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