Iraqi Kurdish soldiers prepare to fight Isis militants 20km south of Kirkuk, 23 June. Photo: Getty
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In the Kurds’ make-do capital, Erbil, the message is clear: Iraq needs a three-state solution

Accompanied by a small army of peshmerga, I went as close as I dared to the front line, an army base in Kirkuk that the Iraqis had abandoned without putting up much of a fight.

It has been 23 years since I first visited Iraqi Kurdistan and despite the capture of swaths of territory by Islamic extremists further south, I am delighted to be back. In the words of T S Eliot’s “The Waste Land”, “In the mountains, there you feel free.” Kurdistan is defended by peshmerga fighters fiercely loyal to the idea of a Kurdish state, and I feel reasonably safe here. But so much has changed since the oilmen moved in. At Erbil International Airport you can pay $130 for “fast-track” passport processing and luggage collection. All this amounts to is being served a cup of Earl Grey tea in a comfy chair while somebody else takes your bags off the carousel. Erbil, the Kurds’ make-do capital, is now ringed by flashy skyscrapers, obscuring the view of the ancient citadel. My swanky hotel has lavatories in “dictator chic” black marble, with a presidential suite advertised in the lobby at a mere $15,000 per night.

 

Bell and Baghdad

When I visited in the 1990s, Kurdistan was still recovering from Saddam Hussein’s gas attacks. The doctrine of western military intervention for humanitarian purposes was newborn and unsullied by the wars of the next decade. British and American troops protected a Kurdish “safe haven” from the Iraqi dictator’s helicopter gunships at the end of the first Gulf war. I drove across the country in a jeep with the late Christopher Hitchens, who at the time was reading novels by the Bloomsbury Set, possibly the only person to do so in Iraq since Gertrude Bell herself. It was Bell who helped map this British creation of a country, and even though those lines she drew in the sand appear to be blurring, she did come up with the useful phrase, “No one knows exactly what they do want, least of all themselves, except that they don’t want us.”

 

Power vacuum

The Kurds do know what they want and always have done, Qubad Talabani, the son of Iraq’s president, tells me. “The Iraq we knew that is unitary, centralised, governed by the centre, is over,” he says flatly when we meet in his fortified government office. Not that Tony Blair is at fault here. “Removing Saddam has no bearing on the crisis,” he says, blaming Iraq’s politicians for failing to make the most of the opportunity the 2003 invasion gave them. Iraq’s Kurds seem to be waiting for the country to fail so that they can say, “There, I told you so.” Qubad’s father, Jalal, a jovial bear of a man, is no longer in Baghdad banging sectarian heads together but receiving medical treatment in Germany. I ask Qubad if Iraq will still exist when his father comes home. “That’s a tough question to answer,” he says.

 

Better not together

The peshmerga commander Jafar Mustafa is a fiery, moustachioed general and does not beat about the bush stating what should happen next. He says he’s lost 20 men fighting the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (Isis) along Kurdistan’s borders and that because the Iraqi army’s 12th Division has deserted, the Kurds have no choice but to look after themselves: “If you want to create a peaceful Iraq, you have to divide these three nations into three countries. It is the only solution.” I reflect that Britain is busy running a “Better Together” campaign – and that the nation Gertrude Bell helped dream up for Iraq has been in trouble for decades, never more so than now.

 

Urban guerrilla warfare

I hear the same talk of partition from a Sunni fleeing from Tikrit. I find Nawfal Moussa and his family sheltering in a school classroom, having driven north to Kirkuk in the Kurdish-controlled zone. The message Isis gave him before he left was that the militants would unseat an unjust government and would not hurt him, but he wasn’t taking the risk. A fear of government air strikes seemed to weigh as heavily on him as the threat of jihadi execution.

Even the ousted governor of Nineveh, Atheel al-Nujaifi, admitted that Isis had been broadly welcomed in Sunni areas of Mosul because Baghdad’s Shia-dominated government is so hated. Should America bomb Isis, I asked? Their camps in the desert, yes, but if the extremists become an urban guerrilla force, then certainly not.

