The Other Iraq’s Future

June 10, 2010

The future of “The Other Iraq” remains unclear. This applies to both the Kurdistan Region of Iraq and this blog.

I completed my Master’s thesis on May 7 and graduated with an MA in Middle East Studies from George Washington University on May 16. The thesis, titled “Dependent Aspirations: The Oil Policies of the Kurdistan Regional Government,” provided me with a great opportunity to travel to Kurdistan and learn more about the KRG’s oil policies from the Kurdish perspective. I would like to thank my thesis advisor, Dr. Bulent Aliriza, for his guidance throughout the process. It is also necessary that I thank the many individuals willing to speak with me in Erbil. Without their valuable insight, the paper would not be what it is today.

The Institute for Middle East Studies at GW’s Elliott School of International Affairs has posted the paper on its website as part of “Student Research.” The paper can currently be accessed by clicking the following link: Dependent Aspirations: The Oil Policies of the Kurdistan Regional Government. I am in the process of trying to get the paper published in a Middle East/U.S. foreign policy-related journal in the U.S. sometime this summer, so may end up being required to delete it from this page at some point.

“The Other Iraq” blog will remain active, although I do not have a clear plan for its future content or level of activity. This will largely depend on my place of employment and specific focus of work going forward. Whichever direction I move toward, I hope to continue working on issues related to political and oil affairs of Kurdistan and Iraq in general.

There are many in Iraq, and throughout the region, that are rooting against the Kurds, but I can attest that there are many special things going on in Kurdistan. The politics between the KRG and Iraq’s central government will remain critical to the future of Iraq and U.S. interests for years to come. It will be interesting to follow as an analyst and even more exciting to get involved in on a more personal level.

Thank you for reading.

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Capstone Presentation: The Oil Policies of the Kurdistan Regional Government (April 29, 2010)

April 28, 2010

The Institute for Middle East Studies


The Institute for Middle East Studies cordially invites you to attend the presentations of our Middle East Studies M.A. students’ capstone projects.

The 2010 Middle East Studies
Capstone Presentations

Thursday, April 29, 2010

IMES Conference Room
Suite 512, 1957 E Street NW

5:45 p.m. – 6:15 p.m.
Dependent Aspirations: The Oil Policies of the Kurdistan Regional Government
Thomas Strouse
Advisor: Bulent Aliriza, Center for Strategic and International Studies

1957 E Street, NW, Suite 512 •  Washington, DC 20052 • 202-994-9249  •  Fax 202-994-4055
Email
imes@gwu.edu •  Web www.gwu.edu/~imes

KRG Oil Policies and Dependent Aspirations

April 10, 2010

The Kurdish Globe published an article I wrote on the oil policies of the Kurdistan Regional Government. It details some of the issues that I have been completing research on. The full article is copied below. To view the article on the Kurdish Globe website, click here. To view the PDF version of the Kurdish Globe newspaper published on April 10, click here and see page 10. The Kurdish Globe is a weekly English language newspaper printed in Erbil. It is the first and only English language newspaper in Kurdistan.

KRG Oil Policies and Dependent Aspirations
By Thomas Strouse
The Kurdish Globe
Saturday, 10 April 2010, 10:55 EDT

DNO worker at the Tawke oil field in Duhok. PRESS PHOTO

The Kurdistan Region of Iraq is years ahead of the rest of the country in terms of economic and institutional development.

However, Iraq’s central government continues to inhibit the development of Kurdistan’s oil sector. While the Kurdistan Regional Government began developing its oil and gas sector following the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, it continues to struggle with Baghdad over oil policies. Underlying the major differences between Baghdad and Erbil are deep political and identity issues that have made compromise difficult.

Despite its desire for an independent and decentralized oil policy, the KRG is forced to rely on Iraq’s central government because it controls the national pipeline that transports oil from northern Iraq to markets through Turkey. For its part, Turkey insists on dealing with Baghdad on oil exports as well as other official state matters. The KRG’s relationship with Ankara is also influenced by Turkey’s own Kurdish minority. Consequently, the KRG must maintain difficult relationships with both Baghdad and Ankara as it exploits the energy resources that sustain its autonomy and promote its development.

Relations between Baghdad and Erbil have occasionally been tense since 2003, with issues relating to oil at the center of many of their disputes. The Kurdish Region was much quicker than the central government to exploit its oil assets, signing deals with foreign oil companies even in the absence of an oil law and without permission from Baghdad. The KRG signed its first contract with DNO, a Norwegian oil company, in June 2004. It has since signed more than 20 additional contracts with foreign companies. When Iraq was unable to come to an agreement on a national oil law, the KRG drafted and approved its own regional oil and gas law in August 2007. The Kurds decided that it could no longer be held back by the fickleness of the leadership in Baghdad and that it must carve out its own path if it hopes to successfully develop its own oil and gas sector.

