Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Iraq, Part I: A History

Previous hint: Misspelling of “diner” as “dinar” (Iraqi currency = dinar)

This post is not about my travels; rather, it serves to lay a foundation. Much of the account of the Iraq visit can only  be understood with at least a surface-level understanding of the past.  The history below is either (1) relevant for the posts to come, (2) relevant to the readers, or (3) funny; however it does leave out significant people and events.  Unfortunately, recounting over 7,000 years of history in a concise manner is somewhat challenging.  Thus, the history buffs may find the information fairly basic.  If you feel compelled to add information, please do so.   Lastly, I usually made an attempt to remain as neutral as possible, but there are times when I did not.  If there is something you find offensive or inaccurate,  please let me know.

I am putting an extraordinary amount of time into blogging about the visit to Iraq.  I never care if people other than my parents & my buddy Darin read the blog posts (ha, kidding Dar’). With that said, if you care to know about the visit, please read the material rather than scrolling through pictures.

I would love for people to comment, correct me, ask questions, and/or make suggestions now or in future posts.
Iraqi Kurdistan
A. How this all started
When debating where to travel in October during the break from school, my ideas consisted of Spain, Portugal, and Tunisia.  The problem was that I could not justify spending money on a trip to a destination that I arbitrarily chose or a destination on every Euro-backpacker’s “must-see” list.  Nothing seemed to enthuse me.  If I was going to travel, I wanted something different, and I wanted a learning experience.  Sure enough, on September 27, that opportunity presented itself.

My friend, Steve, was planning several trips, and on September 27, I asked him where he’d be during the time I had off from school.  He indicated he would be travelling to Iraqi Kurdistan with his friend Bobby, the dates matched perfectly, and voila.

This was the itinerary:
21 – Mardin (Turkey)
22 - Mardin - Midyat - Mardin
23 - Mardin - Silopi – Zakho (Iraq) - Dohuk
24 - Dohuk - Amadiya - Dohuk
25 - Dohuk - Erbil
26 - Erbil - Suleimaniya
27 - Suleimaniya
28 - Suleimaniya - Halabja - Suleimaniya
29 - Suleimaniya – Erbil - Dohuk - Zakho – Silopi (Turkey) - Mardin
30 – Mardin
[31 – Bobby’s layover in Ankara; Jen’s layover in Istanbul]
[1 – Fly back to Hamburg]

Dark purple = Route; Light blue = Side-trips; Maroon = Related information
I read that “9 out of every 10 people polled will probably tell you the Middle East is too dangerous to visit (one of these nine will, most likely, be your mum).”  First, I’m sorry, Mom & Dad.  Technically, I never lied to you.  I told you I was flying in and out of southern Turkey.  I just failed to mention that those would be the only two days we were spending in Turkey...  If I characterized myself in one word, it would be "genuine."  Therefore, the guilt from being disingenuous weighed heavily on my conscience.  After taking into consideration the different factors (e.g. benefits of going), I concluded that it'd be best to keep my mouth shut.

Secondly, from the persons I told about this trip, only several did not have the knee-jerk response of either “That’s too dangerous” or “Why would you want to do that?”  Though I disagreed with those having the first response, the reaction was understandable; however, I thought that the second response was an extremely narrow-minded view of the world.

So off we – Steve, Bobby, and I – went to Iraqi Kurdistan.

B. History
Where to begin this?  We might have visited Iraq[i Kurdistan] likely during one of the only periods when one could make the visit.  Who knows what is going to happen in the future.  All the historical information is taken from independent research (i.e. using law student resource privileges), the Economist, Lonely Planet, and some websites which seemed legit.  Although Wikipedia was used to some extent for basic facts, it was uncharacteristically biased and inaccurate when discussing current events.  Cut me some slack on the Wikipedia.  This is a blog, not a law review article.

