‘Thank you, Mr. Bush’

By Marc Knutson

I have fielded varied replies over the past few months after my two-week trip to Iraq. People instantly imagine violence, mayhem and chants of “Death to America.” Then they ask, “You went where?”

Yes, I went to Iraq — on my own initiative and at my own expense, unsponsored by anyone and responsible to no one by myself. It was my own response to the rumours of good news stories that have unfolded in Iraq, but weren’t apparently being told in the mainstream media. I reached into my billfold and set out to find these stories. What I learned will improve our opinion of the US efforts in Iraq, and help us feel more proud of our soldiers and of our country.

In Iraq’s northern region of Kurdistan, I saw that freedom and its twin sister, liberty, were being treated by Iraqis as precious gems. It was easy to be caught up in their excitement. It was a joy to experience their wide-eyed innocence as they enjoyed their inalienable rights and the fruits of freedom.

From Regional President Barzani to the regional prime minister and all the peoples of the region, one truth was for certain: These are indeed gratefully liberated people. The word “liberation” — as in “since the liberation,” or “following the ’03 liberation” — seasoned every conversation.

I asked Fawsi, a Saddam-era police officer who took early retirement to protest Saddam Hussein’s edicts, “What do you think of American and coalition efforts in Iraq?”

Fawsi’s eyes lit up. “Tell you what I think?” Fawsi exclaimed. I felt the intensity of his Iraqi stare. Neither his English nor his body language required any translation. “Tell you how I feel, what I think about since the American liberation?” There was a hint of incredulity that I had asked such an absurd question.

“Allow me to put it this way,” he said. “Now I can go where I want to, see who I want to, speak openly about who or what I want to. I can even speak in a public place about the distaste I have for the government, and …” he paused and looked directly into my eyes, wanting to emphasise his concluding point: “I no longer have to worry about whether I, or any members of my family, will be murdered by my president.We are freed from the weight of Saddam Hussein and his ghoulish henchmen, yes! I am free; free from Saddam telling me how to live …” pausing again “… and free from him telling me how I am to die.”

His eyes drifted toward the floor. “I no longer have to cry or grieve for my fellow countrymen who are being murdered by him. Americans can’t relate. You want to berate your president for his actions; I wanted to kill mine for his!”

No one in the room spoke. His final words, as he left, were muted: “Thank you, America.Thank you, Mr. Bush, for getting us our lives back.”

Freedom truly has a face. In this case, more than 3 million faces, smiling with new hope, and no longer distorted by fear of life, limb or torture.

What has happened in this part of Iraq? Quite simply, the Kurdish people have received the baton from the liberating forces and are carrying it with extreme seriousness. They are not taking their freedom for granted.

“We are a success story here,” beamed an official with the regional government. We have been able to govern our own land, police it and secure it, which makes it a safe place to be.”

My briefing occurred in the office of the Department of Foreign Relations. “What we have done is form a national agreement among the people of Kurdistan. We are tolerant of who lives among us; Shiite, Sunni, Jewish or Christian, it doesn’t matter to us. However, they must pass a security check! What terrorist wants to go through a background check?” He chuckled as I left his rhetorical question unanswered. “See what I mean?”

That amounts to a neighbourhood watch program, on a national scale. Every man, woman and child has been self-deputised to monitor their neighbourhoods. They watch for suspicious activity and report it to the police, who have investigative power and prosecutorial authority.

The Swedish chief project manager of the new Erbil International Airport complex observed, “The amazing thing with the Kurdish people is that the whole population is security minded and watching out for bad guys.”

My driver Hameed commented, “Since the first Gulf War, and the liberation, the entire Kurdish population has taken the torch from the Americans and is willing to self-police our country.”

My natural response was, “So, are you telling me that if all of Iraq took this posture, including Baghdad, this war would be over?” I knew that was a stretch of logic.

“We are proud that Kurdistan is a glowing model of how all of Iraq can be. People living side by side in peace. It can happen:As more attention is focused on our success, we then become the pattern for all of Iraq.” He added, “Remember, the people that are causing the grief in the south aren’t even Iraqi.”

