Check-In From Iraq: Covering The Ongoing War

The war in Afghanistan is getting more attention these days, but there is still regular violence in Iraq. Quil Lawrence, NPR's Baghdad bureau chief, talks about rising tensions between Arabs and Kurds in the north, and what it's like to cover the war as troops continue to withdraw.

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Earlier today, a suicide bomber killed six people and wounded 10 others near the city of Baquba in Iraq's Diyala province, a reminder that while most attention these days focuses on Afghanistan, America's other war continues. Violence there is down sharply from the worst of the fighting. U.S. troops continue to withdraw but serious problems remain. Unresolved tensions between Arabs and Kurds in the north, among Sunni tribes in the west; and important legislative elections approach. In just a moment, we'll check in with Quil Lawrence, NPR's Baghdad bureau chief. If you'd like to speak with him about what the country is like today, we'd like to hear from you: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org.

And Quil Lawrence joins us now from our bureau in Baghdad. He's the author of "Invisible Nation: How the Kurds' Quest for Statehood is Shaping Iraq and the Middle East." Quil, nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION today.

QUIL LAWRENCE: Thank you very much. It's great to be here.

CONAN: And what can you tell us about that bombing in Diyala today?

LAWRENCE: Well, Diyala is one of the areas which still has a mixed population. The sectarian violence seems to have subsided, for the most part, in the past year. But the area that's drawing the most attention from the U.S. military and State Department here is a seam along the ethnic boundaries of Iraq in the north, where you have a Kurdish semiautonomous zone which is bordering Arab and some minority populations. And a lot of that territory is disputed by both sides, so you have a clash between the Kurdish politicians and their military, and the central government. Beyond that, you've got minorities living there and groups - al-Qaida in Iraq among them - have decided that that's the best fulcrum for them if the want to try and tip Iraq back towards chaos, that the best place to make trouble is along those lines. So I mean, not being able to draw too much from one incident, there are small violent incidents here almost every day in Diyala. It's often something to do with this ethnic strife.

CONAN: And as you say, these attacks do still occur every day. Is life easier? Is it possible to get around these days?

LAWRENCE: Much, much easier. I'm thinking of the dark days of 2006. I remember coming to visit the capital once and taking a drive -convincing someone from the government to send me out in a car with a few bodyguards from the Iraqi government. And I felt like I was scuba diving or something like that. The city was so empty. At dusk, I thought fish were going to come swimming out of submerged buildings somehow. It was just deserted.

Now, life has really returned to - there's still trouble. There's still parts of the city I won't go to without doing some reconnaissance beforehand. But you can drive around. You're not worried about putting people in danger - in my case, just by interviewing them. And Iraqis specially are really taking back the city of Baghdad.

CONAN: And your book is about the Kurdish area up in the north, that semiautonomous zone. This, to remind listeners, after the first Gulf War in 1991, major parts of Kurdistan - not all of it, but much of it - was, well, at that point, under its own control, outside the control of Saddam Hussein. That's why we call it a semiautonomous zone. The Peshmerga, the Kurdish militia, well that's their own army. And there are two parties up there and each has their own divisions of Peshmerga. And these are the - one of the major dividing lines the - between the Kurdish areas and the Arab areas. As you mentioned, the Turkmen and other minorities are up there, too.

LAWRENCE: That's right. And this is one of the lasting problems. In fact, a few of Iraq's remaining issues to make it, I guess, to bring the state together in a more promising way, revolve around the - settling the issues between the Kurdish autonomous zone in the north, which has certain rights under the constitution, and the federal government, which has certain rights. There's a lot of lawyers from each side arguing about ambiguities in the constitution. Do the Kurds have the right to exploit their own oil resources, which they then ship out through the central government? Do they have the right to some of these territories, which they say were majority Kurdish before Saddam Hussein started what many people call the genocidal campaign in the '80s, to exterminate the Kurds? They all say that thousands of villages were leveled by Saddam and they're just going back, taking back the land that was theirs. There are counterclaims on the other side that the Kurds have gone far beyond what was ever theirs and are now just in a land grab.

This is one of the existential questions left for Iraq, and the Americans, in particular, are determined to try to get these problems on track before they leave. And you know, if they leave these major problems behind, there's concern that America would be leaving behind a ticking time bomb.

CONAN: Let's get a caller on the line. We're talking with Quil Lawrence, our Baghdad bureau chief, 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. Michael is with us from Cape Cod.