The Kurds exported oil for the first time in 2009. However, this only lasted from June through September. Operating companies halted exports after they did not receive payment for their work. While exports were flowing, the KRG appeared to be under the impression that Baghdad would eventually give in and pay the companies. This never happened.

The KRG wants Baghdad to at least pay the companies the capital costs that they have incurred, but Baghdad believes that the KRG should pay the companies from the revenues that it receives from the federal government. The Kurdistan Region is entitled to 17% of Iraq’s federal revenues, after deductions from “sovereign expenses.” Not only is this amount not enough to pay the companies, but also the revenue payments to the KRG are not paid in a timely fashion and are generally used by Baghdad as a way to pressure the Kurds.

It makes little economic sense for Baghdad to continue to resist the KRG’s desire to increase oil exports. Without a compromise, Iraq is depriving itself of much needed revenues largely because of political posturing. As it stands now, with no Kurdish exports flowing, Iraq’s central government is receiving 83% of zero from KRG export potential. The Kurds are not demanding 100% of their oil export revenue. Instead, they hope to increase Iraq’s total exports, which would in turn increase revenues for the Kurdistan Region.

The foreign oil companies operating in Kurdistan say they are committed to a long-term presence and that their interests align fully with the KRG. However, it is unlikely that they will be able to stick around forever if politics continue to inhibit production and exports. The companies took a significant amount of risk and have invested heavily in their respective projects. They are not preparing to leave at the moment, but if political gridlock remains, it may leave some of them with few other options in the future. Since the companies signed contracts with the KRG, and not with Baghdad, ultimately it is the responsibility of the KRG to uphold the contracts.

The defiant posture of the KRG’s Minister of Natural Resources Ashti Hawrami has put him at odds with the central government, but it has also enabled the Kurdish Region to attract a number of small and medium-sized Western oil companies to help the Kurds exploit their sizeable reserves. The KRG’s independent strategy made an attempt to use Baghdad’s initial failures in securing foreign investment in Iraq’s oil sector as a way to justify its own successful efforts. In the latter part of 2009, however, Iraq’s central government signed a number of contracts with large foreign oil companies which could dramatically increase production over the next several years. It appears that signing these contracts provided Baghdad with a renewed sense of confidence in its own ability to increase oil exports and not have to rely on the Kurds for their export potential. Maliki’s government and many others in Baghdad believe that the KRG’s oil sector must come under the authority of the central government.

Since Baghdad signed these latest deals, the KRG has struggled to find leverage on oil matters. The post-election horse-trading following Iraq’s recent parliamentary election provides the Kurds with a window of opportunity to exact concessions from the next government in Baghdad. The fate of KRG exports could be part of a bargain preceding the formation of the next government. While not a total game stopper on oil issues, personal rivalries between political leaders in Baghdad and Erbil have been a major obstacle in overcoming the persistent deadlock between the two sides. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and Oil Minister Hussein Shahristani each made conciliatory remarks regarding KRG exports in January and February, but this likely came from the realization that they may need the Kurds if they hope to remain in power.

The Kurdistan Alliance and the smaller Kurdish political factions are open to join any coalition in the next government. However, this time around the Kurds want more concrete assurances from Baghdad, regardless of who the next Prime Minister is. Maliki broke a number of promises he previously made and the Kurdish leadership does not want to have another four years of political gridlock between Baghdad and Erbil.

The Kurds have high aspirations for the Kurdish Region in general and for their oil and gas sector in particular. Despite having the determination and the resources, their go-it-alone approach to oil policies must eventually acknowledge a few stark realities. The Kurdistan Region is dependent upon Iraq’s central government to export its oil and it is landlocked and surrounded by three countries that remain concerned by the future aspirations of the Kurds. Only through a compromise with Baghdad will the KRG be able to reach its true potential as an important and reliable oil and gas producer in its own right. If neither side is willing to soften its position and accept compromise, politics will continue to hold back not only the Kurdistan Region, but also the entire country.

Thomas Strouse is a graduate student at George Washington University. He recently traveled to Kurdistan to complete research for his master’s thesis.

The Other Iraq in Kurdistan Newspapers

March 27, 2010

Over the past two days, three posts from The Other Iraq have been featured in English language newspapers in Kurdistan.

On March 26, Rudaw posted Sulaymaniyah to Washington on their website. It was written on March 23, after I returned to Washington. It describes my trip in a shared taxi from Erbil to Sulaymaniyah. On March 27, Kurdish Globe featured two separate articles. The first is The Land of Purple Fingers, which describes the post-election scene in Erbil. The second is First Impressions from Kurdistan, which was written on March 12, my first full day there.

