Iraqi Kurdistan – wet dream for foreigners and the rich
Machko Chai Khana is a true institution, an old and traditional tearoom carved into the walls of the ancient citadel of Erbil. This is where many local thinkers and writers gather to sip tea, play cards and swap stories.
Today, local intellectuals are rubbing shoulders with refugees arriving from all over Iraq and Syria.
“Americans are the main reason why Iraq is destroyed,” sighs Ishmaeal Khalil, an Iraqi nuclear scientist forced to escape from his native city of Tikrit, where he was a teacher at the university.
“I used to teach and to create: I used to build my country. Then Iraq was invaded and destroyed. I can do nothing, now... I have nothing... Now I am only sleeping and eating. And that is exactly what the West wants – they want to destroy our minds!”
As he speaks, Professor Khalil browses through his smart phone, showing me photos of his university, his office and former students.
“I escaped five months ago, after my university was destroyed by the ISIS. And we all know who is behind them: the allies of the West: Saudi Arabia, Qatar and others... I often dream about my country, as it used to be, during Saddam Hussein. The infrastructure was excellent and people were wealthy. There was plenty of electricity, water... There was education and culture for all...”
The Autonomous Kurdish Region of Iraq (with Erbil as its capital) is currently trying to promote itself as relatively stable and increasingly prosperous, "unlike the rest of Iraq." It boasts some of the greatest oil reserves in the world, and therefore huge investment from the West. While the rest of Iraq is a blood bath, decomposing economically and socially, this part of the country is "not allowed to collapse," due to its strategic importance to the United States and Europe.
Foreigners are everywhere. As I find myself detained at the checkpoint, for an hour, near Kirkuk, allegedly for routine questioning and "for my own safety." I see a convoy of several white government Toyota Land Cruisers speeding towards Erbil, with a Western man wearing sunglasses, sitting behind an enormous machine gun mounted at the back of the lead vehicle.
In the luxury Rotana hotel, I share an elevator with a British guy walking barefoot, his filthy boots carried by some kind of butler.
“I ruined my boots in the desert!” he confesses, smiling at his servant. “I teach people how to shoot, you know? Do you like shooting?”
“Oh yes, sir!” says the man carrying the boots. (Most likely he is from Syria - a refugee.) He is very eager to please. “I love shooting so much!”
Foreigners are in control of oil production, they are ‘dealing with the military issues’, they run hotels, and they even work here as masseuses, waiters and domestic servants. Westerners are in charge of business and there are Turks, Lebanese, Egyptians, Syrians, Indonesians, and people from the Sub-continent, doing both skilled and menial jobs.
Turkey is investing heavily, building everything here, from the shiny glass and steel office towers to the brand new international airport on the outskirts of Erbil. It is Iraqi Kurdistan’s most important trading partner, followed by Israel and the United States.
Despite all the positive propaganda and hype being spread about Iraqi Kurdistan by Western mass media, the place feels chaotic, even depressing. As any country or region, under total control of Western business and geopolitical interests, Iraqi Kurdistan is mainly geared towards the exploitation of natural resources and the neglect of its own people. While income disparities are growing, there is very little being done to improve the standard of living of the impoverished majority.
As a top manager at one of Erbil’s luxury hotels explained:
“We were young and ready for any adventure; we wanted to experience the world. And we were told: ‘Grab the opportunity and come to Erbil! It is going to be another Dubai! But look at it now, after all those years: people are very poor, and there is no infrastructure. Basically, there is no drainage and the electricity is constantly collapsing: we have blackouts for long hours every day, and all hotels have to have their own generators. Can you imagine, a country with so much oil, but with constant blackouts? They want to be independent from Iraq, but they ended up in a deadly embrace of the foreigners: Westerners, Turks and Israelis running their country. It is perfect for the rich, for the elites. Only the rich and corrupt are benefiting from the way this country is structured. There is not one solid factory here... I am just wondering what are they going to eat, after they run out of oil?”
I drive to Erbil Refinery, which belongs to KAR (a local oil conglomerate), in Khabat district, at Kawrkosek (also known as Kawergosk), just 40 kilometers west of Erbil. The army, police and paramilitary are everywhere, protecting the installations. There are Turkish tanker trucks parked all along the road. But as I drive just a few minutes longer, up the hill, the misery screams loudly in my face.
I speak to Mr. Harki, whose house faces the refinery. He is indignant, like most citizens:
“All this is for the rich... All this is for the corporations and nothing for the people. This oil company has taken our land. It said that we would get compensation: money, oil, jobs... But until now, we got nothing! I am very angry. Now my family is sick: we have respiratory problems, the air is just terrible.”
