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Tilting at Windmills

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January 14, 2006
By: Jonathan Dworkin

Jonathan Dworkin, a medical student in his final year at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York, is travelling in Iraqi Kurdistan from January to March of 2006. This is his second dispatch for the Washington Monthly.

CITY OF REFUGEES....I am in the house of Kak Lolan, a run down but beautiful stone structure in Erbils citadel. This is a part of town inhabited continuously since the time of the Assyrians, though in recent decades it has decayed into slums. The house is now the Erbil Textile Museum, an institution begun by Kak Lolan to staunch the exodus of one of Kurdistans great art forms.

Kak Lolan grew up in a shepherd's family surrounded by kilim Kurdish tapestry but it wasnt until he studied anthropology in the United States that he developed an appreciation of the tradition as a cultural resource. According to my host, two events nearly destroyed the craft altogether. The first was Saddams military incursions the infamous Anfal Campaign of 1988 which leveled thousands of villages and drove the survivors into urban centers. Cities like Erbil and Sulimani swelled with refugees as the countryside crumbled. The other event, ironically, was the establishment of semi-autonomous Kurdistan in 1991. This opened the country to the UN and foreign visitors, who promptly exported the most exceptional kilim to Turkey and the EU.

The textile museum contains hundreds of colorful kilim, complete with descriptions of their tribal origins. But what makes it interesting from a social perspective is the window it offers into an aspect of Kurdish culture that was buried with the lost villages. Forced urbanization was a central feature of the Anfal campaign, and the Kurdish connection to an agrarian lifestyle was one of its principal victims.

Later in the evening I link up with an American friend, and together with an Arab employee of the Erbil International Hotel we head to Anqawa. This is a Christian town near Erbil, and it is the center of the post-Anfal relief effort, hosting NGOs and hundreds of foreign workers. Its also the center of beer and shisha, a place where people go for fun without risk of running into their imam.

We settle into a seat at Happy Times, a smoke-filled pizza restaurant that contains colored lamps and a large screen TV. Bare armed beauties in Lebanese pop videos are the only women present in a crowded room. Our Arab acquaintance, who we will call M, is originally from Mosul, and after the American invasion he and a friend worked as interpreters for the 101st Airborne, which was stationed in the Mosul area. These were excellent people according to M. Relations with the Arab population were handled deftly, and property damages were quickly and quietly compensated.

Later a new unit arrived, and the policy became more standoffish. The soldiers had their reasons, force protection being one of them, though M argues that simple cultural incompetence also played a role. But whatever their rationale, relations with community leaders slowly deteriorated, and in the aftermath of the Falluja assault the situation exploded. The Iraqi police force collapsed, and soon afterward Ms friend was shot. A campaign of violence now consumes almost every family that cooperates with the Americans. The reconstituted police are worthless and terrified, he says; they will let anything on four wheels pass a checkpoint. M fled to Erbil, where the Kurds distrust him because hes an Arab, and he lives in a constant state of fear that someone visiting from Mosul will recognize him.

Looking around when I return to the Erbil International, I notice that many of the employees are Arab. Often they dont speak Kurdish. How many of these people are Kudistans new refugees?

As someone sympathetic to Americas broader political aims in Iraq, listening to M leaves me feeling bleak and irritated. Here is a man, rational and well-intentioned in every way, and hes a stranger in his own country. No matter how you look at it, the inability of America to protect its friends is one of the defining failures of the Iraq war.

Posts in this series:

January 14: City of Refugees
January 11: First Impressions

Jonathan Dworkin 3:16 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (27)

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Thanks for the insight Jonathan. Our Soldiers and Marines are getting just as lost...

Message from Cindy Sheehan

Posted by: elmo on January 14, 2006 at 3:35 PM | PERMALINK

As someone sympathetic to Americas broader political aims in Iraq

I guess the cow is starting to look a little less spherical?

Posted by: la on January 14, 2006 at 4:00 PM | PERMALINK

Every post is like cold water in the face. First hand truth is never easily dismissed or readily refutable. Keep them coming.

Thanks, Kevin, for sharing the stage.

Stay safe Jonathan. You have the good wishes of everyone here, I'm sure.

Posted by: Global Citizen on January 14, 2006 at 4:14 PM | PERMALINK

When did M leave Mosul and move to Erbil?

Posted by: tbrosz on January 14, 2006 at 4:35 PM | PERMALINK

Send a Valentine to a soldier in Iraq!/Support Our Troops

Visit www.operationaBitofHome.com, and click on the big red heart. We will send a valentine to a soldier in your name with your Valentines message. We are fundraising to send more boxes to the Freedom Rest R&R Facility in Iraq. Valentines are $1.00, but you can give more!

You can no longer send any mail to "ANY SOLDIER" it is destroyed as a security risk., We have a military distributuion point in Iraq where your Valentines will reach thousands of troops.