Kurdish Globe is a weekly English language newspaper based in Erbil. It is the only English language news source in Kurdistan that is printed in newspaper format. Click here to view the PDF version of the Kurdish Globe edition printed on March 27. “The Land of Purple Fingers” can be found on page 5 and “First Impressions from Kurdistan” can be found on page 14.

To view the three articles on the websites of Rudaw and Kurdish Globe, click the corresponding links below:

I would like to thank the editors at Rudaw and Kurdish Globe for their willingness to share my posts to a wider audience. Over the past several months, their websites have been invaluable for my basic understanding of the Kurdistan Region and it is an honor to have something published by each of them.

An Iranian Living in Exile in Iraqi Kurdistan

March 25, 2010

WASHINGTON — Following the December 27 Ashura protests in Iran, his face was broadcast on nearly all of Iran’s state-run television stations. He had been accused of Mohareb, or “enemy of God.” The punishment for this crime is death.

Nearly three months later, I had the honor of meeting with this particular individual in Iraqi Kurdistan. I volunteered not to use his name and certain details for his own safety, but he insisted that I use his name, share the full details, and even post his photo. He wants his friends, family, and even his government to know that he is alive and well. A post on this blog is also a useful outlet to an American audience.

His story is both intriguing and inspiring. I spent a significant amount of time talking with him in Kurdistan and I was moved by the situation he finds himself in. I feel obligated to share his story, yet hope I can give it the justice that it fully deserves.

Ali Shams, Iranian activist living in exile in Iraqi Kurdistan

Ali, an Iranian Green Movement activist living in exile in Iraqi Kurdistan (March 20, 2010)

His name is Ali, a Green Movement activist currently living in exile in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. He is 30 years old and formerly worked as a stock market analyst in Tehran. Since being on the run at the end of December, each day has been a struggle for basic needs–food, shelter, and security. He is wanted by the Iranian government and if they find him, they have promised to send him back to Iran in a bag. The Iranian authorities would be happy to see his death, but perhaps even happier to see that he is tortured for his crimes. Iranian spies have a presence in Kurdistan and Iraqi Kurds can easily tell that he is an Iranian. At the moment, he is living his life on the run. For his own safety, he moves from hotel to hotel and from city to city. Despite the dilemma that Ali finds himself in, he maintains high hopes and doesn’t ask for much. He wants to live in Iran, make a decent living, and be free from the strong grip of the current Iranian government. In the meantime though, he has his sights set on moving to the U.S., Australia, or somewhere in Europe. However, this is not an easy process.

Ali participated in the Ashura protests in Iran on December 27. Throughout that evening, he received countless messages and phone calls from friends saying that they saw his face on television. He knew his life was now in danger.

Ali wrestled with the question of what to do for the remainder of the night. Would Iranian intelligence agents come knocking on his door? Not many people knew where he was currently living, but would Iranian authorities be able to find him? Around 2 AM that night, his instincts told him that something was seriously wrong. He looked out the window from the second story of his mother’s three-story house on the outskirts of Tehran, and through the front gate, he saw a number of Iranian security forces barging through. His immediate reaction was to try to make a run for it. He ran to the third floor, jumped off the roof onto the neighbors roof, and ran through a large garden. After fleeing from his house, he continued to run and didn’t look back. He left everything without warning. He did not have time to grab money or identification, nor did he get the opportunity to say good-bye to his mother. To this day, two Iranian agents are on watch near his house, either waiting for his return, or watching what kind of people come to visit. His mother’s phone is tapped by the government. They occasionally speak to one another on the phone, but can say nothing of substance. If the government knew exactly where he was, it wouldn’t take long for them to find him.

His strong instincts that night likely came from the more than 9 months he spent in an Iranian prison in 2003. Similar to this time, they arrived in the early hours of the night so they would catch him sleeping. In 2003, he woke up to guns being pointed in his face. He had an emotionally difficult time explaining what kind of torture he endured during his time as a political prisoner. “This government is violent and vile. I know because I was in their hands,” Ali recounted. “They are savages. They torture in the name of God.”

With a significant amount of luck, Ali managed to escape from his house late that night without being caught. At the time, he knew he couldn’t stick around and it was time to find a way out of the country. His options were limited. After a couple days of traveling by car and bus, Ali eventually made it to a border town in the northwestern part of Iran. He was introduced to a small group of whiskey smugglers on the Iranian side of the Iran-Iraq border who smuggle whiskey from Iraq into Iran. The whiskey smugglers proved to be his savior.

