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Sunday, May 23, 2004

Picnicking in Kurdistan is an all day affair and far different from the relaxing day one would associate with a picnic back home. Had I known, I would have been sure to not allow myself to wakeup on Friday morning after such a short sleep and probably at least one too many (low quality) gins with Iranian-made lemonade.

One might think that around here surely some would take issue with Thursday night’s activities in celebration of Mike’s 25th birthday. Thankfully, provided one indulges in private, alcohol is not an issue here, at least among men. Beer, wine and liquor can be bought easily in the city.

Friday’s picnic proved to be an all day affair as promised (and warned). Three hours each way by bus, with singing and dancing the whole way, most often to the same horrible western songs. I was able to sleep in on Saturday and finally recover somewhat from the tiring journey to get here. Saturday afternoon was spent mostly recovering from Thursday and Friday before a short time spent in the bazaar.

Today (Sunday) we awoke early again to make the trip south to Khanaqin. Khanaqin is a predominantly Kurdish city, but remained under the control of the Baathists in Baghdad when the bulk of the Kurdish areas gained autonomy in the early 1990s. It is located reasonably far south where the Kurdish dominated land creates a panhandle, hugging the Iranian border. We took a regular taxi most of the way, but switched to a PUK vehicle about an hour away, before crossing the former Green Line which demarcated Iraqi Kurdistan from the rest of Iraq. Where the Green Line was there are minefields at roadside and power lines which would have crossed until the early 1990’s remain cut. By this point the geography of the land had changed quite dramatically from up here in Suli. The Green Line is actually quite deep into the part of the country that looks more like what one sees on TV.

The PUK vehicle was arranged through Mike and one of his students whose father is fairly high up in the PUK. We were shuttled from bleak office to bleak office where the man in charge of each apparently just sits every day as other men bring him papers to sign. It was funny at times to the see the somewhat rag-tag group of soldiers and other people shuffle in and out, most saluting, many in military-type uniforms, but no two uniforms were identical. Of course at each office was the requisite cup of tea. Generally speaking the PUK officials in each of these offices to me seemed to be overly optimistic for the future of Kurdistan and for Khanaqin. Interestingly, with respect to Iraq they were less optimistic but it would seem, that less optimism for Iraq would compel them to be less bullish on getting what they want for Khanaqin given the difficulties that are sure to arise when it comes to deciding where it fits into the ‘new Iraq’.

In Khanaqin, the evidence of the campaign by the Baathist regime was everywhere. The railway station and tracks had been removed in the 1980s, leaving just a wasteland where the trains once passed. Destroyed homes were common and much of the city is crumbling. Some newer buildings were visible, and we were told that these were built for the Arabs and Baath party members who were moved to the area in the 1980s when scores of Kurds were moved out to other parts of the country, particularly the south. The situation in the city at least appeared much worse than it likely is as we were there in the heat of the day when most of the local people take a midday rest. Nonetheless, the remnants of what once stood there in Khanaqin, coupled with the omnipresent PUK guards gave the city a truly odd feeling. Just outside the city remnants of both WWI and the Iran-Iraq war remain clearly visible. Down in this part of the country there is also significantly more evidence of the present military campaign ongoing in the country. While the number of soldiers by no means gave the indication of the scope of the engagement to the south, compared to here in Suli, where I have not seen a single US or other non-local forces, the dozen or so soldiers and half dozen vehicles indicated a more insecure environment. I don’t think I can stress the difference enough between the feeling one gets here and the images one sees on TV back home. While it is still clear that this is a conflict zone, particularly when one sees private security people around, things seem to me at least to be rather unaffected by what is going on further south. That said, checkpoints are common and there is a significant presence of security personnel.

Opinion amongst the people in this part of the country seems to be divided on the continuing prisoner abuse scandal in the United States, with many saying they thought the Americans were better than that, but others pointing out that Saddam Hussein’s regime did worse.