photo: Eddy van Wessel


Saturday, December 22, 2012

Iraqi tales to be continued

The body guards of the Iraqi minister of  Finance have been picked up on terrorism charges. Deja vu? Yes, almost. The difference is that a year ago this happened to a deputy president who has since been given a death sentence himself and has fled the country.

Never a dull moment in Iraq. This week was a particularly interesting one, and one that is not really improving the popularity of Iraqi prime minister Al Maliki with most of his people.Sometimes it is difficult to understand the sequence and meaning of happenings in Iraq. Especially as so much of it is in some way linked, as is the case this week.

Let me start on Monday. Peshmerga forces outside Kirkuk fire on Iraqi reconnaissance planes. In other words, Kurdish military, not part of the Iraqi army as Baghdad refuses to pay for for these soldiers, shoot at planes that the Baghdad has sent to see what they are up to. The Peshmerga's were sent to the so-called disputed areas around Kirkuk that are claimed by both the Kurds and Baghdad, in reaction to the Dija (Tigris) Operation to guard those areas.

Kurdish politicians have called this operation to send Iraqi troops to the disputed areas 'against the constitution', because in the Iraqi constitution the status of these areas was undecided and to be decided on by census and referendum. The Kurds have since created a status quo in which they dominate the administrative and security  powers in most of the areas.

The problem was discussed on Monday between the Iraqi PM Al-Maliki and the president of Kurdish descent, Jalal Talabani. De latter had been angry about the way the PM had imposed the Tigris Operation on the Kurds, and had only recently returned to Baghdad after staying away in protest. The talks did not go well, as Al-Maliki did not want to recall the Iraqi troops that are part of the Tigris Operation. Iraq's two leading politicians did not even shake hands when they split up - which is almost unheard of in the Iraqi culture that is one of honor, pride and hospitality.

Since he became president of Iraq in 2006, Talabani has tried to be the one to end conflict and strife, especially when this touches the Kurds. He has made a point of being above the parties, which for many Kurds meant that he had chosen Iraq above his own people. Many times I heard Kurds say that Talabani had forsaken them and became Iraqi more than Kurdish.Yet without Talabani, the relations between Erbil and Baghdad would not only have been tense and bad at times, but the parties most certainly would have clashed in other ways than only with words.

When on Monday night Talabani had a stroke, many Kurds linked that to Al-Maliki's refusal to budge on the Tigris Operation. Al-Maliki visited Talabani in hospital the next morning, where the Kurdish governor of the disputed city of Kirkuk, the Kurdish/American surgeon Nasjmadin Kareem heads the medical team.

The critical health situation of the president was reason for two Iraqi TV-stations to report on Tuesday afternoon that he had died. Even though Talabani had given the nation many scares before - he had a heart operation in 2008 - never before did Iraqi media declare him dead. The Kurdish parties hastened to deny it, and after stabilizing the situation Talabani was flown to Germany for further treatment.

Yet at the same time, the Iraqi Prime Minister Al-Maliki played another card. On Wednesday ten of the body guards of Finance Minister Rafia Al-Essawi were arrested  for taking part in terrorist attacks. Talabani was not there to protest, as he did when the same happened to his deputy Al-Hashemi a year ago.

At a news conference, Al-Essawi said "militia forces" had raided the Finance ministry, his office and home in "an illegal action", reports the BBC. "They arrested all the employees and guards," he said. "Is this the behaviour of a government, or the work of gangs?"

According to the PM's office the arrest of the body guards was done after investigation by and under orders of the Ministry of Justice. Yet Al-Essawi says the action involved not only the body guards but at least a hundred members of his staff. ,,Does Maliki want me to believe that he had no idea about this?” he says. Finance minister has secured a safe place in the house of the speaker of the Iraqi parliament, remembering what happened to Al-Hashemi. After his body guards were picked up on the same charges, they were also said to have confessed - as is reported about at least one of Al-Essawi's - Al-Hashemi fled to Kurdistan and then to Turkey. In September he was convicted of terrorism and received a death sentence in absentia.

