This is another message in an ongoing series from our “correspondent” in Iraq.
The first thing you notice about Erbil, a city in Kurdistan, is color. They have some. I was in Erbil to meet folks for our national business alliance, possibly to hire a Kurd and to attend a conference on investment options. From 10 AM to 5 PM there were 17 presentations and 17 translations – 34 in all – each so interesting that it was like having two more root canals than I have teeth. Still, it was a nice respite from Baghdad.
We exited the plane onto a tarmac lined with roses and later in the day went to a park filled with locust trees and roses. Did I tell you about T walls? They are interlocking upside down T- shaped blast barriers, about 12′ tall, 6-9″ in thickness, and lashed together. In Erbil they are painted with wall art or just color and pattern. Then comes sound–or rather its absence. There are no explosions, and large clanking noises are just loud clanking noises. It is even possible to hear the calls to prayer, eerily floating over the rooftops. The other night, two dueling mosques kept turning up their volume alternately. What began as an otherworldly chanting counterpoint transmogrified into a cacophony of prayer. Finally, one party gave up and just broadcast a loud and continuous horn.
And no body armor for us. Apparent security is minimal. I walked in the park, went to the market. Still I have armed accompaniment – company policy. Kurds are gracious and fun-loving. Today, Friday, about 2/3 are in the mountains or in parks picnicking. I’ve never seen anything like it. Construction is everywhere and business is flourishing.
So what’s the cost? Every major intersection has a traffic light. Around the light will be found a traffic cop, a security cop, and an intelligence officer – the latter two in disguise. Everybody is watched. People who criticize the government disappear, and if they reappear at all it is with a new organization of their physical and mental subunits.
The corruption is astounding – about on a par with Nigeria and Cameroon and slightly better than Angola, according to an international survey. I am told by some young people that in a typical construction contract for, say one million dollars, up to $900,000 disappears at various levels before a spade of dirt is turned. So, everything built here is cheap and off kilter. As the chief of security described our compound. “It is 5 years old, so it only looks 25.” It seems to be common knowledge that Barzani stays in power with U.S. complicity all the way.