SULAIMANIYAH, Kurdistan Region, Iraq — Baghdad hasn’t changed all that much since I last saw it three years ago. It is still the “City of Cement,” an excellent title my late colleague Anthony Shadid had used for an article. Huge concrete blocks placed to thwart car bombs encircling the Green Zone and its vicinity had long turned the once fabulous and legendary city of yore to a full-fledged “City of Cement.”
If Baghdad is a “City of Cement,” then the highways linking the city to other parts of the country can be called “Routes of Checkpoints.” So much so that in some places you pass through three checkpoints within 100 meters (328 feet). Traffic jams for ordinary people form long queues of cars and trucks. If you have special passes or cards given by military intelligence, you can take the liberty of driving in the opposite lane, never mind the oncoming traffic, creating an additional danger to already hazardous traffic. And there are many people enjoying those rights.
Fallujah, but only 60 kilometers (37 miles) west of Baghdad, is in the hands of al-Qaeda using the name of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). Ramadi, the capital of the large Sunni province of Anbar, is another half an hour away from Fallujah. Although recovered from al-Qaeda, whose Arabic acronym is pronounced as “daish,” Anbar had made it miserable for US occupying troops after 2003. It is one massive zone of trouble, of Sunni tribes on roads to Syria and Jordan, whose allegiance will never be fully known, nor whether it is going to change on any given day.
If you don’t turn toward Fallujah from Mahmudiyah, about half an hour south of Baghdad airport, and continue southward, you can legitimately ask, “Am I in Iraq or at the beginning of Shiistan?”
Checkpoints on the way to Karbala intensify as you come closer to “Karbala al-Muqaddes” (Holy Karbala). The city is in perpetual motion, crowded with people who have come from the four corners of the globe and country, especially pilgrims from Iran. The north of the country, that is the Kurdistan region, has no connection with either Baghdad or Anbar and certainly not with “Shiistan” land that begins at increasingly “Shiitized” Baghdad, reaches its zenith at Karbala and Najaf and extends all the way to Basra in the south. At the Kurdish capital of Sulaimaniyah, close to the Iran border, or the capital of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) at Erbil, and on the two-hour drive between Erbil and Sulaimaniyah, there is nothing to suggest that you are in the same country as Baghdad, “Shiistan” or Anbar province.
Even foreign policy and foreign policy perceptions vary. For example, the Iraqi Foreign Relations Commission had convened to listen to me in the chamber of Sheikh Humam Hamoudi, the chairman of the commission and one of the respected personalities of the country, in the parliament building located in the Green Zone. Since Arab Sunni parliamentarians were boycotting the parliament in reaction to events in Anbar, only the Shiite, Kurdish and Turkmen members of parliament were in attendance. They asked many questions on domestic developments in Turkey, Turkey-Iraq relations and Turkey’s place in regional balances. That gave me an opportunity to hear their views on Turkey and its foreign policy.
An official, introduced to me as adviser of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki on Turkish affairs and as the “curator of the Turkey file,” amazed me with his powers of analysis, much more than closely following what is happening in Turkey.
He expressed his observations of Turkey’s Middle East, in particular Iraqi policies with critical language. He said, “Turkey entered in the region too hastily. It tried to move too fast without knowing and learning the characteristics of the region.” He concluded, “That brought the end of the Turkey model.”
In response to his remarks about Turkey’s clumsy entry into the region and moving too hastily, I said, “You mean Turkey doesn’t know the Arabs too well?” That brought laughter from Hamoudi, and from Arabs and Iraqi Kurds in the room who know Arabs well. I suppose I made them laugh with my tacit sarcasm on Arabs’ talent for political cunning.
The policy of “zero problems with neighbors” that belongs to Turkey’s Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu is now ironically reworded as ”only problems with neighbors.”
While the “zero problems with neighbors” policy was still valid, the relations of the Recep Tayyip Erdogan government in Turkey with Syria were perfect; very promising with the central Iraqi regime in Baghdad, but distanced and problematic with the KRG. Now, in the period of “only problems with neighbors,” relations with Damascus are hostile and unfriendly and potentially hostile with the Maliki regime in Baghdad. But relations with the KRG have become sort of a love affair; at least, they look like more than simple flirtation.
The second “Sulaimaniyah forum” organized at the American University in Sulaimaniyah (AUIS) this year under the auspices of the founder of the university and a former deputy prime minister of Iraq and prime minister of the KRG, Barhan Salih, took place with impressive international participation.
The most impressive part of the forum was the address made by Davutoglu, along with Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari and KRG Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani. Davutoglu, deeply involved in the intensive diplomatic traffic over Ukraine, was making his first visit to Sulaimaniyah. This by itself was observed as a signal that Turkey might want to extend its influence to beyond Erbil to Sulaimaniyah, considered an Iranian zone of influence, and that Ankara would be willing to enter into competition in all corners of Kurdistan and Iran.
A most important and interesting feature that made the forum a memorable event was Davutoglu opening his address in almost perfect Kurdish.
Davutoglu opening his talk in Kurdish was seen as a most striking indicator of the radical changes in the region. People recalled how Leyla Zana, Turkey’s well-known Kurdish personality and member of parliament, had spent 10 years in prison because she had said a sentence in Kurdish while taking an oath at the Turkish parliament in 1991.
Sulaimaniyah is not only the second important city of the KRG. It is also the power base of Iraq’s Kurdish President Jalal Talabani, who has been under medical treatment in Germany for more than a year. Nobody has seen his face or heard his voice since then. Sulaimaniyah is also the power base of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), Talabani’s much-enfeebled organization, which is engulfed in internal problems. It is also the power base of Gorran (Change) movement, which split off from PUK a few years ago and in time became the second main party and main opposition of the KRG after Barzani’s Kurdistan Democrat Party. In the last KRG elections, Gorran won a sweeping victory in Sulaimaniyah.
Despite all this, the KRG has not been able to form a government for months. This is explained by the interference of Qasem Soleimani, the commander of Iran’s notorious Quds Force, who frequently visits Sulaimaniyah and meets with various PUK fractions and the Gorran. I was told that Soleimani has significant influence on Maliki. Perhaps it was somewhat exaggerated, but I also heard people say, “Qasem Soleimani is governing Iraq through Maliki.”
Davutolgu came to Sulaimaniyah, and before meeting Barzani in Erbil he met with all the PUK wings, Talabani’s wife, Hero Ibrahim Ahmad, and for the first time with Gorran leader Nawshirvan Mustafa. He invited Gorran to open a representative office in Ankara.
US Assistant Secretary of State Brett McGurk, former French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, former US Ambassador to Iraq, Afghanistan and UN Zalmay Khalilzad, who were in Sulaimaniyah to attend the forum, all found the opportunity to visit the “new strongman” of Sulaimaniyah, Nawshirvan Mustafa.
Mustafa is an old friend of mine. Before leaving Sulaimaniyah and Iraq, he was the last person I exchanged views with. He wanted to know where Turkey was heading and how that would affect Turkey-Iraq, Turkey-KRG relations and Turkey’s own Kurdish issue.
He didn’t challenge the perception that the Turkey model is over with. But after listing the successes of Erdogan, he asked, "How did you come to this situation?”
He easily understood my response, laughed and did not pursue it. I had said, “The Turkey model was an example for this region, for all of you. The idea was to become a model for you without becoming like you. But now we are resembling you more and more with our political culture, our regime structure and even commercial mindsets. When we start to look like you, we can’t anymore appeal to you. This is why the Turkey model is finished for you.”