Picture: Al-Essawi (middle) with Al Maliki (right)

Both Al-Essawi and Al-Hashemi are important politicians of the opposition party Al-Iraqia that came out as the biggest during the last elections but did not get the power, and are prominent Sunni politicians. President Talabani protected Al-Hashemi, by inviting him to his guest house in Sulaymanya. Now he is not there.

Could it be that the charges against the two are correct? Sure thing is that their bodyguards might not have a clean past. And even if for Al-Hashemi's doubts have been aired: Al-Essawi used to work as a medical doctor in Falluja, during the fights there with the American army. The Americans have since investigated him and found him honest and clean.

It looks like Al-Maliki is getting ready for the provincial elections in April, by getting rid of those criticizing him. And this could be the start of a very interesting period. Because already once before the Kurds and the Sunni parties linked hands to start a vote of non-confidence in the Iraqi parliament against the Prime Minister. They failed, because Talabani did not want to support them. If Talabani recovers, he might just have changed his mind. Surely the Iraqi PM does not count on the president to get well again soon.  

Tales that will be continued...

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Too many hotels do not serve the guests

Two new hotels closed in the past weeks in Erbil. Perhaps that does not seem very big news, but it is the outcome of an interesting trend. A trend that has nothing to do with business plans and market research, only with spending money and the wish to get rich fast.

When I settled in Iraqi Kurdistan in 2008, there were perhaps a dozen hotels in the capital Erbil and a litte less in Sulaymaniya and Duhok. These were not enough to receive all the visitors from the rest of Iraq coming for holidays during the religious Eid festival and the Kurdish new year Nowroz. That was never a problem in the past. When the weather was fine, people would camp in the parks, or private houses would open their doors for the guests.

Since Kurdistan became a state within the Iraqi federation, tourism has been on a magic word. Get tourists in and get rich, was the idea. Rich foreigners would want to come and spend their money, and they need a hotel to stay. And at the same time, foreign businessmen started arriving to work with oil companies and other international companies.

After 2007, the building of new hotels started. Mainly in the 3 star category, but since then also three 5 star hotels have opened in Erbil and recently one in Sulaymaniya. The capital was the first with a Rotana and a Divan Hotel, as most of the foreign businesses and the diplomatic services are based here. Over the years, more than 200 hotels have been built, and in the small town of Ainkawa twelve with more under construction. Some people suggest that most of the new hotels are paid with money earned in illegal trade or other illegal activities. (Foto Rudaw)

The fact that many of the hotels were built by investors and then rented out to someone who wanted to furnish and manage it, is part of the problem. The rents are far too high for the hotels to be able to make profit.

All these hotels offer a total of, so I calculated, some 16.000 beds. That is far more than the market needs. They might fill up during the religious and new year holidays, but otherwise there is never enough guests for all those beds. Businessmen take the top end of the market, or rent an apartment or house that also serves as their office.

Because of the competition, prices went down. If you want to attract guests and compete, that seemed the easiest way. Competing by quality was not an option, as there is not enough well trained staff for all these hotels. But by decreasing the price, it became even harder for hotels to break even and to remain in business. Some managed by renting out rooms as office space, others just cut down the cost and thus cut down on service. Many of the 3 star hotels are so badly managed and offer such lousy services that guests will not return.

At the same time the cost of the electricity went up, with now almost 24 hours a day being covered by 'raisy', government electricity. The government increased the price quite a bit over the past years. In Erbil also labour costs increased as a consequence of the competition, although with Syrian refugees since the summer coming in and begging for jobs the salaries have come down a little again.

Nobody has really profited from the boom in hotel building. Those who thought to get rich, might perhaps if they were lucky have been able to get the first years rent. But the majority of hotel owners are suffering. And after the initial decrease of the price, the guests are no longer profiting either. Who wants the choice between bad and worse, in a system of hotel qualifications that cannot be trusted - because there is no guarantee that the 3 stars that were given at the opening are really still applicable for many of the newer hotels.

The hotel association begged the authorities to put a stop to the building, having predicted the problems already years ago. It is the hotel managers that know the market best, so they could see that apart from those few holidays when Baghdadi's and Basroui's fled to Kurdistan for a few days they would never be able to fill all those beds. Yet another problem is, that those guests mostly look for the cheapest accommodation, so their presence does only affect part of the many hotels.

