Saturday, March 18, 2006

The Airport is Half Full

My coworker and I have much different perspectives on Arbil International Airport and what it means for the future of Iraq.

I see the airport as a sign of Kurdistan's steady development. Flights arrive daily from Baghdad and Amman and there are less frequent flights from other international destinations, such as Stockholm, Athens, Frankfurt and Amsterdam. Kurdistan's new flagship carrier, Kurdistan Airways, started operations this year and is adding more destinations regularly. The region is becoming more integrated with Europe through Austrian Airlines, which is set to be the first Western carrier operating in Iraq, flying a Vienna to Arbil route. The airport's development is sure to strengthen Arbil's links to the rest of the world and increase investment in Iraq.
"Now, direct flights to Frankfurt!" - Kurdistan Airways
While the road to the airport is a dusty, barren, and awaiting construction, the airport itself is clean and well-maintained. The border guards are professional, and the custom officials don't bother you. They've invited me in for coffee when waiting for my flights. They're idle which suggests a bloated bureaucracy. I prefer to see it as an appreciation for unobstructed commerce and Middle Eastern hospitality.

The most promising sign is a booth that's been recently installed to greet visitors immediately after clearing customs. Though I've never seen it staffed, its directed to tourists and contains pamphlets in Arabic and English about all the great places to visit in Kurdistan. Perusing the guide, most of the destinations seem to be waterfalls, though there are plenty of other tourist draws. This is a drastic change from the tourism strategy for the rest of Iraq, which is centered on keeping visitors away. It wont be long before there's a Lonely Planet written for Kurdistan, and hopefully the new edition covering the whole of Iraq will follow.
A new Iraqi Tourism Information Center. Never staffed, but still a sign of progress.
A co-worker, who is twice my age and has been to a few more developing countries, ridicules the airport. Its classic third-world planning, he says, pointing to the conveyor belt for the luggage which is about the size of my office. To him this shows a complete lack of foresight. There are no departure signs and none of the exits are clearly labeled. There are pictures of Barzani throughout, as found in any dictatorship. He points to the Kalashnikov-wielding peshmergas at the entrance alongside plain clothed guards, and says this place is as insecure as anywhere else in Iraq.

The airport is also emblematic of Kurdistan's uncertain status. Since Turkey doesn't recognize the region, Kurdistan Airways can't fly through Turkish airspace. Some flights are recoded with an international partner, while other fly first to Baghdad and leave from there, skirting Turkey.

If my coworker is right and the airport does become obsolete in the long run, most of the air traffic will be going to Baghdad instead. This will mean that the security situation has improved, which will benefit Iraq and Arbil.

Friday, March 17, 2006

Will it work this time?

From the confines of our compound, most of the action last night was from round one of the tournament. Otherwise, it was business as usual. Looking from our rooftop, a few helicopters were firing flares. We see plenty of helicopters every night, which fly at a higher altitude than during daylight. There was no indication that the US had launched its largest air campaign since 2003, which we learned about through the BBC.

A coworker who has previous experience in the military thinks these night patrols are useful as a "show of force." The pictures of all the helicopters lined up on the runway before the Samarra operations suggest that this is part of the military's tactic. The reasoning doesn't make sense to me. Do the planners believe that the insurgents forgot that there are 130,000 American troops in their country? If the rationale behind the new air assault was to destroy insurgent operations in Samarra, it's been tried before. Maybe this time it will be successful, but it seems more likely that the insurgents will move to another area.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

A Night Out in Baghdad

It goes without saying that options are limited here, but I know that many Americans working in Iraq have it much worse. Though we're not in the Green Zone, our compound is home to several other international development organizations and we have a decent bar. It's open to anyone in the compound, as well as the Iraqis that work in the compound or have permission to enter. Inside, dominoes is surprisingly popular. Darts, ping-pong, and pool are all available, played on tables that are functional but show their age. I've tried to start a Scrabble following, but have not found too much interest.

As a poker player, when I learned that there was a regular Wednesday game I was thrilled. However, its not like any poker night I've played before. Its organized by Serbian security contractors who have not been influenced by ESPN and have an aversion to hold 'em or even stud. With their pockets deep from six-figure salaries and their mind numb from the stress and monotony, they want something that doesn't require much thought. Their game of choice is "guts" which is easy to learn and requires as much skill as going to the bathroom. Despite the silliness of the game, hundreds of dollars change hands.

DVDs are cheap and readily available, so many of us stay in, spending even more time staring at a screen. I have all five seasons of the West Wing on DVD that look so professional I could mistake them for the originals. Now that I've found a coworker who goes to the market regularly, I'm watching each of the Oscar nominees for $2 each.

Our security team, who are mostly South Africans, used to provide barbeques, or Braiis. They've recently been reprimanded for their raucous behavior. Some of the staff were dismissed and the events have been curtailed. Its unfortunate, as that was some of the best seasoned meat that I've ever eaten. More reason to go to South Africa someday.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Another Curfew

With the new session of the National Assembly set to convene tomorrow, a curfew has been set for Baghdad. Its well-timed, considering the dozens of tortured bodies that are now unconvered daily. I expect that events will proceed smoothly. We'll be working, though our Iraq staff will stay at home.

