the Turkmen identity of the city. The withdrawal of the US will mark a new era for Iraq. Sunni Arabs, who have previously boycotted every election, will actively participate in all elections now. This raises concerns among the Kurds that they could lose some of their gains because of the increased Sunni influence over Iraq.
Arbil: a fast-growing adolescent
During our first day in Arbil, known in Kurdish as “Hewler,” we paid a few visits to schools. Fezalar Education, which has made quite a reputation for itself in the field of education through its services since 1992, employs more than 150 Turkish educators in the region. With the addition of Arab and Kurdish educators, the number of teachers doubles. The schools, teachers and students of Fezalar project a good image of Turkey. Despite these efforts, the need for education is so huge that it doesn’t look as if it can be met in just a few years. There is a growing need for additional educational institutions and investments. Northern Iraq is a very attractive region for those who would like to make investments abroad.
Arbil has a circular settlement plan surrounding an ancient earthen castle in the center. The fast-growing city also represents the desire of the northern Iraqi people for a peaceful life. Mass-housing complexes and luxury buildings are dotted throughout the city.
Security sector is greatest employment opportunity
Arbil, which is growing very quickly because of extensive migration to the city, lacks employment in industry and manufacturing. Large malls and villas in some parts of the city show that there are two major classes in the city: groups of immigrants, unemployed, with a dearth of skills, and a small minority of rich people. The security sector, employing near to 100,000, is a growing industry in northern Iraq. Frequent encounters with armed men on the streets confirm this.
Administrators have implemented policies in an attempt to solve problems of those residents who have migrated to the city recently. Electricity and water are free at certain times of the day. While large sums have been invested in the infrastructure, facilities to generate electricity are still inadequate in most parts of the city. The canals carrying waste alongside walkways were pretty interesting; but I was most surprised seeing entrepreneurs selling electricity produced from their generators. An Arbil resident told me the system to provide social aid has remained the same since the Saddam era. Even though the removal of the customs levy on food and 5 percent customs tax on other goods and services has brought prices down in the markets, it is obviously not that easy to run a household if one relies on a small amount of social aid.
Turks have been doing business in Arbil for years; they are particularly influential in the construction business. Turks founded -- and currently operate -- the best ophthalmic hospital of the city: Sema Nahoşhane (”Nahoşhane” means hospital in Kurdish). Considering the high quality of the hospital, the regional administration allocated a large amount of land for the construction of a new building. Head physician Ali Çolak says they admit patients even from Karbala, to the southwest of Baghdad.
The autonomous region in northern Iraq reportedly makes 80 percent of its purchases from Turkey. There are around 50,000 Turkish workers in the region. The people of Arbil, in general, trust and love Turkey and Turkish products. For instance, sellers stress that their goods are from Turkey when they want to emphasize the quality and authenticity of their products. It was good for us to hear that a reference to Turkish origin is taken as an assurance here.
The exaggerated, dashing and ostentatious style of adornment that is dominant in most Middle Eastern countries is also prevalent in the region. Only a few nice buildings caught my eye in Arbil, which mostly comprises two storey low-rise constructions. Iraqi architects developed some strange buildings while trying to combine the regional characteristics and the requirements of architecture. The modern style of newer buildings in the city will win out against the Iraqi national style because the Western style of architecture is envied in the region.
Car license plates are also extravagances. I was appalled when I heard thousands of dollars were being paid to acquire license plates with fashionable numbers. Automobiles on the streets are basically divided into two groups -- secondhand European cars and large SUVs.
Little information but plenty of stereotypes
Kurdish intellectuals, journalists and leading KDP members hosted a Turkish parliamentary delegation and our group of Turkish journalists at a dinner at the end of the first day of our trip. The event was held to reinforce the ties between the two countries. Both the Kurdish and Turkish speakers gave cautious speeches at the opening.
But when we started to eat, it was less formal and more intimate. I realized that at the event, the vast majority of the participants, including me, had very little knowledge about the region.
This should not be surprising, considering that relations between the KRG and Turkey have been seriously affected by the negative impact of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Stereotypes and prejudices have prevailed over information and knowledge. But Kurds and Turks have co-existed for a millennium, they should have more solid and concrete views about each other. Every speaker at the dinner felt the pressure associated with the ongoing terrorism in southeastern Turkey. Holding similar events in the future will be certainly be helpful because precise information is the only way to negate enduring prejudices.
It will be best to conclude my first day’s impressions with these sentences: A separate administration has been set up in northern Iraq which is subordinate to the central government in Baghdad. This administration governs an area which it calls Kurdistan. Unfortunately, the word Kurdistan is not a favorite one in the minds of Turks. We feel every time we use this word that we are betraying the memory of our fallen troops in southeastern Turkey. However, the Kurds in northern Iraq and Turkey hold that they are entitled to some privileges because of their sufferings in the past. A new approach is needed to address these conflicting sentiments. This is not something unachievable.