But the authorities did not act, probably thinking that in this new capitalist system the market should do the work. Probably knowing that some of the hotels would collapse, and thinking this is the risk the investors were taking. Yet if the authorities had taken their role as the regulator seriously, they could have prevented the disaster - because there surely are more closures under way. Regulating the amount of hotels built by matching it to market expectancy would have made all the difference to the investors who are now losing, the managers who try to keep hotels running on a shoe string and staff that is sacked because of lack of income.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Build this nation in the hearts of the Kurds

,,Which do you like better, Erbil or Sulaymaniya'', asks the taxi driver in Kurdish. I sigh, as I am so tired of this question that does not seem have a really good answer. Today I chose the 'I like Amsterdam best' from the list of possible answers not showing preference to one city over the other.

It happens everywhere in Iraqi Kurdistan, that people - and not only taxi drivers even though they seem to have the most hits - ask you to choose between the two main Kurdish cities. In Erbil you are supposed to say you prefer Hawler (its name in Kurdish), just as in Sulaymaniya they expect you to prefer their own city.

What is the use? Erbil is a village that grew into a city with mundane sides for the many foreigners that settled in the past 3 years but with a conservative and religious nucleus. It lies on a plain, and has the extreme heat in the summer (up to 50 degrees C) and the cold in the winter. The government, the ministries and the parliament are housed here, and it is the capital of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. It has also become the trading heart of the whole of Iraq, and the place with the most expats.

Sulaymaniya has just been declared the cultural capital of Iraqi Kurdistan - confirming what in fact has been the reality over the past years. Suli or Sulee - the name started to be used by the Americans and taken over more and more by the Slemani's - is a busy university town surrounded by mountains and for that reason always about 5 degrees cooler than Erbil, which has survived the influx of conservative villagers during the Anfal operation and is considered the most open minded of the Kurdish cities.

They both have their own appeal, yet Kurds feel you should prefer one over the other. And that is not because they are interested in the opinion of a foreigner - actually they are not - it is because the reference shows political preference. Those who like Suli are with PUK, those for Hawler with KDP.

Yet are we not supposed to be in the process of nation building in Iraqi Kurdistan? Since 2006 the Kurds have one capital, one parliament, one government. And yet, at the same time, the sense of nationality is that of the towns where people originate from. The pride of the people is for their own city. Not many people travel around a lot - I find that I know more of Iraqi Kurdistan than many of the people around me. And I even have friends in Suli who try very hard not to travel to Erbil. So what they know, is what they like.

This local nationalism even shows in the jokes. Slemani's have jokes about the Hawleri's - often about their stupidity - Hawleri's joke about Slemani women all being in charge and bullying their poor husbands.

This whole thing is getting odder since the KDP and the PUK formed a government together - trying to leave behind the animosities of the past, trying to wipe out the memories of the civil war in the nineties. And yet that is probably why this competition is still so alive: those memories cannot be wiped out just like that. To change Iraqi Kurdistan into one nation, instead of a number of town states, the painful past has to be addressed first.

To make the nation work, people have to come to terms with the past that divided them - and still does because the wounds never really healed. What is needed foremost is to discuss what happened, how it happened, and that it will never happen again.That the dead and the missing are dear to both sides. Closure is needed for those families that still have loved ones missing since the war, so the animosity against the party that was responsible can finally start to diminish. People need to feel sure that nobody will again get help from outside against the other, that the common Kurdish identity is always going to be stronger than the political arguments.

And the Kurds have to learn more about the country outside their home towns. They should be stimulated to travel around, and not only for a picnic but also to see the relics of the past and the beauty of the Kurdistan they hardly know. They should be stimulated to feel proud of all that, and not only of their own city.

Only then, can the building of the nation really start. Because a nation is not only in the land, in the politics, it is also very much in the hearts and the minds of the people.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Stop the mutilation of women

,,I call on mothers and sisters to help stop the mutilation of women.'' That was the very modest way Kurdish Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani referred to FGM, or female genital mutilation, at the opening of the Campaign to Eliminate Violence against Women, on November 25 in Erbil.

