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.”
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