I tested the security claims on several occasions. I went into the heavily trafficked shopping centers and malls. I window-shopped, bought groceries and souvenirs and just wandered about. I wore a coat and tie, and looked quite American. Yet not a single person approached me or confronted me. I went about my window-shopping unthreatened. One side of me was of course grateful; the other side saw just how secure I really was.

Perhaps the most poignant example of the safety issue was made as I returned the 400 kilometers to Erbil from Halabja, the site where Saddam chemically gassed people of the village. We stopped for dinner in Dukan, an obscure resort town. As we were leaving, we discovered that our rear tire was leaking air. Hameed changed the tire as I shared in friendly banter with some local young men. Back on the road toward Erbil, I was commenting on the billions of stars that formed a canopy above.

Hameed then posed the most profound question of the entire trip: “So, Marc, here you are in the middle of nowhere, Iraq, considered by the world as the most terrorised place on Earth. It is midnight and there is no town in sight. We are driving on the spare, with no replacement. You know that people saw you back at that restaurant. So, what are you thinking about your security now?”

Frankly, I hadn’t been. I was caught up watching the stars, and laughing about the quality of the road, which was about three notches above the Oregon Trail. Until that moment, I hadn’t been concerned, but now that he’d mentioned it, I had to decide — is this a set-up because all this time he’s been wanting to dump me in the desert? Or is he trying to prove a point? I elected the latter. That’s when I discovered that the Kurds were fiercely prideful about their security achievements.

Wanting to know what the locals really thought of American actions, I asked one question so often that my driver would ask it before I did: “Do you see America, and the coalition forces, as invaders or liberators?” Overwhelmingly, the reply was “Liberators!” with extra exclamation.

Adnan, the Iraqi country manager for a British oil company in Erbil, was an elderly Iraqi man who earned my instant respect. He didn’t want me to lose a single syllable of his answer: “Liberators! That’s who you are. That’s what you’ve done. That’s how we will always think of you, and don’t let anyone tell you anything different.”

I protested, “But many Americans believe that our efforts were inspired by oil profits and political gain.”

Adnan hesitated, then added, “I only ask for half of America to live what we have lived, to experience the everyday fear of torture, family separation and harassment. I will say this as plainly as I can — George Bush is a hero. He is our hero! The sons and daughters of America who died to make it so we can be free are heroes and indeed liberators! We now enjoy freedom and liberty almost as the Americans do.”

Once again, silence highlighted the moment. “The great people of America are charged with duties of helping the repressed peoples of the world. It’s not something that I just believe, it is as a result of your own greatness and moral integrity. America is known around the world as a nation with a big heart and a heavy responsibility. ... It is more incumbent upon the most powerful nation in the world to help the repressed.”

I thought of how people such as Adnan could now live lives of guilt-free liberty and determine their own society, culture and fate. There is a genuine ownership of their new freedom, evidence that they won’t take it for granted.

It is one thing to secure an area by force. Drop a few bombs, roll in a couple of tanks, bivouac a battalion or two of soldiers — and the area is yours. However, not completely, not if you haven’t won over the hearts of the people.

I visited Camp Zaytun, a Korean-operated military installation where a small cadre of American soldiers remains assigned to the camp. In fact, they are the only American soldiers stationed in Kurdish controlled territory. I was invited to have lunch with them in their mess hall. After I handed out Christmas cards and Oreo cookies from home, we sat down to lunch. I was surrounded by four ranking Army officers. For over an hour, they recounted endless positive events that they had experienced. My favorite was told by a colonel from the Oregon National Guard:

“This past summer we decided to conduct a baseball camp for local children. They weren’t very familiar with baseball, so we had to start with the very, very basics.” He beamed as he relived the event. “We invited children from Erbil to participate, but we encountered some issues right away. The US State Department required that the parents sign a waiver of liability. Most of the parents opted out because they didn’t trust the papers. Previously, signing government papers in Iraq was usually for quite severe reasons; these parents were too gun shy and abused by the previous regime.