Yet FGM is one of the subjects covered in the campaign that really needs attention. Foreign speakers, like the Consul General of the US  and the British Consul in Erbil mentioned it, but none of the Kurdish speakers touched on the subject, not even the female ones. It seems it is a taboo that cannot even be covered in speech. And even worse, in the published speech of the PM, this sentence is no-where to be found.

Did the translator during the opening hear something wrong, did I hear something that was not said? I look at my notes and it is clearly there. So the speech was edited, and who-ever did that took this out.

And yet I loved Barzani for the fact that he touched on the subject, however modestly, that women are behind FGM. Mothers, grandmothers and sisters take care little girls are circumcised, as they think Islam asks of them. And they want to make sure they are 'clean' and will be able to marry. Do men ask for it, I wondered many times. As far as I understand, many husbands do not even know their wives were mutilated. And I also know of husbands who are very unhappy to have a wife who was circumcised and therefore not able to enjoy sex.

Figures that have been published in the past couple of years show that in some areas of Iraqi Kurdistan, up to 90 percent of the women are circumcised (more information and figures here). Awareness campaigns by NGO's and some media probably have had some effect, but not enough. So in the law to eliminate violence against women that was adopted by a unanimous Kurdish parliament last year, FGM was also prohibited.

But while Prime Minister Barzani could announce the opening of special police stations and shelters to fight domestic violence, it is much more difficult to find ways to fight FGM. It involves women who think they are doing the right thing to their daughters, it involves midwives who make an income circumcising women, and it involves a taboo subject.

Compared to that, fighting domestic violence is a simple case. And one that can be communicated easily, as well. Let me take a few quotes from Barzani's speech, that say it all. ,,We know that violence against women is a serious threat to democracy. No system can call itself democratic unless it provides equality and justice. I am sure that you agree with me that violence against women is a terrible expression of inequality and injustice. At the Kurdistan Regional Government, we are determined to protect women’s rights and promote equality of opportunity.''

Dear Mister Prime Minister, this is noted and I am sure Kurdish women will take you up on this. Another quote needs to be noted too: ,,During our liberation struggle and while most of us were Peshmergas (freedom fighters), the role of women was witnessed in political activities, as freedom fighters and as family leaders, especially during the displacement and exodus. Thousands of girls and boys in today’s Kurdistan owe their upbringing to the perseverance and resistance of Kurdistan’s mothers who were able to resist the Anfal campaigns. Kurdish men who themselves experienced such atrocities should be ashamed to oppress women and practice violence against them.''

The issue is far more complicated then could be covered by the speeches during the opening day. Much of the domestic violence in Iraq is related to the trauma's of the war. Men who did not seek help to deal with these trauma's often react violently to their spouse. Any country with war veterans knows this. So in any campaign against domestic violence, some attention should be given to psychological help for the many victims of the traumatic stress syndrome in Iraqi Kurdistan.

It is good that the prime minister also  spoke out clearly against honour killing too: ,,There is no honour in murder. It is with this conviction in mind that we condemn the practice of honour crimes.'' And he urged religious scholars to participate in the national campaign. ,,Islam doesn’t permit honour killings. In fact, suicide is forbidden in Islam. I reiterate my respect to Islamic scholars, who indeed played an important role in the process of reforming the law, and urge them to continue in their positive efforts''.

These religious leaders, who were seated in the front of the hall, very recognizable in their toga's and religious hats, should also play a role in fighting FGM. They should make very clear that Islam does not ask for it, and that the prophet would not have liked it (as he liked women!). Because people in the villages and badly educated communities where FGM happens most tend to listen to their imams, it would be good to focus any campaign against FGM also on them - as NGO's have been doing.

Kurdistan is slowly but surely becoming more modern. Yet the changing of the minds does not follow the pace of the building of roads and malls, and extra attention is needed. ,,We will not be safe unless all women in Kurdistan feel secure. Women should feel that government, police and courts are there to provide them with security, justice and protection'', said the Kurdish prime minister.

That means end all kind of violence against women. And that means not only the honour killing and the domestic violence, but definitely also the mutilation of women. And that means more work needs to be done to find ways to implicate the law on Violence against Women, especially when it comes to FGM. Because it is all about respecting each other and living at peace with each other, at home and elsewhere.