To pass him through the border, he had to pay around $1,000, paying a bit extra for armed security. The smugglers operate in a mountainous border area that is quite challenging to cross. The night he began his journey the weather was brutal and snow had been falling for days. With a few smugglers by his side, Ali walked more than 20 kilometers, until he reached a point which was not passable. He was forced to return back to the base where he began. His one lasting memory from this particular experience occurred during a time of desperation, when he realized he would be forced to turn back. He looked up to the sky for some sign of hope and at that precise moment, above the snow-capped mountains, he saw a moon like he had never seen in his life. This demonstrated to Ali that hope was still alive and that he couldn’t give up.

After re-walking the 20 kilometers through the mountains, Ali eventually returned to the original smuggling base on the Iranian side of the border. He had to wait a few days for the weather to improve and then traveled to another border area. At this new border town, he would have to pass through the mountains by horse. The whiskey smugglers dressed him up in traditional Kurdish clothing and he was on his way. After a full two days traveling by horse with an armed whiskey smuggler alongside him, he reached another point where he was picked up in a Toyota Land Cruiser. Smuggling goods, let alone people, along the Iran-Iraq border is a dangerous affair. Especially on the Iranian side, the government will not hesitate to kill the smugglers on the spot, with no questions asked.

Once in Iraqi Kurdistan, Ali was taken to a camp operated by the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan. He stayed at the camp for one week and they took care of him. After getting to know him, they decided to be his sponsor for residency in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. He had several meetings with the top leadership of the party and they offered him a position within the organization. Let alone the fact that he isn’t Kurdish, the party’s goal is a free Kurdistan, whereas Ali’s goal is simply a free Iran. He has no desire to operate among an Iranian Kurdish political organization in Iraqi Kurdistan, armed and storming the Iranian border. He wants to have the ability to non-violently protest against the current Iranian government and this is why he is in exile.

He eventually made his way to Erbil and Sulaymaniyah. With no money initially, he spent more than a week sleeping in a tent on the outskirts of Erbil. During the past two months, he has found various jobs such as unloading trucks (including some filled with whiskey) and a computer programming job. But nothing has been long-term.

His ultimate goal is to return to the homeland that he loves. He wishes to live in no place other than Iran. His short-term goal is to seek asylum in the West. In Iraq, he has met with officials from France, Germany, the Netherlands, and the U.S. They have all rejected asylum. The United Nations has also been unable to help. He is now a refugee, struggling to find basic necessities in a dangerous place for him. He doesn’t speak Kurdish, he has no family there, and he can never be sure if he is being tracked down by an Iranian spy. If he were in the West, he wouldn’t be worth Iran’s time to find. But now he is in the government’s clear range of influence. He has been advised by some Western governments that if he can make it to their country illegally he will then have a better chance of getting accepted. With $100 in his pocket, this is easier said than done.

Ali would like to send a simple message to the U.S. government and to the American people. He urges that the U.S. not recognize the Ahmadinejad government and never sign an agreement with his government. He said that the Green Movement is not asking for U.S. support. Its goal is to engage in peaceful protests with the hope of changing certain aspects of the government. However, on some matters, U.S. help with communication tools is needed, for example with providing internet proxy servers and preventing satellite blocking by the Iranian government. He questions why the U.S. talks about being concerned for the well-being of someone like himself, but then not caring when it comes down to it.

Even though Ali is considered the worst kind of criminal in Iran, one which is an “enemy of God”, I can attest that Ali is no criminal. He has not a violent strain in his body. His only crime was that he dare to stand up to the Islamic Republic. He missed not a single protest following Iran’s disputed presidential election in June 2009. He was on the front lines of the protests, willing to sacrifice himself for even the slightest change in the political system. Asked if he was prepared to sacrifice his life for the cause of change in Iran, he responded that he would, without a doubt. However, he also explained that he doesn’t want to die for nothing.

“I don’t even want to be involved in politics. The Iranian government forces me to be involved,” Ali said. “Perhaps my problem is that I do not keep my mouth shut. But with the current situation in Iran, I refuse to keep my mouth shut. And for this, here I am. This is my life.”

[If you would like to send Ali a message, feel free to leave a comment on this blog, or email him at alishams02@yahoo.com. He is a great person, a dear friend, and I wish him the best.]

The Land of Purple Fingers

March 23, 2010

[The following post was written last week in Erbil.]