1. The Beginning

Circa 5000 BC, one of the first human civilizations emerged in the land between the Tigris & Euphrates rivers known as Mesopotamia, a name ingeniously given by the Greeks meaning “between two rivers.”  This area, which is now southern Turkey and northern Iraq, is also said to be home to the Garden of Eden.  The Bible supposedly mentions four rivers at the Garden, two of which being the Tigris and Euphrates; however, the remaining two are now nowhere to be found.  Cue music from the “Twilight Zone."

Mesopotamia was soon thereafter inhabited by the Sumerians (4000-2350 BC), who were the first to build cities and sustain them by agriculture and trade.  As you may remember from 6th grade history class, the Sumerians invented writing, known as cuneiform, which led to the creation of the world’s first literary works, The Epic of Gilgamesh, in 2700 BC.
Gilgamesh.  Epic.
  • Hammurabi seized control in 1750 BC.  He then united the Babylonian regions and ruled over the Babylonian empire for 500+ years.  The law nerds will remember that Hammurabi is heralded as the creator of the first written codes of law: Code of Hammurabi.  Apparently, he and the Greeks shared an aptitude for naming things.
  • Assyrians took control in around the 7th century BC and dominated the region.  Nineveh, the capital of this empire, was a rather cosmopolitan city mentioned in the Book of Genesis.  Nineveh is located near present-day Mosul.
  • Power continued to change hands over the next 1500 years.  Nebuchadnezzar and Alexander the Great were the notable rulers during that period.

2. The Middle, including the Birth of Islam

The prophet Mohammed (Real name: Abdul Qasim Mohammed ibn Abdullah ibn Abd al-Muttalib ibn Hashim) was born in 570 AD.  At age 40, Mohammed went to the desert where he received divine revelations from Allah via the archangel Gabriel.  When he returned to Mecca three years later, he proclaimed his message that one has a direct relationship with God based upon the believer’s submission.  And Islam, a word meaning "submission," was born. 

After his death in 632 AD, Mohammed’s message traveled quickly across the Middle East.  The issue was that Mohammed forgot to have any sons and forgot to leave instructions on who should succeed him.  Two persons fought for power: Abu Bakr (Mohammed’s father-in-law) and Ali (Mohammed’s cousin and husband of his daughter, Fatima).  From my research, the Sunni Muslims and the Shiite Muslims disagree on whether Abu Bakr or Ali was the first male to convert to Islam.  More importantly, they disagree on who, Abu Bakr or Ali, was the rightful successor to Mohammed.  On the most basic level, the Sunnis believe Abu Bakr was Mohammed’s successor, and Shiites believe that Ali was Mohammed’s successor.  Differences stem from this disagreement, e.g. how one is appointed.  Currently, while 90% of the world’s Muslims are Sunnis, Shiites may comprise the majority in Iraq, Lebanon, and Iran.

Now back to history:  The Arab armies of Islam took control of Iraq in 637 AD, with the most important centers becoming Al-Kufa, Baghdad, and Mosul.  Baghdad exploded (no pun intended) as a cultural powerhouse.

3. Current-ish

Iraq comprised part of the Ottoman empire from 1640 until the British took control of the region in 1920.  Twelve years later, Iraq gained independence from Britain.  In its brief period of independence, massive oil reserves were discovered upon the land.  During WWII, the British again occupied Iraq for fear that the German government would cut off oil supplies to the Allied forces.

Iraq once again became a republic in 1958 when the British government was overthrown.  In 1968, a “bloodless coup brought the Ba’ath Party to power.”  Iraq was at its peak in the 1970s, but this came to an end in 1979 when Saddam Hussein became president:
Woops, my fault.  That’s an Aye-Aye, not Saddam.  I always confuse the two.  Here is Saddam:
                        i. Iran-Iraq war
As Saddam assumed power, an Islamic revolution was underway in Iran: the Shiite Muslims sought to overthrow the Iranian monarchy.  Saddam, as leader of Iraq and a Sunni Muslim, feared that the Shiite movement would gain momentum in Iraq.  In 1980, Iraq invaded Iran with full support of the USA.  Eight years later, the war ended in a stalemate, with each country facing considerable casualties and financial losses.

