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1 July 2014updated 24 Jun 2021 12:59pm

Fergal Keane: “Erbil is a haven. If you wanted a happier dream of Iraq, this is the place to visit”

The BBC correspondent travels to Iraq for the first time since 2003 to find quiet, fearful streets in Jalula but tranquility and tolerance in Iraq’s Kurdish capital. 

By Fergal Keane

The general wanted to meet his troops. He was insistent: “I can’t come here and not visit them.” We were at the roundabout on the edge of Jalula. Two days previously my BBC colleague Paul Wood had spent 20 terrifying minutes trapped under fire from Isis militants on the very street the general wanted us to travel. The Kurdish fighters with him were convinced they were about to be overrun.

Even our escort from the Kurdish special forces was shaking his head. “Bad idea. We shouldn’t go.” So I pleaded again with the general. “Listen,” he said, “you are safer with me than you are staying here.” With these words the matter was settled.

Oh, the quiet streets of war. I hate them. Fear echoes and multiplies in the silence. Give me a place where you can hear the sounds of battle, where you know where the fire is coming from. In Jalula the streets were empty. I glimpsed a man behind a half-open gate talking on his mobile phone. Is he tipping off the militants that we are here? In this atmosphere every approaching vehicle becomes a potential suicide bomber, the pile of rubble by the roadside the perfect hiding place for a bomb.

We reached the base. The general shook hands, patted officers on the back and we counted the minutes until he signalled that we should all leave. He was not happy. He would have liked to stay longer with his men. At another post where the Kurds dominated a ridge overlooking the town, the spent bullet casings glittered in the dust, the lethal residue of the previous night’s fighting. “They come up on us each night and each night we drive them back,” a grizzled old fighter told me. There was sudden shouting. On the road below, a car had stopped short of the checkpoint. Guns were raised. Then an old man’s head poked out of the driver’s window. He was travelling with his wife to get away from the fighting. The drama was over.

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It is my first trip back since the war in 2003 and memory is constantly flaring. The other day I read on Twitter that Isis has planted its black flag on all public buildings in Tikrit, Saddam Hussein’s home town. Among the buildings displaying the jihadists’ symbol is the police station.

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I was with the US marines on the night Tikrit fell to the Americans, all that mighty force and technology rolling over the resistance of Saddam’s fighters. We slept on the floor and I remember being woken in the night by a cat giving birth to kittens. The mother had taken refuge in one of the abandoned cells – the prisoners had long made good their escape. The mewling, disembodied and eerie in the empty station, kept me awake. The following morning we walked up the main street and found a solitary tea shop still open for business. Shrapnel and broken glass littered the entrance. Inside, some marines were sitting cleaning their weapons and drinking sweet tea. We sat beside them. One of the group had a boom box and was playing songs from home. “American Pie” was blasting out as I watched an exhausted teenager clean the dirt from his rifle with a toothbrush, an image of wasted innocence and lethal intent.

The marines had been good to us. They’d kept us safe within their perimeter. A few days later, I spoke with a marine at Babylon who told me how he’d killed more of the enemy than he could count. There was exhilaration in his voice. Now the marines are long gone from Tikrit and Babylon, and from Anbar province.

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I am reading again Neil Sheehan’s magnificent book A Bright Shining Lie, the best work on Iraq I have read, although it was written about the Vietnam war. Granted, there are differences between these conflicts. Vietnam fell under the yoke of hardline Leninists who eventually came to embrace the free market but not democracy. And Vietnam was without the ethnic and religious divisions that define Iraq.

In these days when the debate around Iraq is filled with distortions of history and contortions of reality there is one other big difference from Vietnam: one of the great architects of that war, Robert McNamara, did eventually admit what a terrible mistake it had been.

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Erbil is a haven. Business is thriving and the various religious and ethnic groups coexist peacefully. If you wanted a happier dream of Iraq, this is the place to visit. Walk the markets and listen to the soulful voice of Chopi Fetah drift across stalls from the loudspeaker in the spice shop, drink sweet tea in the shadow of the ancient citadel and wait for the latest news from the front. So tranquil and tolerant is Erbil that Sunni fighters are coming here for rest.

After days of negotiation we managed to meet some of them. They had asked that we protect their identities in any interview. But they turned up without their keffiyehs, the male headscarf of much of the Arab world. A frantic call went out to neighbours’ houses. Somebody produced a flowery silk scarf. “I will not wear that,” one of the men growled. Eventually two keffiyehs were found and sartorial honour was satisfied. The older of the two was an economics student, the younger wanted to be a PE teacher. Both had taken up arms after the Maliki government had suppressed Sunni demonstrations in their home town of Fallujah.

The would-be teacher rolled up his sleeve and pointed to an ugly scar above the crook of his arm. “That is where they used the electric drill on me,” he said. Above all, they wanted me to know that their revolution was about Sunni alienation. “This is a Sunni revolution, not an Isis revolution.”

The story of Iraq is littered with the words of righteous men. Back and forth it goes, the litany of grievance, the endless round of justifications, and moving silently beneath it all the feet of the displaced. In a new refugee camp to the south of Erbil I met a ten-year-old girl, Nadia, who had fled with her family when Shia militiamen attacked their village.

“I thought I was going to be killed. I thought my whole family was going to be killed,” she told me. But they were lucky. Lucky enough to escape, to grab some blankets, some pots and pans. Lucky enough to live in the dust and the crushing heat. Nadia was not yet born when Iraq was invaded in 2003. But war has become her birthright. 

Fergal Keane is a special correspondent with BBC News