In March, 2004, while my wife was in Iraq, I started Operation: A Bit of Home. My wife called me and told me she had to put on 80 lbs. of battle gear, pick up her rifle, and walk 2 miles in 140 degree heat to buy soap and tampons and toothpaste. She told me that the government does not supply any sanitary or entertainment items to our troops. I decided that I would not have my wife doing that. I started shipping boxes to her unit in Iraq, in large quantities.

In July 2004 I received a phone call from a place in Baghdad called Freedom Rest. They stated they were the only R&R facility in Iraq for our troops. They get soldiers that have been in combat, on convoys, or high stress dangerous situations and give them 3 days and nights of R&R, good food, a pool, games, a soft bed and goodies. They process hundreds of soldiers in-and-out each day. By supplying hygiene, snack and entertainment items to Freedom Rest, we have directly affected the lives of over 23,000 soldiers. (Verified in a letter from the NCOIC, USMI Freedom Rest)

They told me the government provides basic foods, linens etc., but all hygiene, snack and entertainment items come from donations, and asked if I could help. I am one of the few groups that actually have been asked to send supplies.

I know there are a lot of charities for the troops out there, but these facts set us apart from the rest:

1. We supply a facility for stressed troops, not individuals. We have eliminated the problem of NCO and officers hording the boxes. We do not send things to the same troops over and over,

2. Our website tells people how to send their own boxes, how to fill out the US Postal forms, gives packing tips and lists of needed items, and most importantly, we give out the address to send it to. We do not post names of individual soldiers, a very dangerous thing to do. If Al Qaeda knows where a National Guard unit is from, and has names, they could potentially find and endanger soldiers families just by using a phone book!

3. Although the website does accept donations from folks who want us to do all the work, we encourage people to do it themselves, give them the tools, and hope to encourage a sense of civic pride. We do civic presentations and assist groups in completing their Public Service obligations.

4. We dont sell a bunch of overpriced Boxes like others do.

We are working with several organizations to help them develop their own programs.

I could go on forever, but if you visit our website, or Google Us, you will find we are legitimate.

A short mention on peoples blogs could do more for us than months of our pounding the streets and working the phones. A link on your mail list or your homepage would work wonders also.

Please visit our website, google us, and tell your friends about us. Every dime of donations goes to shipping and buying needed items. No one is paid, we have no overhead, and we care about the troops. We continue to send even when donations are thin using our personal Credit Cards.

Thank you and please visit www.OperationaBitofHome.com

Supporting the troops means more than placing a yellow ribbon on your car.

Thanks for your support

Ken Meyer
Operation: A Bit of Home

Posted by: Ken Meyer on January 14, 2006 at 5:54 PM | PERMALINK

Once again, Ive pulled something out of Tony Bourdains Les Halles Cookbook, and changed it up a bit. The recipe started out as Onglet Gascon. However, the bone marrow didnt turn out. Also, I figure why use half a cup of white wine and reduce it by half, if you can instead use a cup of dry sherry and reduce it by three-quarters. That, and you just cant get onglets on short notice in this town, so I went with sirloin steaks, instead.

Posted by: Cory on January 14, 2006 at 6:18 PM | PERMALINK

I guess I would rather be spammed by a foodie than with chinese porn.

Posted by: Global Citizen on January 14, 2006 at 6:26 PM | PERMALINK

Yes, when was M last in Mosul? Can you also describe the security of the hotel better and give gps coordinates?

Posted by: Ayman on January 14, 2006 at 7:04 PM | PERMALINK

"When did M leave Mosul for Erbil?"

Apparently Tom, after the situation in Mosul became very difficult for anyone who had aided the Americans. Problems with reading comp today?
Or didn't they teach that at Minnesota Tech (DeVry branch)

Posted by: thethirdPaul on January 14, 2006 at 7:06 PM | PERMALINK

Perhaps Tom wants to cross check the fellow's Greyhound ticket with his "invaluable" sources in Iraq.

Posted by: thethirdPaul on January 14, 2006 at 7:15 PM | PERMALINK

Chill. Any approximation gives an idea of when things really started to suck for M. His problem isn't likly to occur in isolation.
Yes, I think the thread hurts on those loooong infomercials, etc.

Posted by: opit on January 14, 2006 at 7:26 PM | PERMALINK

Where are the trolls on this one? I think Jonathan's description of the contrast between one unit and another in handling an occupation really captures the subtlety that comes into significant play in real life but is almost always lost in political arguments.

Presumably, the 101st Airborne is no more or less idealogical than its replacement, but the combination of more common sense at the top and having arrived earlier in the conflict -- before everyone had made up their minds or chosen sides -- made a huge difference.

The ignorami who chortle over words like "subtlety" and "sensitivity" are, of course, people who've never fought over anything more crucial than a borrowed lawn-mower (gas-powered, of course). Ask any soldier who has shivered through the night wondering if a locally based enemy patrol is in the area, and you'll find that ambiguity is the dominant sensibility of war. And all this snickering done by Al and the others just shows what cowards they are in the face of a reality we make more complicated every day with our own special brew of stupidity and pugnaceousness.

Jonathan's post reminds us what is actually at risk in the world, and also what's worth saving.