When the Iran-Iraq war was on the verge of concluding, Saddam spearheaded a genocidal campaign against the ethnic Kurds of northern Iraq who had opposed his regime.  Entitled “Operation: Al-Anfar,” Arabic for “the spoils of war,” this campaign led to the massacre of over 120,000 Kurds and the destroying over 4,000 Kurdish villages.

On March 16, 1988, Saddam ordered the largest chemical weapons attack aimed at a civilian-populated region: he directed chemical bombs to be dropped on residential regions in the Kurdish village of Halabja as retaliation for Kurdish support of Iranian forces.  Over 5,000 men, women, and children were dead in less than 60 minutes.

                        ii. Gulf war
Two years later, Saddam accused Kuwait of waging economic warfare by slant-drilling on the Iraqi side of the border.  In August of 1990, Iraq invaded and quickly overpowered Kuwaiti forces.  In January of 1991, an international coalition of 34 countries, led by the US and the UK, initiated a five-week aerial attack followed by a ground offensive that drove the Iraqi military from Kuwait.

Before this war ended, Kurds and Iraqi Shiites joined, with the promise of help from the coalition, to overthrow Saddam.  The help from the coalition never arrived, and Saddam’s forces quickly defeated the Kurds and Shiites.  In the years following, UN imposed economic sanctions, but Saddam made little effort to comply.

                        iii. 2003 Iraq war
In 2002, President W. Bush delivered a speech to the UN General Assembly asserting the Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and was harboring Al-Qaeda terrorists.  The UN’s position was that Iraq had not accounted for all its weapons, but that there was no evidence of weapons of mass destruction.  In the meantime, American and British troops gathered in Kuwait, and in 2003 and without UN support, the coalition launched its second war on Iraq.  Several months later, Bush declared victory.  Iraq subsequently “spiral[ed] into a guerilla war with a growing insurgency.”  In the latter half of ‘03, Saddam was found hiding in hole in Tikrit (in 2006, he was executed).

In 2004, the Al-Qaeda in Iraq, a Sunni militant/extremist group, gained notoriety for the gruesome – and videotaped - killings.  Simultaneously, photos of American soldiers abusing Iraqi prisoners at a prison in Baghdad (Abu Ghraib) surfaced.  So in 2006, there was a bombing of a Shiite mosque, one of the holiest sites in Shiite Islam, which was “as 9/11 in the United States.”  The party responsible for this attack cannot be unquestionably determined.  Leading groups accused of the bombing consisted of US, Israel, and Al-Qaeda of Iraq.  Regardless of which party was responsible for the bombing, it initiated warfare between the Sunnis and Shiites.

            4. Present-day
Some say Iraq is in a transitional period.  In 2005, Iraq ratified a new constitution and formed a democratic government the following year.  By 2008, violence had dramatically reduced.  Obama declared that he would withdraw all troops by early 2010, and the Iraqi parliament has ordered US troops to leave by 2011.

It seemed to me that it’s not quite there yet – at least in Iraqi Kurdistan; rather, it seemed to be between the “picking up the pieces” stage and the “transformation” stage.  Aside from Sulaymaniyah, infrastructure was fairly non-existent.  But – we’ll get to my observations later.

            5. So who are the Kurds and where does Iraqi Kurdistan fit into the picture?
The Kurds are the Middle East’s largest minority group, mainly comprised of Sunni Muslims.  They predominately inhabit Turkey (20% of the population, ~14 million people), Iraq (15%), Iran (10%), and Syria (8%).  Although they are the oldest civilization in the region (2nd century-ish BC), they have never had their own country. 

Well, now there is tension.  I can’t write a sentence without stepping on toes, but I’ll try my best.  In Iraq and Iran, the Kurds are recognized as a minority group.  On the other hand, Turkey expressly rejects the idea of a Kurdish population.  In fact, the Turkish Constitution declares that all people inhabiting Turkey are Turkish (this could start the whole nationality-ethnicity debate).  As evidence of this, the usage of the Kurdish language only became legal in Turkey in the early ‘90s. 