MICHAEL (Caller): Yes. Fan of the show, but I wanted to ask your experts - your discussion panel on Kurdistan: What difficulty would the national alliance and government that exists in the Kurdish autonomous region have with, if it became independent, trying to integrate organizations like the PKK and the Kurdish forces that are in Iran, and what difficulty they would have with integrating those and then again with getting any - sort of sovereignty over Kurdish lands in those areas?

CONAN: PKK, just again to clarify, the Turkish separatist group which has been blamed for a great deal of violence and many thousands of deaths over the past several years. It's quiescent as of late. But, anyway, Quil Lawrence. Quil? And, apparently, our line to Baghdad is down. And while we try to get contact back with Baghdad, let me just explain to listeners regarding Michael's question, there are sizeable Kurdish minorities in both - Iran, Syria and Turkey as well as in Iraq. It's probably - many identify the Kurds as the largest single group of people, the largest people who do not have a state of their own.

Quil Lawrence, you're back with us.

LAWRENCE: Yes, I am. And I heard most of Michael's question. I think that there's a concern that Kurdish populations that are in Iran and in Turkey and Syria have been inspired by the example of Iraq. This is what worries the government of Turkey so much - and many others. And so far, it makes it a very politically tricky question for these Kurds in Iraq who on the one hand, feel some kinship to Kurdish populations next door, but on the other hand they know, for example - Turkey, in particular, has made it very clear that if they think the Kurdish safe zone in Iraq gets too powerful, that they might even intervene over this to prevent their some 10 or 13 million Kurds from seeking to do the same thing.

There have been several decades, now, of a guerilla war led by the PKK, as Michael mentioned. They operate from within Turkey but also they step across the mountains into Iraq. So do several pro-Kurdish - several Kurdish rebel groups from Iran. And so it's very tricky for them to play. Some of these organizations are on the United States' list of terrorist groups and some of them are not, particularly one that was anti-Iran, took a long time to get onto that terrorist list.

Now, I didn't hear the beginning of Michael's question because we lost contact but…

CONAN: I think it's on the basis - is there a possibility of an independent Kurdish nation at this point?

LAWRENCE: I would say that the Kurds here are being very difficult, very, very careful. Sorry. I'm switching back to the satellite phone now. I hope you can…

CONAN: We're switching back to the satellite phone - I'm just letting our engineer know.

LAWRENCE: OK. And they've been very careful of what they say. They have an answer that's very well-rehearsed. When you ask them, do you want your own state? They'll say, everyone dreams of having their own nation. The Kurds have been fighting to have their own nation since Iraq was invented. They fought many wars over this. And again, this is one of the major reasons that Iraq has often - close to fallen apart since it was invented in the aftermath of World War I. They know that they can't overreach. They have to settle for autonomy, and there's an argument to be made that they're better off autonomous within Iraq. They get to be part of a vast oil revenue generation from the central government if they're part of Iraq. They can - Baghdad is a metropolitan city, or was, in a way that none of the Kurdish cities are yet. But if you're talking about the terms over the centuries, I think most of the Kurdish leaders are looking: How will history judge me? Did I take an extra step towards a Kurdish homeland someday?

CONAN: Let's get Robert on the line, Robert calling from Boise.

ROBERT (Caller): Good afternoon, guys.

CONAN: Hi.

ROBERT: I'll make it real brief. You've mentioned that Kurds have been trying to get their autonomy for, what would you say, hundreds of years now?

CONAN: Thousands, but go ahead.

ROBERT: OK. Where, then, does America get this fault of stupidity and audacity to think that we can ever, ever, ever change it? I mean, what's the death toll now, 5,000? Well, when is the American government going to be satisfied - 10,000, 100,000? Billions upon trillions of dollars wasted to this absolute futile effort. They cannot change their ideological differences. We cannot do it. That's all I got.

LAWRENCE: I'm not really sure how to…

CONAN: I'm not sure there was a question in there, but…

LAWRENCE: There's a lot there.

CONAN: …yeah. Well, go ahead, Quil.

LAWRENCE: They're - certainly, I mean, the American project here, I think, has changed, perhaps, its stated goals. But - I don't know. I mean, for example, the Kurds will say very quickly that they're nothing but grateful. They acknowledge, of course, American blunders. But some of them have told me, well, if America hadn't come here, we would've been ruled by Saddam Hussein's grandchildren. Now, whether this country can come together and function - as you're saying, it's an invented country, multiethnic, multisectarian - that's a question we're going to have to see.