Posted by: Kenji on January 14, 2006 at 7:41 PM | PERMALINK

Jonathan, you've neglected to answer the question that's on everyone's mind: How good is the pizza in Kurdistan?

Posted by: Boronx on January 14, 2006 at 8:17 PM | PERMALINK

Thank you Boronx! We were perilously close to M*A*S*H syndrome. Remember when Trapper left and B.J. came, and that show started taking itself waaaaaayyyy ttoooo seriously?

Thank God you injected some levity!

Posted by: Global Citizen on January 14, 2006 at 8:27 PM | PERMALINK

As a matter of trivia, Kilim is not "Kurdish tapestry" but rather a generic word in the Middle East for light carpets, usually long.

Posted by: collounsbury on January 14, 2006 at 9:19 PM | PERMALINK


A date would be useful. If he left six months ago, three months ago, a year ago, or last week, it makes a big difference in how the story should be perceived.

Posted by: tbrosz on January 14, 2006 at 9:50 PM | PERMALINK

tbrosz: A date would be useful. If he left six months ago...it makes a big difference in how the story should be perceived.

In what way? It might be interesting, but seems largely academic. (The information in the post suggests he was in Fallujah through at least early-mid 04 and probably early-mid 05.)

Obviously, Mr. M hasn't returned Fallujah, even given his precarious position in Erbil. The situation in Fallujah is also related in the present tense.

That is a pretty clear indication that whenever situation prompted Mr. M to leave Fallujah still exists, and is a greater threat to him than being a refugee in Erbil.

Posted by: has407 on January 14, 2006 at 11:10 PM | PERMALINK


Mosul, long the cradle of Iraqi nationalism, was widely predicted to be a disaster in the early days of the occupation. Instead, it turned out okay in the beginning, mainly because the area was occupied by the 101st Airborne Division, which due to its experience in wimpy Clintonian peacekeeping in the Balkans, actually had some expertise in dealing with situations like the one they faced in northern Iraq. Then the 10st rotated out and was replaced by a much smaller Stryker brigade with none of the experience or cultural sensitivity of their predecessors, and things gradually deteriorated until Mosul became the disaster the pessimists predicted from the beginning.

Posted by: Hank Scorpio on January 14, 2006 at 11:39 PM | PERMALINK

Weren't the Brits also in Mosul, Hank? We certainly don't hear about the Brits getting anything like the rate of casualties, or complaints, that our troops are taking.

Re your Clinton reference, someone should do an in-depth study of how the military has actually fared under Dem vs Repub administrations, just as they have with economic indicators. I suspect in both cases we'd find that wingers cover many multitudes of sin with their constant (obfuscating) breast-thumping.

Posted by: Kenji on January 15, 2006 at 1:16 AM | PERMALINK


The Stryker Brigade in Mosul was reported on quite closely by Michael Yon. You can find out a lot more about it by going to his site and checking out earlier entries. Worth the time.

Posted by: tbrosz on January 15, 2006 at 3:55 AM | PERMALINK


CITY OF REFUGEES....I am in the house of Kak Lolan, a run down but beautiful stone structure in Erbils citadel. I WAS then shot in the head and dumped into a mass grave.


Posted by: Patton on January 15, 2006 at 6:55 AM | PERMALINK

Boronx -

The pizza in Anqawa was decent, but because of the Eed ul-Adha (that's the Arabic name, I don't know the Kurdish) it was impossible to get pizza without meat.

Vegetarians, avoid Kurdistan.

Posted by: Jonathan Dworkin on January 15, 2006 at 8:46 AM | PERMALINK

Damnit, Dworkin! I was just about to come until you said it was bad for vegetarians.

Posted by: Judah on January 15, 2006 at 3:46 PM | PERMALINK

No matter how you look at it, the inability of America to protect its friends is one of the defining failures of the Iraq war.

So how does the Murtha proposal of leaving, make things better? One would assume that the terrorists would use the weakened American presence to score revenge.

Typical liberal. Oppose a policy even when the proposed alternative would be far worse. Then hope to blame any deaths on your political enemies...'cos you didn't know.

Posted by: McAristotle on January 15, 2006 at 10:38 PM | PERMALINK

When did M leave Mosul and move to Erbil?

Posted by: tbrosz on January 14, 2006 at 4:35 PM | PERMALINK

Wanted to live in a part of the country with less of the terrorists the army is currently fighting and which the anti-war movement wants to stop fighting.

Of course, the fact that they might take a drive up to a safe province and raise some hell
after the US leaves is not in liberal thinking.

Liberals are never responsible for anything.

Posted by: McAristotle on January 15, 2006 at 11:01 PM | PERMALINK


You really should consider taking "English as a 2nd language" course.

Posted by: thethirdPaul on January 16, 2006 at 11:30 AM | PERMALINK

Thanks Jon. Learned a lot from this. Stay safe. Can't wait to hear more!!!

Posted by: Andrew Slack on January 17, 2006 at 3:26 AM | PERMALINK



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