ERBIL — Everywhere you look in Kurdistan, you see the remnants of the infamous purple ink used on election day on March 7. By this point, many have been worn down to a purple fingernail, but it is still clearly visible. Kurds seem to be especially proud of their purple fingers and never miss a chance to show it off. The symbolism of the ink-stained fingers sounds cliche in the U.S., but here it’s normal, yet many are still proud to display it. While in the U.S. it has been used as a symbolic political victory of democracy in Iraq, here it is fairly standard for its practical purposes. Presumably, the only way you can vote twice is to cut off your own index finger. It takes a few weeks for the purple ink to fully rub off.

The three provinces which make up the Kurdistan Region–Duhok, Erbil, and Sulaymaniyah–had the three highest voter turnout rates out of Iraq’s 18 provinces. Dohuk’s turnout was reportedly 80 percent, Erbil’s was 76 percent, and Sulaymaniyah’s was 73 percent. The average voter turnout in all of Iraq was around 62%.

For the past few decades, the Kurdistan Region of Iraq has been dominated by two main political parties, the KDP (Kurdistan Democratic Party) and the PUK (Patriotic Union of Kurdistan). Erbil, the capital of the Kurdistan Region, is primarily controlled by the KDP, which is led by the Kurdistan Region’s President Massoud Barzani. Despite being united as part of the Kurdistan Alliance, there is no doubt which Kurdish political party was the victorious partner in the recent election. The yet-to-be announced, but widely expected victory of the KDP, has celebrations in the streets both day and night. There appears to be much less concern about what is happening in Baghdad. The primary focus here is Kurdish “domestic” politics.

Once darkness falls, small groups of cars begin driving around Erbil honking their horns, with people hanging out the windows waving KDP flags. Every 15 or 30 minutes another group passes my hotel celebrating until well after midnight. It is interesting that this is still happening, more than one week after the election. Apparently I missed the Kalashnikov’s being fired into the air during the first couple days after the election.

The Kurds of Iraq voted, they are happy that they have the opportunity to vote in a relatively free election, and they know that the Kurdistan Region is not on the verge of chaos. They are proud of what they have built in Kurdistan and they want to stay as far away as possible from the chaotic nature which often makes up the southern part of the country.

Sulaymaniyah to Washington

March 23, 2010

WASHINGTON — I safely returned to Washington late Monday evening, March 22. Due to the British Airways strike, I had to change my flights around, delaying my return. This meant I was unable to spend two days in Istanbul at the end of my trip, but because of the change in flights, I had to fly out of Sulaymaniyah, instead of Erbil. This gave me the chance to spend a couple days in Sulaymaniyah prior to my return home.

Shared Taxi from Erbil to Sulaymaniyah (March 19, 2010)

Sulaymaniyah is about two and a half hours from Erbil. It costs more than $100 for a private taxi that takes a longer route which avoids Kirkuk. But it costs $10 for a shared taxi which travels through a small area of the oil-rich city which also happens to be plagued with violence. Of course, I decided on the latter. It was an interesting drive, stuck in the middle of the back seat in between an 85-year old man who wouldn’t stop talking to himself and a 30-year old man who ran as a candidate in the Iraqi parliament from Sulaymaniyah. Up front sat a well-known Sunni imam from Erbil who sang various prayers every time there was a dull silence. None of them spoke any English, and only the politician spoke any Arabic. If he ends up winning a seat in parliament, it is unclear how he will communicate with his fellow Arab members of parliament in Baghdad with such little knowledge of the Arabic language.

While we only drove past Kirkuk, I enjoyed the opportunity to at least see it briefly. I got several pictures of oil facilities on the outskirts of the city. I didn’t get any pictures of it, but we also had to pass through a number of checkpoints guarded by American, Kurdish, and Arab security forces. This was a quick reminder that I had left “the other Iraq” for “the real Iraq.” Sulaymaniyah, however, is about as safe as Erbil.

Nowruz celebrations in Sulaymaniyah (March 20, 2010)

Sulaymaniyah is much more liberal than Erbil, and you will find Talabani posters instead of Barzani ones. This helped add to my collection, since it was difficult to find Talabani memorabilia in Erbil. A Kurdish friend who works at the Kotri Salam hotel in Erbil set me up with some of his friends when I arrived in Sulaymaniyah. I also met up with an Iranian guy who I met in Erbil, who I hope to profile in a later post. I arrived in Sulaymaniyah during the start of Nowruz, the Kurdish New Year, which was an exciting time to be there. I only caught the beginning of the Nowruz celebrations, but it was definitely a sight to see.

Overall, my trip was an amazing experience. After my short time there, I am greatly anticipating my next trip to Kurdistan, perhaps for a longer time period. There are so many economic opportunities in the Kurdistan Region and these opportunities will only grow. I quickly made some long-lasting friendships while I was there. More than anything though, this is a testament to the friendliness and hospitality of the Kurdish people.