“This meant that we were short of kids to field teams. We went to a local orphanage and recruited kids from there. Another issue presented itself; these kids needed the proper shoes. We had some, but not all of them fit. So, we ran downtown and bought enough sneakers for all the kids. We had a blast teaching them the game.” He was proud as he spoke. “Our primary mission was Iraqi Freedom. Today it is ‘Iraq: Enjoy Your Freedom!’ ”

There are no explosions in the land that match the construction boom coming from Kurdistan. Not just re-construction, but brand-new, ultra modern buildings.

The war itself barely touched the northern province. Ironically, Turkish investors are the primary source of investment monies rebuilding Kurdistan. After years of neglect and abuse from Saddam’s government, which sought the demise of the Kurds, their freedom to build and expand is at a feverish pace.

Modern hotels, shopping centers, swim centers and even bowling alleys have sprung up. In Erbil alone there are four new shopping malls. The dollar is welcome if you run out of Iraqi dinars.

Erbil International Airport is constructing an ultra-modern terminal and a 4.8-kilometre runway — the world’s fifth-longest, strong enough to handle the new Airbus A380. Major airlines are looking at Erbil as a hub for many air routes from Europe and the West to the Far East and India.

The oil industry in Kurdistan is 25 years behind the rest of the world. Saddam would not allow modern technology or related information into the region. Today the region is making up for lost time. New wells are being drilled in areas where looking for oil is a matter of taking a stroll, because there are places where oil lies in puddles on the surface. Kurdistan had been told for years that it had no oil resources. Yet the oil is there, and that is great economic news for the Kurds.

Northern Iraq was the antithesis of my expectations. I saw people who had been released into the field of life’s opportunities, their freedom unencumbered by the yoke called Saddam Hussein.

As Americans, it is important to know what has happened. Our work in Iraq has been well received and greatly appreciated — and not treated in a light or trivial fashion. These people grieve for the sacrifices many Americans have paid. They are ashamed and embarrassed by the renegade fanatics who have caused so much grief elsewhere in Iraq. Through her tears, one Iraqi mom whose son was killed in action so choked out these words: “Your sons are our sons.”

There are plenty of good news stories in Iraq that need to be told to America, and indeed the entire world. I have been misled into believing that there can only be three things that we should expect from Iraq: despair, hopelessness and death.

There are stories brimming with hope, stories that fill our hearts and allow us to rise to the heights of pride. Americans, using our resources that we earned through liberty, helped to free others quashed by tyranny. Who better than Americans to realise the taste of freedom? Americans have been given much, and much is expected of us.

The liberated peoples of Iraq now enjoy the opportunity to release the pent-up ideas and expressions that only liberation from tyranny can offer. Only a few short years separate these people from the days of hiding in fear. Savouring the fresh taste of democracy, today, their worries consist of children’s school grades, or oil prices, or other common things that the rest of the world wrestles with.

As one person in the government told me, “We love America.We love George Bush.We want to maintain a relationship with America like Israel has. In fact, we want to be America’s ‘second Israel’ in the region!”

Such high hopes! Such trust in America! I heard my inner voice, dripping with cynicism, say, “I only hope that your trust in America is not shattered by American politicians and American politics.”

The hope in democracy, the faith in freedom and the trust in liberty allow these people to have a say in their own destiny.

Their fate rests in their hands, and from what I observed, they are grateful and thankful. They know it came at a great cost, to them and to America. Because I have seen that look in their eyes, I believe that they are not going to squander the opportunity that has been given them. They don’t take their freedom for granted — and they won’t.

Me di vê belavokê de çareserîya pirsa kurd û Kurdîstanê danîye ber çavan. Em bang û gazî li kes, sazî, rêxistin, rewşenbîr, tezgeh û tendensên sîyasî, demokrat û humanîst dikin ko piştgirîya banga me bikin.   Berdewam>>>


Nasil Türkler'in Türkiye'si, Gürcüler'in Gürcistan'i, Ermeniler'in Ermenistan'ı varsa Kürtler'in de Kürdistan'i olmalidir.


Eğer tüm Kürdlerin ortak bir bağımsızlık hareketi gelişirse ki, bu şimdi mümkündür,  ABD ve AB devletleri uzun süredir sürdürdükleri Arap - Türk yanlısı politikalarını değiştirmek durumunda kalacaklardır ve böylece ilk Kürdistan devletinin ortaya çıkması sağlanacaktır.
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