At the moment, it's quite encouraging. This might be a nice segue to talk about Iraq's elections coming up. There are differences being settled here politically. And we saw in the elections in January that entrenched powers got voted out of office, and stepped down and went away quietly. Now, the violence here, probably a lot of it is still politically motivated. We may see more. We may see assassinations during this campaign. We may see bombings, like probably the massive bombs that went off here in - and destroyed part of the foreign ministry in August. We're probably just designed to undermine the government and convince people that this Iraqi government isn't doing what it says. It's not delivering you the security that it claims it is. There may be people who just want to destabilize that. But I can't say from my vantage point whether this will work or not.

CONAN: We're talking at…

LAWRENCE: I can't write it off, as I think our caller was.

CONAN: We're talking with NPR Baghdad bureau chief Quil Lawrence. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And Quil, a couple of points, quickly. You mentioned those upcoming legislative elections. We've heard a lot about maneuvering between the largely Shia alliance and the current prime minister's party and also, well, what are the Sunnis going to do?

LAWRENCE: The Sunnis are the question I'm trying to figure out still. I was in Anbar Province - one of the main Sunni population centers in Iraq - over the weekend, talking to different players out there. And they are still deciding, or maybe they're making deals that they don't want to let on. Different sheikhs out there are making deals with different Sunni political parties, some of them with different Shiite political parties.

Alliances you never would've imagined have cropped up and seem to be holding. Others, we'll hear a rumor printed in one of the newspapers here in the morning. And by the evening news, it's been debunked - no, those two never met or they never agreed. I think the deal-making is going to continue until the day before the election, and will resume immediately after the vote with new terms once we see who got how many votes.

CONAN: By the way, the Senate Finance Committee has just completed its vote on its version of the health-care bill. It's been approved by a vote of 14-9, that with the vote of one Republican member, Olympia Snowe of Maine. Obviously, stay tuned to NPR for more coverage on that later today.

But Quil Lawrence in Baghdad, as we look forward to these elections - again, there's no way to predict the level of violence or anything else, but is there increasing belief that politics can resolve a lot of the tensions that exist in this, as you say, fabricated state?

LAWRENCE: Well, there are certainly people getting excited and talking about this. It's become sort of a national pastime to talk about who's aligning with whom and who you might support. There are several former prime ministers - Ayad Allawi, Ibrahim Jafari - who served in interim capacities, who have been mentioned as possible new prime ministers. There's all sorts of math that is - still makes my head spin - about what will happen if the Kurdish bloc manages to hold together and vote as one. Will they be the kingmakers? Which of the main Shiite alliances will take the most votes? What hand does Iran next door play? There are a lot of people vesting a lot of time, energy, money into this political process. Does that mean that it will succeed? We don't know.

One of the largest problems is that the government so far hasn't really been delivering services to people. Still, many people are living on a couple of hours of electricity a day, even through the hottest days of the summer. And every once in a while, I will hear an Iraqi say, well, you know, the only thing that can keep this country together is a strongman like Saddam. I do still hear that refrain. But I would say, yeah, a lot of people are excited about the political process.

CONAN: And the other question - and I'm afraid we just have a couple of minutes left - none of it's going to work unless the country has a viable economy other than oil. At this point, are people coming to invest in Iraq? Are people starting new businesses? Are people getting jobs?

LAWRENCE: It's very slow. There is a lot of investment in the north, in the Kurdish region because that has security. But then, there are all these unanswered questions about what status those investments will have. The investment in the oil sector here even has been very slow, much slower than people expected. And there are some holdovers where Iraq sort of had an old socialist idea of not wanting any foreign companies to invest here and steal the country's riches. Other people would say well, we need this investment in order to get the oil sector back off the ground. But for the most part, you don't see a whole lot produced in Iraq anymore. You see the food, the materials, the clothing, everything coming from outside. It's a major issue. Once the oil sector gets back on, though, Iraq will have a huge leg up because it has such massive reserves.

CONAN: Quil Lawrence, NPR's Baghdad bureau chief, with us from Baghdad, author of "Invisible Nation: How the Kurd's Quest for Statehood is Shaping Iraq and Middle East." Quil, thanks very much for being with us today.

LAWRENCE: That was my pleasure, thank you.

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