Recently, I haven't been following Iraqi politics too closely, so I don't know if the new government will be the coalition of national unity that the US wanted or the Shi'te majority that the votes may allow. It seems that whatever the makeup, there will be a Islamist flavor to the new government. For expats who can leave, the most pertinent concern is whether or not alcohol will be banned. Its no longer available at the airport, though it's easily obtainable elsewhere. For Iraqis who can't leave, a major worry is the personal status law. This is written in the constitution and permits religious groups to enact their own laws governing individual behavior.

Whatever laws the new Iraqi government enacts, its comforting that there are plenty of countries where religion influences national policy in more peculiar ways. Right now in Thailand, Prime Minister Thaksin is using wands and black magic to quell his opposition. In Sri Lanka, the national time is going to be changed on the advice of Buddhist astronomers.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

An Unusual Warning

I follow the litany of security reports in Baghdad just as I do the State Department's travel warnings to foreign countries. Both change regularly, both are mildly alarmist, and both generally discourage you from doing things that you would not do anyway.

I wouldn't travel to Doura or Taji, two of the hottest places in Baghdad, regardless of what our security advisors say. Similarly, on my recent visit to Sri Lanka, I didn't need the state department's travel advisory to discourage me from visiting areas of Tamil-Singhalese friction. Commonsense.

However, the recent security reports have caused my ears to perk up. Explosives, we're told, were found at Baghdad international airport. There's no definitive account of what happened at this point. Open-source media say that the only certain details are the official US warning. Word on the street is that an airline has made an official announcement saying that a cigarette box containing explosives were found on the plane. Our security staff, with their usual subtlety, has discouraged anyone from flying from the airport and hint at imminent death. Of course the explosives would down the plane, we're warned.

I think what I find disconcerting is that there's so little clarity about what happened. The security at Baghdad International Airport is tight, but not impenetrable. I chatted with some co-workers about which was more likely, an inside job from one of the many Iraqi security staff that work there, or someone from the outside carrying the explosives in their pocket. This whole story could be perpetuated on these unresolved water cooler conversations. Its not surprising that Reuters cites unconfirmed reports from private security contractors. Maybe there weren't any explosives involved at all. Still, I'm pleased not to be flying anytime soon.

A possible reason this is on my mind could be a recent security presentation that was forwarded to me. It presents all the ways that you might die in Iraq, complete with full-color pictures of rocket propelled grenades, Kalashnikovs, and land mines. This picture, of an Improvised Explosive Device, or IED, was the most striking. It claims the most victims of any insurgent weapon and is the focus of a new strategy to defeat the insurgency. I learned what one looks like recently.

Our security manager has posted this image near the exit to our quarters, so we pass it every time we leave the compound to face this danger. I've discouraged him from doing this, saying that it isn't helpful. Why don't you tell me what I should do when I hear incoming fire or make sure that I know the emergency procedures? I ask because I'm uninformed about these issues, which I think are vital. He gives me a dismissive look and scoffs at the suggestion that I have any idea about these matters. To him, I know nothing, while he's an authority. After all, he's a PSD team leader with multiple years of work in Iraq who has been wounded by shrapnel from an IED.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Inshallah Airlines

I've spent the last three days trying to fly from Arbil to Baghdad. The first flight had good reason to be cancelled. Baghdad was under curfew and if the plane arrived, would any of the passengers be able to leave the airport? Our security staff said they would be able to pick me up from Baghdad International Airport, despite the lockdown, and I went to the airport hoping that the plane would leave. After waiting for a few hours, we were told that there would not be any flights to Baghdad. That was Sunday. The Iraqi Airways manager said something about the flight being cancelled the next day, too.

Monday, I received an explanation that "technical difficulties" had grounded the flight. The airport was curiously empty. It seems that most of the passengers heeded the warning.

I arrived at the airport yesterday optimistic that I would be successful on my third attempt. The departure hall was packed, but it only meant that more people would share my disappointment. The explanation? Barzani felt like he needed to head off to Istanbul, and commandeered the Iraqi Airways flight.

I'm perfectly happy to stay in Arbil. I've told the staff here that I'll leave when we are certain the plane is going to take off. The manager hinted that Barzani would need the plane for two days. On a positive note, I did get to bond with my fellow passengers. We're going to encourage Talabani, Jafari, and anyone else who might have oversight of the airline to rename the company "Inshallah Airlines." Also, the seats in Arbil International Airport do not have armrests in between them, making it easy to sprawl out and sleep while waiting for flights to be cancelled.

I am not too concerned about returning to Baghdad. I don't know how much worse the situation will become, but it seems that the curfew has done a good job of lessening the tension after the mosque bombing. The number killed during the wave of violence - 1300 - is huge even by Iraq standards, and I'm sure there is more to follow. However, I think that eventually things will return to normal in Baghdad, if there is such a thing. From the safety of our compound, this means more thuds, and further restrictions on travel within Baghdad.