Pertinent to this recap of the Kurds, I had two interesting moments during the day in Istanbul.  First, when my taxi driver asked where I had visited, I answered, “Mardin and Iraqi Kurdistan.”  He proudly put his finger toward his chest, “I Kurdish.”  Contrarily, when I mentioned to the hostel manager that I visited Iraqi Kurdistan, he immediately corrected me, “No, you visit Iraq.”

Iraqi Kurdistan, self-named “The Other Iraq,” is an autonomous region in the northern part of Iraq with its own government (prime minister & parliament), flag, passport stamps, language (Kurdish), and army.  
The region was established in 1970, but, as mentioned earlier, Saddam’s genocidal tendencies presumably made living in the area quite frightening.  When Iraqi forces left the “The Other Iraq” after the Iran-Iraq and Gulf wars, the government in the Kurdistan region became de facto independent.  When Saddam fell from power, there were fears that the Kurds would want to secede.  Contrarily, after the Kurds made a strong push in the 2005 elections, Kurdish leaders "restated their commitment to a federal but unified Iraq and have, along with Shiite leaders, been at the forefront of moves to build a democratic and plural Iraq."  Accordingly, the new Iraqi Constitution implemented in 2006 officially recognizes the Kurds as an ethnic group, stipulates that the official languages of Iraq are Arabic and Kurdish, and stipulates that Iraqi Kurdistan is a federal entity with its own regional/federal authorities.  The KRG (Kurdish Regional Government) is the official ruling body.  As far as economy, Wikipedia alleges that it is driven by the oil industry, agriculture, and tourism…  I sincerely hope that their oil industry is all it’s cracked up to be.

In the late-1970s, a Kurdish separatist organization known as the PKK (Kurdish Workers’ Party) was established.  It appears that the PKK, an internationally recognized terrorist organization, has changed its mission over the years, as it is currently fighting for an independent Kurdish state.  Primarily located in southern Turkey and northern Iraq, the PKK’s violent attacks were one of the primary reasons that Turkey was previously closed (until 2002) to tourism south of Diyarbakir.
Red line = South of Diyarbakr; "A" = Mardin
It is my understanding that one of the reasons that Turkey has resisted the acknowledgment of the Kurdish as a minority group is out of fear that it would be perceived as soft on terrorism.  In the past 10 years, the Turkish government has afforded the Kurdish population more rights.

With a ceasefire in place, the PKK has been relatively silent in the past year; however, on October 31, two days after Turkish Republic day (and one hour before I flew into Istanbul), there was a suicide bombing in Istanbul where 20-30+ were injured.  Thank goodness the “suicide” bomb was limited to one death [naturally].  The two most obvious suspects were Al-Qaeda or the PKK, though neither claims responsibility.

So to not end on a sour note (a brief recap of a terrorist organization), let's think a happy thought.  It occurred to me that I completely missed the entire baseball season, including the World Series (congrats, San Francisco).  To make amends for my obliviousness, a picture of my imaginary husband, Skip Schumaker, must be posted:
Sorry, Chicago friends/Cubs fans.      
That FINALLY concludes a history. 

Closing comment: If you made it through all that, thank you.


  1. This is tremendous! I can't wait to read the stories.

    -Scott [from Admin Law last semester]

  2. Thank you so much!! Hopefully, I can get everything up within the next week.

    ...Admin was scarier than Iraq. It still nauseates me.

  3. Re: "If you made it through all that, thank you."

    You are welcome. And I appreciate the shout-out!

  4. People who reacted with "why would you want to go there?" suck.

    Thanks for blogging this all. Now I can see how your trip was without pestering you endlessly.

  5. Ha well, thank you for reading! If there's anything more/different you would like to know, don't hesitate.


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