Duluth visitors get warm welcome, policy critique from IraqisRANIA, Iraq — When our bus pulled into Rania about 5 p.m. Tuesday, about 30 to 50 people crowded around us.
By: Tom Morgan, for the News Tribune
RANIA, Iraq — When our bus pulled into Rania about 5 p.m. Tuesday, about 30 to 50 people crowded around us.
Of course, Mayor Ali Hamad Baag was there, as were leading managers of the city administration. There also was a phalanx of journalists — TV, radio, newspapers. Our coming to town was clearly a big event for the people of Rania. It was so overwhelming — handshaking, hugging, kissing — that I felt a bit embarrassed.
The two-hour bus trip through the mountains from Sulimaniya to Rania had been filled with lively conversation and views of green pastures, villages and farms with fruit trees gracing the landscape.
Americans and Kurds were meeting each other for the first time, and both sides were a little bit giddy with the excitement of the moment.
The drive first took us past a new apartment complex recently built for internally displaced Kurds, people from the Kirkuk area who have lost their property to Arabs and villagers who lost their homes because of bombing by Turks and Iranians on the border. The complex was built on the site of a former prison built during the Saddam era.
Our Kurdish hosts immediately brought the conversation around to how they suffered under Saddam, how they had lived in terror through the years of ethnic cleansings of the Baath regime. This theme would come up again and again, the horrors of living under Saddam’s repressive and sadistic hand.
Most of the villages we drove through had been rebuilt after being destroyed under repeated purges in the 1980s. It seems that virtually every Kurdish family had been touched by the heavy hand of the dictator.
Qadar, the youth center director, for example, told me through an interpreter about how he was arrested at age 16 for “speaking against Saddam.” Qadar, now 33, served only 14 months in prison, and he considers himself lucky.
Another major theme we heard again and again from the Kurds reflects Americans and U.S. foreign policy. Many Kurds were not at all subtle. Everyone we met — shopkeepers, people in restaurants — would make special efforts to be friendly to us. Many said how much they like Americans, how much they owe America.
They like Americans because they see our actions in Iraq beginning with the first Gulf war, in 1991, as leading to their liberation from Saddam’s oppression. Many of them see Americans as their saviors. The United States is the nation that gave them the chance to develop independently and to live in freedom.
I couldn’t get any of the Kurds I spoke with to say that the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq was a good thing. But they came close. And they want the Americans to continue to stand by them as they continue their struggles with hostile neighbors — Turkey, Iran, Syria and especially the Baghdad regime.
One Kurd told me that she is uncomfortable that America may “betray” the Kurds a third time by continuing to support a strong Shiite regime in Baghdad. (The Kurdish view of history sees two great American betrayals of their cause in the 20th century — the first by Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon and the second by George Bush Sr. in 1991.)
Still, the Kurds seem to be putting their hopes on the U.S.
They are counting on continued American support. And there is a sense of desperation in their voices.
We Americans are being housed in the Qandeel Palace Hotel, built by the city in 2005 and later abandoned. It is undergoing renovation and is not ready for occupancy. So we are the hotel’s first (and only) guests. It’s a fairly big place. Two stories. Two big wings. It’s nestled next to a mountain just on the edge of town.
The hotel has high ceilings, marble floors, big chandeliers, overstuffed furniture in the lobby and a cavernous dining room. The plumbing is problematic, there isn’t much hot water, and the electricity goes out at the most inconvenient times.
But no one is complaining. We are very comfortable, and our hosts are looking after our every need.
The food has been heavy on dairy products. Kurds love yogurt and sheep’s milk. Lots of soups and fruits and vegetables. And they love their meat. We get fed everywhere we go. On visits to government establishments, art exhibits and the youth center. There’s generally always lots of fruit, water and tea at all these receptions.
But my weakness is the nan — Kurdish flat bread served at every meal. It’s made from scratch and is for sale everywhere on the bustling streets and crowded stalls in the marketplace of Rania.
As distinct from other peoples in the Middle East, the Kurds are intentionally secular. That is, they seem to pride themselves on their tolerance of others and other cultures. Kurdistan is definitely not a theocracy, not a religious-based society.
“We have freedom of religion here,” one Kurd told me with pride. “For us our country comes first, then our religion.”