Our second day in northern Iraq
Of course, the most important item on the agenda of our schedule on the second day of our visit, Nov. 22, was the opening of Işık University. This is the first Turkish university in the Middle East. France and the US have also opened small universities in Arbil. Işık is the fourth university in Arbil after these two and Salahaddin University, the official public university of the region.
The attendance of Nechirvan Barzani, the prime minister of the autonomous region, at the opening ceremony showed that the regional government was placing a great emphasis on the occasion. The attendance of Ahmet Yıldız, Turkey’s consul general to Mosul, was particularly important because it represented a new era and step in the bilateral relations between Turkey and northern Iraq. The presence of a large delegation of deputies, businessmen and journalists from Turkey made the occasion a historic one.
Diplomatic messages exchanged during opening speeches
Işık University will offer preparatory classes in its first year at the modest buildings of a Turkish college bearing the same title. Apparently, a new large campus is being considered for university use as soon as possible. In the years to come, Işık University will represent Turkey and will promote its image in the region.
The speech by Prime Minister Barzani, a grandson of Molla Mustafa Barzani and also Massoud Barzani’s nephew, delivered supportive messages for the university. The speech of Consul General Yıldız, who took to the stage after Nechirvan Barzani, led to two different sets of comments. Optimists said the speech implied that Turkey would abandon its former style and pursue a new policy by which it would grow closer to the regional administration. Skeptics, however, pointed to the fact that Yıldız did not refer to Nechirvan Barzani as a “prime minister” or use the name “Kurdistan” in his speech. While I have little knowledge of diplomatic protocol, I noticed the cautionary approach of Yıldız on the stage; however, I should also note that his speech, solidified via statements of diplomatic courtesy, was already warm enough to frame the meaning of the occasion.
Turkish guests hosted in the residence of the premiership
We observed the actual reflection of Nechirvan Barzani’s hospitality toward Turkey and his Turkish guests in the exclusive lunch that he organized at the residence of the premiership in honor of his guests. Nechirvan Barzani, who showed warm interest in Yıldız and the Turkish parliamentary delegation, made an effort after the lunch to break the ice between Turkey and the KRG. At the event, journalists were hosted in a different hall and Nechirvan Barzani’s message, which was sent via Sefin Dizai, speaker for external relations of the region, was met with laughter by the journalists. Dizai said: “I have brought an exclusive message from our prime minister. He wants to assure you that the food down the hall is the same as yours and they come from the same kitchen.”
Dizai, who has served as special envoy in Ankara for years, is competent in speaking Turkish, and he also attracted our attention because of his openness.
Let me clarify what we ate at this official event held by the prime minister. We encountered more or less the same type of food during our four-day trip -- different kinds of rice and different kinds of kebabs. Kurds pay special attention to make sure that the guests are satisfied by the food they serve. I should also note that they are not pleased if they notice that a guest of theirs takes a bite and then leaves the table.
I should say that I still have memories of the city tour in Arbil that we were able to do that night. The historical bazaar next to the earthen castle was more attractive to me than the luxurious malls. Even though it looks complicated and untidy, this ancient residential place represents the heart of Arbil. The bazaar will especially impress women with its opportunities for shopping.
Iraq united when soccer team won Asian Cup
On the second day of our trip, we enjoyed a pleasant student show at the modest hall where the opening ceremony was held. It was nice to experience the similar scenes that we are accustomed to from Turkish Language Olympics. The posters with “Welcome” in Turkish, Kurdish, Arabic and English above the stage are, actually, the essence of the education at Işık High School. The most striking part of the night, which featured vocal recitals in different languages and folklore shows, was the introduction to a video presentation given by a young pupil from Çağ High School in Kirkuk; the video depicted the Iraqi soccer team’s victory in the Asian Cup 2007.
It has been noted that this victory united the Iraqi people, who were, and still are, divided along ethnic and religious lines -- recalling that they were part of a nation. The Iraqis who celebrated the event on the streets come together with a common celebration and set aside their differences. We already knew that soccer is not just soccer; but as a soccer fan, I was excited to hear such a great effect of soccer on national unity. Hopefully, Iraq will achieve happiness and peace again.
Kirkuk: a dilapidated, yet dynamic city
Next day was Sunday, an ordinary workday in Arbil. We had a visit to the city of Kirkuk scheduled for that day. We departed from Arbil in a giant SUV on our way to Kirkuk, and we observed growing poverty along the way. The road connecting Arbil and Kirkuk is still under construction, so it is only a one-lane highway. I can’t help thinking that riding a car at night might be pretty dangerous on such a poor road with no traffic signs or infrastructure. After passing through a number of checkpoints guarded by armed security forces, we entered the city of Kirkuk. It gave the impression, “We will build a new road anyway, so there is no need to put any effort into this one.”
Friends of mine had warned me beforehand not to appear in public or to stay for too long in Kirkuk. The city, which lives in constant fear of armed assault, is a living example of the fact that oil does not bring happiness to people. The views of the governor of Kirkuk and the representatives of the Iraqi Turkmen Front about the city were different and reflective of the observations of what is going on from different perspectives. Yet I got the impression that Turkmens, Kurds and Arabs will be able to live together in the city, thanks to a long experience of coexistence.