Over the next two weeks, I will make a number of blog posts, a couple of which I worked on while I was there but never finished. Upon my return last night, I uploaded the rest of my pictures from the trip. While I still have to write captions for the latest pictures, more than 700 of them are now posted. To view the pictures, click here.

Opening of the Turkish Consulate in Erbil

March 18, 2010

ERBIL — After much anticipation, Turkey now has its first ever consulate in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. It effectively opened up when its consul general, Aydin Selcen, arrived in Erbil on March 11. It was a low-key affair which has largely fallen below the radar of most press reporting. However, it is a significant development and it is symbolic of how far KRG-Turkish relations have improved over the past few years. Not long ago, the idea of a Turkish consulate opening up in Erbil would have been unthinkable.

I met with the new Turkish consul general on March 15 in hopes of learning more about KRG-Turkish relations and the role that the Kurdistan Region’s oil and gas sector plays in that relationship.

The temporary office of the consulate is currently located in the Erbil International Hotel, also known as “The Sheraton.” Consul General Selcen said that the Turkish delegation is now surveying the city for the location of a permanent consulate office. This marks the 17th foreign representation based in the KRG. The Turkish consul general expressed his hope that Turkey will soon have the largest and most important foreign diplomatic presence in the Kurdistan Region.

Mr. Selcen said that political, economic, and security cooperation between Turkey and the KRG have enabled the opening of the consulate. The economic relationship has been especially important. The trading volume between the two sides is around $5 billion per year and the Kurdish Region of Iraq is among the top ten trading partners of Turkey. One major benefit of having a consulate in Erbil is that Turkish citizens working in Kurdistan do not have to travel to the Turkish Embassy in Baghdad or to the Turkish consulate in Mosul. There are several hundred Turkish companies operating in Kurdistan and Turkey is the Kurdistan Region’s largest trading partner. Turkish investment, while existing prior to 2003, has increased dramatically since that time. When asked if the growing economic relationship has the ability help calm any tension in the political relationship, Mr. Selcen stated unequivocally that there is absolutely nothing to calm in the relationship. “Opening a Turkish consulate marks the take-off point in relations between the two sides,” Selcen added.

Turkish Consul General in Erbil Aydin Selcen (left) and Kurdistan Regional President Massoud Barzani (right)

After arriving in Erbil, the Turkish consul general made his rounds meeting with the Kurdish leadership based in Erbil. On March 12, he met with the head of the KRG’s Department of Foreign Relations, Minister Falah Mustafa Bakir. The following day he met with the speaker of the Kurdistan regional parliament Kamal Kirkuki, and Prime Minister Barham Salih. That same day, President Massoud Barzani hosted Selcen at his residence. “Upon my arrival, I could see the welcoming sparkle in their eyes,” Selcen said of the Kurdish leadership. He went on to say that all of his meetings were extremely positive and that he is confident that he has capable partners to work with in Erbil.

In October 2009, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu visited Erbil. This landmark visit was the first ever by a Turkish foreign minister. During his visit, Davutgolu stated his hope that Turkey would soon open up a consulate. The Iraqi cabinet approved the opening of the Turkish consulate in Erbil on January 26.

The Turkish Foreign Ministry named Aydin Selcen as consul general on March 5. Selcen previously served as charge d’affaires in the Turkish Embassy in Baghdad from 2005 to 2006. Since that time, he has served at the Turkish Embassy in Washington and at the Foreign Ministry in Ankara. Selcen has a close working relationship with Turkey’s current Ambassador in Baghdad, Murat Ozcelik. Ambassador Ozcelik was Turkey’s special envoy to Iraq prior to his appointment as ambassador in 2008.

There are a number of factors which have led to the improved relationship between Turkey and the KRG. One international energy expert based in Erbil suggested that Turkey has implemented a hedging strategy over the past few years between all parties in Iraq. If the rest of Iraq begins to disintegrate into another round of civil war, for example, he suggested that Turkey would move to the KRG to build its relationship and effectively use the Kurdistan Region as a buffer against the rest of Iraq. It could also put itself in a position as a mediator between the KRG and Baghdad if Kurdish-Arab tensions increase in the future.

Selcen said that the trilateral cooperation between Turkey, the KRG, and the U.S. has helped facilitate the development of positive relations between Turkey and the Kurds. He stressed that the Turkish-KRG bilateral relationship can sustain itself and does not depend on American facilitation, but added that the U.S. has played an important role in the process because it understands both the Turkish and Kurdish viewpoints. He also pointed out that Turkey’s close relationship with the Kurds did not begin recently. For example, when Saddam was attacking the Kurds in the 1990s, Turkey opened its doors to the Kurds out of goodwill and that the Kurdish side has not forgotten this. He attributed the opening of a consulate to a natural outcome of their long-term relationship.

