All politics are local; Update 5-14-06

Too young to remember the man – except for the fact my conservative parents disliked the former Speaker – it’s perhaps ironic that I may live for the next year by a phrase he coined. “All politics are local.”

One hundred and forty miles north of Baghdad and roughly 90 miles from Iran, Kirkuk is the fifth largest city in Iraq. The relative calm in the city of 700,000 belies the ethnic and religious tensions stemming among the three main factions of people – Kurds, Arabs and Turkoman – all jockeying for control of the oil and natural gas rich city.

As the people of Kirkuk tell me that the quarrel between Kurds and Turkoman date back to just after WWI with the fall of the Ottoman Empire. The Kurds favored joining Iraq and the Turkoman favored joining Turkey. Her Majesty’s government saw it fit that the land surrounding the cities of what is now Mosul, Irbil and Kirkuk belonged to Iraq. Presto there’s a blood feud.

Flash forward to the Ba’ath Party’s rise to power in the late 60s, followed by Saddam’s subsequent rise to power and both the Kurds and Turkoman find themselves a common denominator in a new oppressor. “Arabization” was one way Saddam could control the country – removing Turkoman and Kurds from their homes and replacing them with Arabs. With the liberation of Iraq, the oppression is lifted and the anger has seeped forth.

Because of these different factions, Kirkuk has a set of challenges that are very different from the rest of Iraq. What all this boils down to is visceral politics like Tip O’Neil never imagined.

The KGB and REO
My role here in country is nothing like what was planned for me or for my team at Ft. Bragg. My mission, as part of the Kirkuk Provincial Reconstruction Team, or PRT, is something like a confluence between a political analyst and an executive officer (XO), which in a traditional unit is generally second-in-command who eliminates the ankle-biting issues so the commander can focus on the fight.

If I were in Rio or Russia, I’d expect things would be blurry albeit for a different reason. But the last three weeks have indeed been a blur as I’ve bounced between work stations at the KGB and the REO. The Kirkuk Government Building (KGB) is where our office is located in downtown Kirkuk. There we mingle with the Iraqi government officials, council members and citizens as they freely go about their daily business. The REO is the Regional Embassy Office – where our State Department counterparts stay. It’s one of the nicest buildings I’ve seen in Iraq and was the former Ba’ath party provincial headquarters.

Home on the FOB
The Forward Operating Base (FOB) – FOB Warrior as it is called – is roughly a 5 square mile fortified compound surrounding an old Iraqi Airbase large enough to handle C-17-sized aircraft. It’s a pretty remarkable place, rather fertile with expansive vegetation and dozens of peculiar looking bomb shelters placed around post.

Despite all the criticism of Halliburton and its subsidiary KBR, I can attest they are doing a top-notch job for us…they make our lives very easy. The food is outstanding…even serving steak and lobster on Wednesday’s. The steak isn’t exactly Ruth Chris’ and Iraq isn’t really known for lobster, but they do put forth a great effort. All in all the living conditions here are far better than what we had at Ft. Bragg. My hooch is a little trailer, it’s nothing special, but I share it with no one compare with the WWII era barracks that housed 50 of us at a time in North Carolina.

Three years in Iraq and we’ve had time to build infrastructure. The post has all kinds of little amenities…three gyms, a pool (which I haven’t used yet, but am eager to dive off Saddam’s diving board) a little store, there’s a little circle of trailers that houses a barber shop, a Pizza Hut and a Green Beans coffee shop. Now these shops are small and make shift – certainly not Clarendon, Virginia – but it’s a heck of a lot more than I expected.

In fact the overall atmosphere on post is rather calm. Occasionally at night there are some stray attacks but I assure you, it’s nothing like the news media presents. These incidents aren’t really anything more than a minor nuisance.

While living is much better than I anticipated here, there clearly is no room for complacently. Each and every time we roll out the wire – that is the gated entrance to the post – there is always risk. We move around by convoy and each one is planned meticulously. We are armed to the hilt when we roll outside the wire.

Random Observations
Moving about the city, trash and rubble litters the streets and alleys to the extent that it makes Tijuana appear clean. Most of the roads in need of repair – filled with pot holes and cracks in the pavement. The streets are lined with vendors hocking everything from black-market jugs of fuel because of a shortage, to cellular phones. Iraqis consider dogs unclean and packs of stray dogs roam the streets scrounging for food. It’s not uncommon to see people shepherding goats and sheep around the city. While conducting a mission in one of the market squares the other day, I watched as a man flipped a sheep on its side, held it down and slit its throat. I presume he’d just made a sale.

• A local Iraqi police officer, who I had guessed was a decade or so my senior, were having a friendly conversation about cultural dissimilarities. He asked me how old I was and responded enthusiastically when he learned we were the same age. Perhaps its nutrition, or stress, or overall quality of life, but it is common at least with the Iraqis I meet that they appear to age more rapidly.

• I’ve become addicted to Chai – that is tea – which the Iraqis drink incessantly.

• For all the effort I’ve put into learning some Arabic I’ve come into a rather challenging obstacle: the majority in Kirkuk are Kurds and speak Kurdish. But not all is lost, all of the provincial council meetings are conducted in Arabic.

• The temperatures aren’t too hot – usually mid 90s and maybe touching 100 on a few days. Kirkuk is far enough north I don’t expect it to get too hot – the land is fertile. The agriculture guys tell me they could grow nearly any crop they wanted here.

• We took a trip out to Sulymaneyah – the province East of Kirkuk (Kirkuk city is the capital of Kirkuk Province; the province was referred to as "Tameen," which means "the state" -- its original name was returned after the coalition's invasion). Suly is wild. Pristine. Untouched. Not so much as a power line in sight. Rolling green hills for miles.