Summer project fieldwork: Between Iraq and a hard place

It was already feeling like a long day when I sat down with Ahmed for a cup of Iraqi sweet tea. He had come from the nearby Kurdish department of foreign relations, but I had come north from Sulaymaniyah, about a 3-hour drive away, in mid-day temperatures hovering around 46C. Had the mercury read any higher, the government might have called for a public holiday, as they had done the previous week. But we were under that dubious threshold today, and our appointment was still as scheduled. Hailing a ride in a garage that was more akin to a bustling market than a taxi depot – dozens of drivers hawking destinations and prices, my dinars passing through several hands before making it into the pockets of my driver, minus a few commissions – I settled in with three other men and kicked myself for not paying a premium for the front seat. But it was too late, we were already off, and I was hesitant to disrupt the peace with a seat squabble. There was little space to negotiate legroom or adjust posture—we would get to know each other well.

MPP student Cameron Bell in Iraq

MPP student Cameron Bell in Iraq

The journey to see Ahmed was itself illustrative of the turmoil in northern Iraq. The most efficient route to Erbil, the capital city of the semi-autonomous region of Kurdistan, took us through the outskirts of Kirkuk, a disputed territory, one of many oil-rich cities and villages contested between Baghdad and the Kurds. The Kurds’ historical claims to the land were directly challenged by Saddam Hussein’s violent “Arabization” campaign to change the population mix on the ground in favor of Baghdad. Today, the needle is pointing back the other direction, as the Kurdish military forces known as Peshmerga have used the threat posed by the Islamic State as a pretext to reassert administrative control over these lands. We had the good fortune to make it through the many armed check points without incident, but a visible tower of smoke and flame in the rear view mirror as we passed Kirkuk was an unsettling sign of the conflict: just hours before, suspected Islamic State fighters had blown up an oil well at the Bai Hassan field. With the Arab driver unperturbed, we pressed on north to Erbil – a Kurdish teenager in the front, and me, a Chinese oilfield worker, and a Yazidi restaurant owner in the back.

The drive was equal parts Colorado and Texas, a mixture of red rock gorges, wadis in Arabic, and vast desert plains. Occasionally, we would come across oil infrastructure and industrial camps of trailers, or a political portrait of Jalal Talabani, Iraq’s first President under the post-Saddam constitution and a Kurdish leader. But mostly, it was just open space, sand as far as the eye can see. As my mind wandered with the landscape, it occurred to me how incongruous it seemed for this area to be the place of such intense border disputes. How dare one divide lands so naturally open and seamless, I thought. But of course, it was what was below ground that drove this animosity more than anything else.

Our few bonding moments occurred at checkpoints, when interaction amongst us was forced. The Chinese had to remove his earphones; the Kurdish student had to translate questions for me from the armed member of the Iraqi Security Forces; and the puzzle-like tangle of the Yazidi and my limbs had to be separated in order for him to find his identification. I asked him what kind of restaurant he ran. When he gesticulated like a fish, I was curious for the rest of the ride where exactly Iraqi fish came from. But I was more moved by his story – the Yazidis are one of the most persecuted ethnic and religious minority groups in Iraq, and he had escaped Mount Sinjar in northwestern Iraq for safety in Kurdistan two years ago, before Daesh, an Arabic acronym for the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, took the region and enslaved thousands in their genocidal march. He identified first as Yazidi (a religion that fuses Zoroastrianism with elements of Christianity and Islam), then Kurdish, then with his tribe and family, and last as Iraqi – though he felt closer to Iraqi Muslim Kurds than to Syrian or Turkish Kurds, showing a semblance of national pride. It was quite clear that between nationality, ethnicity, religion, tribe and family, the prolonged conflict had hardened the divisions within his identity. It was an unfamiliar ranking for an American to grapple with but an all too familiar series of allegiances for people of the Middle East – and essential to keep in mind when considering efforts towards peace, stability, and improved governance in the region.

There were no goodbyes when we pulled into Erbil – just gasps for fresh air. I went into my meeting with Ahmed with heightened sensitivity toward one’s espoused identity and began by simply asking about his background. After all, he could even be Catholic – at his suggestion, we met in an Assyrian enclave of Erbil called Ankawa, home to the Syriac Church and various Christian sects of ancient Mesopotamia. Incidentally, it was one of the quieter neighborhoods of the city and home to many ex-pats and their employers. However, the façade of security shattered last April when a car bomb exploded at the entrance to the U.S. Consulate, killing 3 and wounding 14. It was a dark means of intimidation by the Islamic State, who had already seized the neighboring city of Mosul and come close enough to threaten Erbil International Airport. For reasons still unclear to me, Ahmed wanted to have tea in this bombed out area, now a construction zone with one rebuilt café in operation. I thought, on the one hand the site continues to be a target (the consulate had not moved); on the other, security all around had been augmented, and that put me at ease. Perhaps there was no place safer. I think that was his idea. Plus, we had a front row seat to the whizzing motorcades of diplomats and advance teams in SUVs, coming and going. As an American, I was slightly embarrassed by their heavy presence and would have preferred to see more subtle movements around town, but understood the security precautions in the wake of the death of Ambassador Chris Stephens.