Selcen said that Turkey is not concerned by the development of the Kurdistan Region’s oil and gas sector, and to the contrary, that Turkey wants to continue helping the KRG utilize its oil resources. He discussed the work of Genel Enerji, a Turkish oil company operating the Taq Taq oil field in Kurdistan, and said that other Turkish companies are also interested in assisting in the development of Kurdistan’s oil and gas sector. He said that opportunities presented with the future Nabucco natural gas pipeline could help breathe life into the Kurdistan Region and Iraq in general.

Despite its desire to develop its oil and gas sector and maintain an independent and decentralized oil policy, the KRG also remains highly dependent upon both Baghdad and Turkey. Baghdad controls the national pipeline which transports oil from northern Iraq to markets through Turkey. Turkey insists on dealing officially with Iraq’s central government on issues dealing with oil exports as well as other matters. The KRG’s relationship with Turkey has historically been influenced by Turkey’s own Kurdish minority. Consequently, the KRG must somehow maintain complex relationships with both Baghdad and Ankara as it exploits its oil and gas resources which help sustain its autonomy and develop its economy.

The opening of a Turkish consulate in Erbil is an important step for KRG-Turkey relations and this recent development should bode well for the future political and economic trajectory of the Kurdistan Region.

Welcome to “The Other Iraq”

March 16, 2010

Welcome to “The Other Iraq,” a blog which documents my trip to Iraqi Kurdistan from March 11 through March 21. I recently emailed the website address to a number of different people so want to provide a brief overview of the blog and share my plan for future posts. This will be beneficial for myself but also to those who wish to visit the blog in the future. I won’t send out any additional emails regarding updates to the blog, so feel free to keep checking back.

A few previous posts which I already made can be viewed below. They include a brief introduction to the blog, with an explanation of what I am actually doing here, as well as a post detailing my first impressions from Kurdistan. I will try to make a couple more posts before I leave here on March 21. For the two week period following my return to Washington, I will make several additional posts when I have more time to devote to it. The blog will remain online after this time, but I won’t plan on making any regular postings. Some of these future posts will include an overview of the interviews I completed in Erbil, a look at some of the issues I have been researching, what sort of personal experiences I had here, and a few other posts on political issues relating to the Kurdistan Region and Iraq in general.

It has been a very beneficial trip. I have managed to keep quite busy, splitting my time between interviewing various individuals involved in Kurdistan’s oil industry and wandering around Erbil and talking with regular Kurds. Erbil is a fascinating place and I hope my future posts are able to demonstrate that. Something very special is happening in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq and more U.S. investors and citizens alike should be aware of it.

Currently posted on Picasa are photos taken from March 11 through March 16. To view the photo website, click here.

Thanks for visiting the blog and I hope you enjoy it and decide to return. Feel free to email me at tstrouse@gwu.edu if you have any questions, feedback, or suggestions.

First Impressions from Iraqi Kurdistan

March 12, 2010

ERBIL — My first night in Kurdistan was spent at the Erbil International Hotel, but locally known as “The Sheraton.” I believe the Sheraton left in 1991, but it will forever hold the name. The lounge/restaurant/bar area is a place where you might see journalists, businessmen, and Kurdish officials. The hotel is surrounded by bomb blast walls and has a high level of security surrounding the area. Cars line up at a security checkpoint at the entrance of the “compound” to check for bombs. At the entrance into the hotel lobby, all bags are checked and you are searched, regardless of your nationality. The procedures at the hotel will either make you feel safe, or it could have the opposite effect.

After being picked up at the airport by the KRG’s Department of Foreign Relations, my arrival at the Sheraton was my first experience in Kurdistan. While rather nice, it is by far the most expensive hotel in Erbil, at about $250 per night. I wasn’t able to find another hotel above $100. In fact, I have heard you can find several for less than $10 a night. Early this afternoon, I found one downtown Erbil near the Citadel for $50 per night called Kotri Salam (“Peace Pigeon” in Kurdish). The one major benefit is wireless in the rooms. The Sheraton had wireless, but they charge $6 per hour. Internet was difficult to find but it is necessary for what I’m doing here, so I was glad to find a place that had internet even in the rooms. I paid for one night at Kotri Salam but I will probably end up staying here until I leave Erbil next Friday, March 19.