A few kilometers further, off the motorway, the entire area is contaminated with garbage and filthy scrap yards. Fences, including high-voltage ones, partition the land, as they do everywhere in ‘Iraqi Kurdistan’.
In the town of Kawergosk, I see several Muslim women picking up roots, right off the road. Not far from them, I spot a public elementary school. It is dilapidated, extremely basic.
This Muslim community is obviously neglected, despite its oil basins and refineries. Unfortunately, the pro-Western regime in Erbil is openly anti-Arab. President Barzani repeatedly talks of the Eurasian character of his enclave, disputing that it has anything to do with an undesirable Middle Eastern-Arab character.
I dash into the office of a school principal. She is erect, beautiful and proud, and wears a headscarf. I slow down and apologize. I have only one question for her: “Does anything from those oilfields and refineries outside end up here, in her school, in the education sector”?
Her reply is as short and precise as my question: “No, nothing! Our people and our schools get absolutely nothing!”
But the number of Kurdish millionaires is growing, as is the number of luxury limousines and SUV’s. Flashy malls for the elites and their security guards are mushrooming.
As in so many client states of the West, it is uncertain whether all those men flashing their machine guns are actually protecting the country from terrorists, or whether they are guarding elites from the impoverished masses.
Not far from the oilfields, there is a massive refugee camp for Syrian refugees.
After negotiating entry, I ask the director of the camp, Mr Khawur Aref, how many refugees are sheltered here?
“14,000,” he replies. “And after it reaches 15,000, this place will become unmanageable.”
I want to know whether all the refugees are from Syria?
“They are all from the northern part of Syria, from Kurdish Syria. Almost all of them are Kurds, we have very few Arabs.”
I am discouraged from interviewing people, but I manage to speak to several refugees, including to Mr Ali and his family, who came from the Syrian city of Sham.
I ask whether all new arrivals get interrogated. They do. Are they asked whether they are for or against President Bashar Assad? In fact, everybody is asked these questions, and more. And if a person - truly desperate, needy and hungry- answers that he supports Bashar Assad’s government and came here because his country was destroyed by the West, then what happens? The answer is, his family would never be allowed to stay in Iraqi Kurdistan!
Kurdish Colonel Shaukat, of the Zeravani army, commands an entire battalion on the frontline with the Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS/ISIL). With him, I come to 15 kilometers from the besieged city of Mosul. “We rely on foreign press,” he explains, driving me through the war zone personally.
In no-man’s land, there are destroyed bridges (blown up by the IS militants), and entire ghost villages, leveled in September 2014 by the US Air Force.
The colonel is frank: he has no problem admitting he was trained in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Austria.
“Our allies are the US, the UK, France, and other Western countries.”
As if to confirm his words, some 40 kilometers away, at the gates of Erbil International Airport, there are jets fresh from Frankfurt, Vienna, Ankara, Istanbul and many other "friendly cities."
Inside the magnificent citadel, one of the oldest inhabited places on earth, and now a world heritage site designated by UNESCO, Mr Sarhang, a curator at the impressive ‘Kurdish Textile Museum’, is as discontent with his country as are most people in and around Erbil:
“We are supposed to be safe, but just a few days ago, on November 19, a bomb blast killed six people, just a few minutes walk from here. ISIS took the responsibility. Now as you can see, nobody dares to walk around here, and the museum is empty. But that is not the only problem that we are facing. Look at the outskirts of Erbil: they are building new posh apartments for local elites and for the foreigners. One flat goes for US$500,000! Who can pay that? Money made here is syphoned out by foreigners and by our corrupt officials and businessmen. There is almost no public transportation here, and extremely bad infrastructure...”
Back in Machko Chai Khana, Professor Ishmaeal Khalil raises his voice, as the owner of the tearoom blasts out old tunes by a great Egyptian singer, Am Khalthom:
“Kurdish people are playing it both ways: they say one thing to the West, another to the Iraqi government. France, Germany, US – they are clearly betting on ‘independent’ Kurdistan. The West wants to break Iraq once and for all. They already created deep divide between Shia and Sunnis, and they will go much further. Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Jordan, Egypt, Turkey – those are all close allies of the US and they are involved in the project. You speak against the plan – and you get killed.”
He suddenly stops talking and looks around. Then he changes the subject:
“Today, again, there is no electricity in Erbil.”
The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.