Local boys in Kalar, Iraq

Local boys consider a swim in the oasis off of a wild farm of date palms. Kalar, Iraq

Iraqi tea comes out piping hot. It is beyond undrinkable. This means one must pursue an immediate means of cooling the tea (such as pouring half out on the ground – customary in less refined tea houses – or pouring some into the saucer and slurping from there), or one must wait, bide the time, and enjoy the company one has. The latter course fit well for an interview.

Ahmed works for the head of foreign relations within the ruling party, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), not to be confused with the head of the department of foreign relations for the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), and certainly not to be confused with the minister of foreign affairs for the Republic of Iraq. Ever since the Kurdish region came under protection from Saddam’s aggression through an internationally enforced no-fly zone at the conclusion of the first Gulf War, Kurdish authorities began developing parallel structures of government to those in Baghdad in an institutions building campaign that they hoped one day might pave the way for independence. In recent years, the KRG has had increasing success in wresting sovereignty away from Baghdad, exploiting the ambiguities of the national constitution and consolidating power in the ruling KDP party. When introducing himself, Ahmed was clear: first he was Kurdish, and second he was KDP. Party affiliation was another critical layer of identity.

I asked Ahmed broadly for his perspectives on energy opportunities in northern Iraq. As we warmed up to one another discussing the KRG’s priorities (defeating ISIS, declaring independence), I came to admire his straightforward answers. But he was also a party loyalist, not deviating much from the script. There was no mention of the opposition PUK party, with whom the KDP fought a bloody civil war amidst the 1990s power vacuum caused, in part, by the international containment of Saddam in the south. Earlier, when I told a PUK member I was going north to meet with the KDP, the response I received was telling: “Ah, KDP. The head of the serpent.” Right. Got it.

When I asked Ahmed specifically about a proposed oil pipeline between Kurdistan and Iran, it was evident that while he had a view about its origins and likelihood of success, the deal would be driven by consensus politics between the party, the ministry, and the de facto autonomous government of Kurdistan, with implicit approval by the central Iraqi government. The pipeline was not a matter for executive decision, he inferred. I paused. Ahmed was both frustratingly diplomatic and insightful at the same time, for governance in this part of the world is far more consensual than outside observers give credit for, originating from local tribal traditions and manifesting itself in consensus building councils all over the region, whether local, provincial, or so-called Shura councils at the highest levels of the Saudi and Jordanian governments. This stood in contrast to the strongman, authoritarian reputation of the Middle East, but it appeared to be a viable explanation for the delays in the deal – multiple stakeholders with ill-defined jurisdictions. The scenario elicits sympathy for the Iranians. Who do they actually sign the deal with at the end of the day? Ahmed was quick to remind me as well of several external shocks, namely an enormous economic crisis from low crude prices, an influx of internally displaced people (IDPs) and refugees, and the existential threat of Daesh. Yet Iraqis have a way of acknowledging the chaos and suffering around them, to which they have sadly become accustomed, without getting depressed. Ahmed flashed a devilish smile. “In the past you could say we wished to be played, but now we are playing the game ourselves. And I believe we have played quite well.” It was a good note on which to finish our tea.

The natural break at the end of the interview never came. Instead, we were silenced by the roar of three Apache helicopters, rising consecutively from the other side of the two-story concrete wall of the U.S. Consulate. Ahmed shouted, “Off to Mosul, I suspect.” It was a reminder of the intensifying U.S.-led coalition to retake Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, which fell to Daesh in 2014. It was also a reminder to get the American perspective on the oil deal. How will U.S. allies in the region, like Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey, view an oil deal that is sure to be a boost to the Iranian economy after the recently removed sanctions? How is a Kurdish pipeline independent of Baghdad consistent with the U.S. “One Iraq” policy that nominally opposes Kurdish secession? I said goodbye to Ahmed and lined up my appointments for the next day – on the other side of the wall.

My academic interest is in breaking down the stakeholders of the potential pipeline and organizing them into an influence map that can analyze potential outcomes from observed behavior. Who initiated this deal? Why has it been stalled after the technical agreement, approving its feasibility, was signed? Who put on the brakes and on what grounds? Are the costs and benefits evenly shared? How might a deal be planned among other political and economic objectives and priorities? Is there path dependency? Only one viable sequence of events? In the politics of the deal, is there issue linkage? Are other topics being married with the pipeline and traded together? Among the local, national, regional, and international interests, which have the most explanatory power? These are the questions I am considering on my summer project placement in Iraq, through a fellowship offered by the Institute for Regional and International Studies at the American University of Iraq, Sulaimani. There is a common adage that “all politics is local.” The challenge in my research so far has been determining to what extent that old saying applies in Iraqi Kurdistan.

As I walked back to my hotel, through the vibrant street life for which the Arab world is so well known, I thought about how the people I encountered today fit into my stakeholder map. I also thought about when I might visit Erbil next, and whether then, the U.S. Consulate might just be a U.S. Embassy.

Cameron Bell is a Master of Public Policy Candidate at Oxford’s Blavatnik School of Government, currently on his summer project placement in Iraq. Ahmed is a name given by the author to protect his actual identity.

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