After getting settled in at the Sheraton yesterday afternoon, I decided to walk toward the center of the city a mile or two away. The Sheraton isn’t too far from the central part of Erbil, but it is slightly removed from the surrounding areas. Initially, the level of security at the hotel made me a bit hesitant about what might be beyond the walls, but I was quickly reassured once I made my way toward the bustling bazaar area near the Citadel. I successfully achieved my primary goal which was to purchase a local cell phone. After roaming around downtown Erbil for a few hours, I managed to find my way back to the hotel in one piece.

Prior to the trip, I was slightly worried about the language barrier. All of the people I will be interviewing speak English, but I was hoping I wouldn’t have too much trouble communicating with normal Kurds. Needless to say, I have been pleasantly surprised by how many Kurds actually do speak Arabic, or at least have a working knowledge of it. Despite some difficulties, communicating hasn’t been too difficult. But that could also be a testament to the Kurdish people who are all very welcoming and accommodating. Few seem to speak much English, so I primarily have to get around with Arabic. In general, Kurds in Erbil rarely communicate with Iraqi Arabs so they often don’t speak much Arabic. Some find it entertaining to get to use their Arabic with an American.

The remainder of my first evening was spent in the lounge area of the Sheraton talking with a number of different people. Initially, I was to meet with a Dutch journalist currently based in Erbil. After he arrived, two Kurdish guys who are students at the Kurdistan University of Hawler (Erbil) also ended up showing up. Both of the Kurds come from influential Kurdish families so it was interesting to hear their perspective on various Iraqi/Kurdish issues. One is working on a project with the Wall Street Journal on economic development in Kurdistan and the other is the son of a leader of one of the Kurdish Islamic political parties. Two French guys also joined the group. They are spending a year in Kurdistan. The one is completing a year of his Masters work in sociology in Kurdistan and the other is doing freelance photography. With the help of countless cups of chai (hot tea), we spent more than six hours discussing Iraqi and Kurdish politics, and little more. In the U.S. I often feel like I am imposing on friends when I try to talk about politics, but no imposing was necessary in this situation. It is also strikingly different from my experience in Syria where I was frustrated that it was nearly impossible to discuss Syrian domestic politics with locals.

While some suggest that Kurdistan is a closed society with two major political factions in control, it is actually fairly open. A Kurdish Christian man named Kemal told me today that in Iraqi Kurdistan, you are “free to speak, criticize, and ask questions…..Kurds love democracy.”  Kurds clearly have much to say about Iraqi politics and it is easy to sense a strong relief after years of oppression during the days of Saddam. “Today we can say anything we want about Saddam. It feels very, very, very good,” Kemal said. Kemal is the owner of a liquor store in a predominantly Christian area on the outskirts of Erbil called Ainkawa. His store was filled with American beer and liquor, most of which were priced below what they would cost in the U.S. Hopefully I get the opportunity to write more on Ainkawa in a future post.

Politics clearly play a very important role in Kurdish society. The recent parliamentary elections increases the politicization, but its effects are quite visible. The son of the Kurdish political leader attributed the significant politicization among Kurds to a variety of different reasons but provided the example that if you want to open a business or even transfer universities, you need political party backing. Politics prevail in Kurdistan.

One major question that friends and family will likely wonder is how safe I feel here. First off, the Kurdistan Region of Iraq prides itself on its security. Kurds look down on the security situation to the south and are quick to mention that it is safe in Erbil, where the Kurdish peshmerga maintains control. On a personal level, I do feel safe. Kurds are extremely friendly, welcoming, and hospitable. The people particularly like Americans. They often wonder what I am doing here and they are intrigued that a young American came here to complete university research. A few have asked if I am a soldier, presumably on vacation from in and around Baghdad. Other than at the Sheraton, I still haven’t run into another foreigner.

Since 2003, Erbil itself has seen little violence. There were two major bombings in 2004 and 2005, with scattered violence since then. With the presence of the Kurdish peshmerga and the population being nearly all Kurdish, much of the violence that could occur in a place like Erbil has to do with Kurdish politics and political maneuvering between the various political factions. While the two main Kurdish political groups, the PUK and the KDP, have been united since 2003, the two sides were involved in the Kurdish Civil War between 1994 and 1998.

As a whole though, Kurdistan is relatively safe, especially compared to the rest of the country. While it is safe and occasionally easy to forget that you are in Iraq, it is also important to keep in mind that it is still Iraq. While safe in Erbil, not too far from here are some of the most dangerous places in Iraq today, along the area of disputed territories between Kurds and Arabs. Mosul is about 50 miles to the east of Erbil and Kirkuk is 60 miles to the south. Baghdad is about 200 miles to the south. Erbil and the rest of Kurdistan are in a dangerous neighborhood, but it has been largely successful in maintaining security since the Iraq War began in 2003. This truly is “the other Iraq” that more American investors and regular citizens should be aware of.