The visit to Kirkuk Castle, which we had special permission to see, is a whole different story. The settlement in the castle, which confirms the Turkmen presence in the city, was evacuated during the Saddam era for restoration; however, the restoration work was suspended because of the constant problems in Iraq. During this period, many houses were demolished within the castle complex.
After a quick visit to the Turkish Çağ High School in Kirkuk, we moved to the southeastern city of Sulaimaniya. Frankly, I had thought that the city was less developed than Arbil; however, what I saw along the roads in the dark of the night told me that this was much more developed than Arbil. A friend of mine made the following analogy about those two cities, “Arbil is the Ankara of the region and Sulaimaniya is similar to İstanbul.”
At a dinner event organized to host us Turkish journalists in the biggest hotel of the town, we met with the PUK Central Press Bureau Director Azad Cündiyani. This talk was more intimate and warmer than the one we had with the reporters and politicians in Arbil. Just as we were about to delve further into our discussion, which was being translated by the teachers serving in the Turkish schools in the city, we were surprised by the appearance of Haco Hanım from Haymana, an old friend of one of our delegation, Laçiner.
Haco Hanım, who pens columns under the nom de plume Hatice Yaşar, was an active militant of the Ala Rizgari organization on the mountains along the border. She then moved to Europe, where she received additional training. Their encounter after 15 years was really interesting. It was obvious that both had a lot to learn from the lives of each other. But the uncompromising attitude of Haco Hanım, who currently teaches history at Salahaddin University in Sulaimaniya moved us all to a whole different discussion: to the heart of Kurdish issue. The group members continued with their insightful talk at the special table reserved by Haco Hanım exclusively for us until late into the night. Despite some fiery discussions, we left the hotel with the hope of seeing each other again.
We returned the next day. I intended to use the remaining time to see Arbil Castle and the ancient ruins. But leaving the place without seeing the Private Salahaddin Eyyubi College would have been inappropriate. After having a nice breakfast in the principal’s room, I observed the education methods at the school and listened to a number of success stories.
Good neighborhood and brotherhood: hopefully as soon as possible
Our trip to northern Iraq was very helpful for us to understand the nature of the relations between Turkey and the region. I am sure that after we reach some resolutions to the Kurdish question, the relations between “Kurdistan” -- as described by the local Kurds and the KRG as the official name -- or the “entity in northern Iraq,” as referred to in our media, and Turkey will improve and go beyond expectations. A repeat of such a visit will remove prejudices and open communication between the parties.
Glimpses of life in northern Iraq
The Kurdish administration wants to move to use the Latin alphabet instead of Arabic script at the earliest opportunity, similar to Turkey in the 1920s. It could also be said there is a consensus over the principles of secularism while religion is very influential in daily life, again like Turkey.
It appears that it is customary to display photos depicting Talabani and Massoud Barzani together in every official building. Those who know the real story say Barzani and Talabani did not come together for such a photo. The poster was reportedly a product of Photoshop.
Despite the fact that the northern Iraqi administration is represented by two flags under the constitution, only the regional flag adorns public buildings as a sign of growing nationalistic sentiment.
The most luxurious restaurants, hotels and workplaces are still not fully formed when compared to similar facilities in Turkey, but the skyscrapers in rapidly developing cities such as Arbil and Sulaimaniya show that this will change in a short time.
There is a visible difference between the immigrants and natives of the city. We see that immigrants who have moved to Arbil will pose serious challenges for the administration.
Arbil is an urban magnet in Iraq because of its high level of security. However, it may lose some of its appeal if relative peace is maintained in Baghdad.
I did not encounter any sign of an American presence in the region with the exception of an armored vehicle in the yard of an official building in Kirkuk.
The future of northern Iraq depends on the amount of oil it will receive from the Iraqi central government and Kirkuk. Apparently, the Kurdish autonomous region does not have a plan B, and this is a real matter of concern for the future.
Kurds in Arbil do not like the accent of their Kurdish guests from Turkey. They find it a little strong, saying the accent of Kurdish in Arbil and its surroundings sounds nicer.
Electronic devices are 15 percent less expensive than Turkey because the tax rate imposed upon imported items is only 5 percent.
One of the Turkmen representatives serving on the Kirkuk Provincial Council said the children of wealthy families were being kidnapped for ransom during the period of turmoil. He said the total amount of ransom paid to the kidnappers was around $45 million.
We were able to enter the departure terminal at the airport in Arbil after passing excessive security measures and barricades. Our Atlasjet plane took off after a two-hour delay.
However, we faced the truly excessive security measures back in İstanbul at Atatürk Airport, where we did not expect such heightened measures. Passengers from northern Iraq got off the bus from the plane outside the terminal building and then had to take the stairs with their heavy luggage. Afterwards, they had to wait in a secure area and had to go through an extra security screening. One of the businessmen said they had to wait for four hours.
Everybody understands and respects security measures provided that all are treated equally and humanely.