 

Lessons of the Humvee

Accompanied by a small army of peshmerga, I went as close as I dared to the front line, an army base in Kirkuk that the Iraqis had abandoned without putting up much of a fight. The dormitories had been left in such a hurry that they were full of clothing, with berets and khaki flung to the ground. Still parked inside were scores of US military vehicles, many of them burned in the hope of preventing Isis from using them. One in particular, a charred Humvee, seemed to symbolise America’s thwarted ambition here. Twenty-five billion dollars spent building an army – and it comes to this.

Jonathan Rugman is the foreign affairs correspondent of Channel 4 News

This article first appeared in the 18 June 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Islam tears itself apart

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Battle of the banners: how the disputes of football took to the skies

Across the top of the screen floated a banner, pulled by a little aeroplane: IN ARSENE WE TRUST.

Last weekend, during the West Brom-Arsenal game, I began to think my hearing was playing up again. I’ve been given hearing aids but don’t wear them. No, not vanity, it’s just a faff to put the things in and the quality of my life, which is excellent, is not being impaired. Anyway, as I live on my own, if the sound on the telly is too low, I put it up. No one knows or cares.

When I’m out entertaining lady friends at my local bistro, I always get a quiet table in the corner and sit facing them, all rapt attention, totally focused on them, so they think. It’s really just to help my hearing.

On the TV screen, I suddenly heard an aeroplane, which was weird, as there was no sign of it, but then hearing problems are weird. Children talking sounds deafening. Some consonants disappear. Could it be a helicopter on the Heath, taking some injured person to the Royal Free? At our Lakeland house, I often heard helicopters: the mountain rescue team, picking up someone who had collapsed on Grasmoor. So I do know what they sound like. But this sounded like Biggles.

Then across the top of the screen floated a banner, pulled by a little aeroplane: IN ARSENE WE TRUST. The score at the time was 1-1, Arsenal having just equalised. They eventually got beaten 3-1. Oh, the shame and irony.

Apparently, earlier in the game, according to newspaper reports the next day, there had been an anti-Wenger aeroplane banner: NO CONTRACT, WENGER OUT. I didn’t see it – or Sky TV didn’t show it.

Where do the fans or supporter groups get all the money? And how do they organise it? There is a theory that IN ARSENE WE TRUST was paid for by Arsène himself. Another, more amusing theory is that it was a group of Spurs supporters, desperate for Arsène to stay on at Arsenal and continue getting stuffed.

There have been a few similar aeroplane banners at football matches in recent years. There was one at Newcastle, when they were playing Sunderland, which read 5 IN A ROW 5UNDERLAND. Sunderland won, so it came true. Sent the Geordie fans potty.

Everton fans flew one in 2015 which read KENWRIGHT & CO TIME TO GO. He is still chairman, so it didn’t work.

Millwall fans did an awfully complicated one in 2011 at Wigan, during the Wigan-West Ham game, which resulted in West Ham going down. They hired a plane to fly overhead with the banner AVRAM GRANT – MILLWALL LEGEND. Now you have to know that Grant was the West Ham manager and Millwall are their rivals. And that they couldn’t fly it at West Ham itself, which could have caused most fury to West Ham fans. There’s a no-fly zone in London, which stops rival fans hiring planes to take the piss out of Chelsea, Arsenal and West Ham. The Millwall supporters who organised it later revealed that it had only cost them £650. Quite cheap, for a good laugh.

There’s presumably some light aeroplane firm that specialises in flying banners over football grounds.

I do remember a few years ago, at White Hart Lane and Highbury, walking to the grounds and looking out for blimps flying overhead – small, balloon-like airships mainly used for promotional purposes, such as Goodyear tyres or Sky’s aerial camera. The results were pretty useless, showing little. I haven’t seen any recently, so presumably blimps aren’t allowed over central London either.

I am surprised drones have not been used, illegally, of course, to display obscene messages during games. They could drag a few pithy words while on the way to drop drugs at Pentonville Prison.

The history of aeroplane advertising goes back a long way. Before the Second World War, Littlewoods and Vernons football pools were fighting it out for dominance, just as the online betting firms are doing today. In 1935, Littlewoods sent planes over London pulling banners that proclaimed LITTLEWOODS ABOVE ALL. Jolly witty, huh. 

Hunter Davies is a journalist, broadcaster and profilic author perhaps best known for writing about the Beatles. He is an ardent Tottenham fan and writes a regular column on football for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution