Paperwork dreariness

DIYARBAKIR — I’m reading reports that the U.S. assault is taking a week’s pause to toughen up the supply lines to the front units as they prepare to hit Baghdad. Also, everything is bogged down thanks to problems with the Fedayeen militia and other harassing Iraqi units, that Iraqi resistance is tougher than Rumsfeld & Co. expected. Maybe these reports are true, maybe they’re disinformation from the Americans in preparation of a lightning assault.

DIYARBAKIR — I’m reading reports that the U.S. assault is taking a week’s pause to toughen up the supply lines to the front units as they prepare to hit Baghdad. Also, everything is bogged down thanks to problems with the Fedayeen militia and other harassing Iraqi units, that Iraqi resistance is tougher than Rumsfeld & Co. expected. Maybe these reports are true, maybe they’re disinformation from the Americans in preparation of a lightning assault.
I do know this, however. In Diyarbakir, the IV Press Corps has ground to a halt.
This place is crawling with journos, all looking for the same thing: A way in. Until that can be procured, Diyarbakir has turned into a press town in a wartime economy. Tempers are flaring. An italian camera-woman berated the poor desk clerk at my hotel yesterday morning because something (I’m not sure what) wasn’t cleaned in the morning.
“And I asked for it to be cleaned this morning and it wasn’t!” she snapped, jabbing her finger at the clerk like it was a stiletto.
But luckily, J. and I caught up with Beth and Rita again, and this time, the conversation was much more pleasant. I also discovered that since it looks like we may be here for a few days, I need to get a Diyarbakir press credential. I had to do this last year, but the region was still under special military rule. This time, I wasn’t planning on staying more than a day and I wasn’t going to be working, so I didn’t feel there was a need. Au contraire! If we want to travel around the region south of here, which, aside from the northern half of Kuwait, may be one of the most militarized places on the planet, we need those cards. So now, I’m waiting on a letter to be faxed from a U.S. Embassy to my hotel so I can present it along with my other bona fides. Bother.
Thus, this will be but a short update. We’ll be wandering around the Old City today, although not taking pictures. Without the press cred, there’s a good chance a cop will see us and make trouble for us. While it may seem cowardly, I don’t want to risk that. It would be pretty stupid to have the Back to Iraq mission end early for a reason like that. Once the credentials are secured, however, we should be OK. Unfortunately, the waiting is the hardest part.

The Dreams of a Kurd

DIYARBAKIR — Ah, Diyarbakir. This is an ancient city, almost 4,000 years old, one of the oldest on the planet. Last time I was here, the oppression stuck to my skin like humidity in a rain forest. Armored personnel carriers roamed the streets and the cops beat the hell out of a crowd of Kurds when they came to a cemetery hoping to memorialize a democracy martyr’s death from the early 1990s.

DIYARBAKIR — Ah, Diyarbakir. This is an ancient city, almost 4,000 years old, one of the oldest on the planet. Last time I was here, the oppression stuck to my skin like humidity in a rain forest. Armored personnel carriers roamed the streets and the cops beat the hell out of a crowd of Kurds when they came to a cemetery hoping to memorialize a democracy martyr’s death from the early 1990s.
This time, however, the APCs were parked off the streets. There is a notable lack of gendarmes, Turkey’s internal security police and the primary force responsible for keeping order in the southeast for the last 15 years. The sidewalks are cracked but bustling. Merchandise — whole fish, shoes, scarves and fabrics, toys and sweets — spill out onto the sidewalks, forcing older women in headscarves and traditional dress, men in kafiyehs and the Kurds’ trademarked baggy trousers to compete for walking space with teenagers in Nike sweatshirts and young men in leather jackets trying to look tough. Or they could take their chances in the street with the taxis, zooming madly, beeping their horns in staccato blips as warnings. The cacophony is thrilling, exhilarating, and even now as I sit in my hotel room, I can hear the merchants in the bazaar calling out, the horns, the traffic, snippets of conversation that echo up the alley walls and slip into my room.
Turkey lifted the emergency rule a few months ago and the difference, to me, is dramatic. This is a city that feels newly alive.
But not so to some of the younger Kurds. Emre, a 17-year-old English student, found me as I was trying to reach the KDP’s Damascus office. Slight, with delicate features and a mustache that was shyly announcing itself, he was interested in my satellite phone. As we struck up a conversation, he took to a caravansarai — a trading post built 500 years ago by the Seljuk Turks — that now served as a tea garden. It also served as a mini-bazaar, with merchants in each corner running shops selling carpets, silver-work, scarves, kafiyehs and even old Iranian rials.
Sitting down among intricately knotted carpets exploding with color — note to self: come back and ship one of these home when you come back through — that hung from the walls and ceiling supports, Emre, J., myself and Emre’s friend, Necati, sat down to some of the ubiquitous tea.
He was against the war, of course — basically everyone in Turkey, 94 percent, is against the war — but I asked him if things were better now that emergency rule had been lifted. He said it was only a little better. I asked him if the Turks were justified in worrying about its own Kurds attempting to break off and dash for independence if the Iraqi Kurds over the border attained their own country.
“Let me answer your question with a question,” he said. “In America, there are, what, 50 states? Does the black man want his own nation? Does the brown man?”
I said no.
“And why is that?”
J. spoke up. “Because they don’t have to. They are happy being Americans.”
Emre said that was his point. “If I can speak my own language, learn Kurdish in school, listen to Kurdish music and have the same democratic rights as the people in the west [of Turkey], why would I need my own country? We want the same economic development as in the west, too, we want to be as rich as they are. If we had all this, why would Turkey’s Kurds need their own country?
“But if we can’t have that,” he warned. “Yes, I want my own country. Yes, I will want a military to protect myself.”
*Technical notes*
I’ve since found out that some donors have been getting the B2I-Dispatch hours after it’s gone up on the Web site, which is exactly backward from the way it’s supposed to be. I’m truly sorry and I apologize. I will see what I can do about that. I’ve also discovered that I grossly overestimated the bandwidth available on the sat-phone. Which means there may not be many pictures until I get back. I haven’t taken many, however, since my focus has been on traveling, but perhaps Diyarbakir would be of interest to people.
Also, I read every comment that people make on this site, as well as all emails. However, because of time, bandwidth and other considerations, I may not be able to respond to everyone. Please don’t take it personally. I really, really appreciate everyone taking the time to write, and your notes of support keep me excited about all of this.
As for donations, I also don’t often have time to thank you all personally, but I have been forwarding your email addresses (as per PayPal) to Mike for adding to the list, which he is doing. So while you might not get a personal thank-you note, you are being put on the list. And allow me now to thank you all very much for your continued support.

Journalistic pissing match

ANKARA — Today started early: 5 a.m., when the call to prayer from the nearby mosque got cranked up. Just as well, as J. and I needed to get to the Syrian Embassy by 8:30 a.m.

ANKARA — Today started early: 5 a.m., when the call to prayer from the nearby mosque got cranked up. Just as well, as J. and I needed to get to the Syrian Embassy by 8:30 a.m.
After a quick breakfast, we headed over. A stop at the bank first, where I paid the $100 fee for the visa — and the teller creepily asked me if I was going to northern Iraq. Then we stood online outside the Embassy with the many travel agents dropping off packets of their clients’ passports.
While waiting, we met Rita and Beth, two obviously in-a-hurry journalists. Beth is American and Rita is Canadian. She chatted us up while Beth fretted about getting the proper forms to fill out. They’re trying to get into northern Iraq, too.
“You guys journalists?” asked Rita, sotto voce, as we waited in front of the Embassy and staffers paced back and forth nearby.
“What makes you say that?” I answered and glanced meaningfully over my shoulder.
“We’re on a tour,” J. added.
Rita got the hint and shut up.
At the window, the woman taking our forms quizzed me about my profession. I told her I was a teacher and a writer. (Both true.)
“What kind of writer?” she pressed. “Journalist?”
Last time I went into Syria, I found it useful not to advertise my status as a journalist, as that requires a press visa and takes much longer. I didn’t want to take any chances on delays.
“No, short stories,” I fibbed. “Fiction.” (Also true, just nothing published, mainly because they suck.)
She nodded, obviously not believing me, but unwilling to make an issue of it. She told me to come back at 1:30.
Up the street, at the corner, Beth joined us. She’s a reporter for U.S. News and World Report, while Rita is a freelance photographer. Beth and I exchanged gossip, and I found out that Rita has a contact on the Syrian/Iraqi Kurdistan border who will take her party across for $1,000 per person. I wondered aloud if J. and I could get in on that action. Beth didn’t know and worried that Rita’s smuggler wouldn’t like it if she showed up with two extra guys. I’m skeptical about this, since these guys are rarely in business to limit their income.
Beth asked me who I was with and I told her Back to Iraq.com, that I was an independent journalist, had been to Iraqi Kurdistan last year and that I am one of the Web’s first war reporters. Her demeanor immediately changed and the patronizing began.
“Back to Iraq.com!” she exclaimed in mock enthusiasm. “Neat!”
It’s an attitude I’m used to from “real” journalists, one that I can usually defuse by explaining my vision and my 13 years of experience and my stints at the Associated Press and the New York Daily News. But today I didn’t feel like swapping resumes. I just smiled and said, “Yeah, actually. It is.”
After a quick spin back to the hotel and a stop to the Internet cafe down the street, we picked up my visa. No problem, as they say here. We ran into Beth and her crew again. This time she was nicer and invited us to share the ride to Diyarbakir with them. Now there was a problem. The car had to fit five people (and their gear) in a space the size of a Ford Festiva. Also, we had to be ready in 10 minutes, Beth said. That was impossible for us, so we told them we’d fly tomorrow and catch up with them in that ancient Kurdish city.
We leave at 10 a.m. Saturday for Diyarbakir and then sprint for the border at Nusaybin/Qamishli. Getting into Syria should be no problem now that I have the visa, but the border with Iraqi Kurdistan is closed, a woman in the Kurdistan Democratic Party’s Ankara office told me. J. and I are hoping we can hook up with Beth and Rita’s friend who can get us across. Thankfully, the KDP said we would be welcome — if we can get across the border. I have talked J. out of a commando-style raid across the Tigris in an inflatable raft — madness — and instead we’ll try throwing some Yankee greenbacks around. That usually helps solve problems.
If things go very well, we could be in Duhok — or possibly even Erbil — by tomorrow night.
*Parting thought*
One of the problems of this endeavor is that I’ve lost that bird’s-eye view of what’s going on. I watch BBC in my hotel room and check the Web at the Internet cafe, but with limited access, I feel like I’m missing some major context. Beth told me that a Yemeni arrested in Somalia was briefly thought to be Osama bin Laden, but that turned out to be false. (This was why she was now looking to get into northern Iraq; she needed a new story.) I’d heard nothing about this at all! Turns out this broke yesterday, she said, while I was traveling. Very frustrating. My view has shrunk from a wide-angle lens to something resembling looking through the wrong end of a telescope.

A note about donations

Greetings from Turkey, all. A brief note about donations: I will not be able to reply personally to those sending them in. However, I am forwarding the PayPal notifications to Mike Hudack, who is adding the email addresses to the Back2Iraq-Dispatch listserv, so you will be gaining all the benefits of donating. I also am not updating the donor list until I get back. It’s just too much work on a slow line. You will be recognized later, if you wish. I hope you all understand.
Thanks very much for continuing to donate! The funds will come in very handy when I’m back in Turkey and I will have access to them then.
More updates later…

On the road to Ankara

ANKARA — After almost 14 hours of traveling, I’ve landed in Ankara, ahead of schedule. It’s been a mad dash to Turkey’s capital, sort of like what the 3rd Infantry Division is trying to do regarding Baghdad, but without the bullets.

[Editor’s Note: When I post these dispatches from Christopher I will correct any obvious spelling mistakes, but I will not alter the content in any way, nor change the grammar. I will keep my edits to a minimum, and after this I will not be commenting.
Michael]

ANKARA — After almost 14 hours of traveling, I’ve landed in Ankara, ahead of schedule. It’s been a mad dash to Turkey’s capital, sort of like what the 3rd Infantry Division is trying to do regarding Baghdad, but without the bullets.
Flying into Ankara is a weird experience. From the air, it looks a little like a poorly planned SimCity 3000 creation, with great swaths of undeveloped land, broad freeways and masses of residential areas with identical apartment buildings and similar-looking single-story houses. This
isn’t surprising, really. Like Washington, D.C., it’s pretty much a made up city. When Ataturk chose Ankara as the capital of the newly-born Turkish Republic, the town was a sleepy, dusty village of about 20,000. He chose it because a) it was far away from the old capital of Istanbul and connotations of the old Ottoman Empire, and b) it couldn’t be easily threatened by Western gunboats as Istanbul can be.
Ankara, in late March, is also cold. It’s still winter here, and I thought it would be spring weather. I didn’t pack for this, so I had to buy a new coat today. Luckily the Turkish Lira is weaker than the peso, so a very nice winter coat cost me the equivalent of $30.
My old friend Aykut is here, too, and the reunion has been good if a little bittersweet. Turkey’s tourism business has been bad — non-existent, practically — as shown by the fact that none of my flights have been anywhere near full. He’s a professional tour guide and his wife is a school teacher, two positions that don’t pay that well. Business has been off since last year when the war drums began tuning up, and his household is in dire straits.
We went for coffee at a small cafe in the neighborhood where we met an old friend of his, a journalist I’ll call Mehmet, as I don’t want to reveal his real name. He’s an old hand in Kurdistan, having been there nine or 10 times, and he knows the former Iranian ambassador to Ankara. He’s going to try to get us the process for a visa into Tehran stepped up, which would cut days off our trip into Kurdistan. The alternative is to rely on the good nature of Turkish troops — usually a losing proposition — around Silopi to let us through into Iraq, or go through Syria, which I’ve heard is also problematic but doable with the proper incentives. (Draw your own conclusions.) A trip to Damascus might be required.
Mehmet covers the diplomatic business of Ankara and the United States and Turkey are apparently in negotiations over the role of the Turkish military in northern Iraq. The Turks are trying to hold out for Turkish command, while the Americans are insisting on an allied command structure. How the negotiations go will determine how the Turks enter Iraqi Kurdistan — the hard way or the easy way. If it’s the hard way, with the Turks under their own command, the KDP, based in Kurdish nationalism and no friend of the Turks, will resist with guns and guerilla tactics, spawning a war within a war. If they go in under U.S. command — the Turks will never accept a British commander over their forces; too many bad memories of Gallipoli and the Sykes-Picot Agreement — it will go easier, and the Kurds will likely behave themselves and not make a dash for Kirkuk or Mosul with their respective oil fields.
Turkey’s top military man, Gen. Himli Ozkok, however, said yesterday that the Turks won’t go further into Iraqi Kurdistan without a U.S. presence, which is good news. And BBC is reporting that 1,000 paratroopers of the 173rd are dropping into the region, perhaps as a backup for the PUK’s push against Ansar al-Islam on the Iranian border.
But the region is rife with conspiracy theories. Aykut said that if I went out and asked the people on the street, half would say the United States committed 9/11 so it could go after Iraq. (Interestingly, almost half of Americans — 45 percent — believe Saddam was personally behind 9/11.) Turkey is also rippling with an anti-Bush sentiment. Turks like Americans and sometimes, even America. But more than 90 percent oppose this war and a similar percentage absolutely loathe George W. Bush. Aykut sheepishly admitted he hoped the war would go badly so Bush would lose in 2004. I made him feel bad when I reminded him that many Iraqis and Americans would die if it went too badly.
Mehmet also said that the Turks, Iranians and Syrians were coming to an “understanding” regarding Iraqi Kurdistan. The upshot is that Iran and Syria would get Turkey’s back if it moved on the Kurdish enclave in defiance of America’s wishes. Iran would even send in its own troops, he said, if the Turks invaded unilaterally. I have no idea if this is true, but Stratfor had something on this not too long ago claiming the exact same thing. Either conspiracy theories are contagious or perhaps there’s something to this rumor. Time will tell.
Finally met J., my would-be traveling companion on this adventure. He’s a former marine from the first Gulf War, a photographer and a paramedic. All of which could come in quite handy. Plus, he has cool toys: night vision goggles. He has the open face of a California guy, although he was born in New Jersey. He seems a level-headed chap, and promised he wouldn’t decide to ditch me if the Iraqis carted me away. He’s going to be the liaison with any U.S. forces we come across and will be doing some photography, once I show him how to work the digital camera.
Tomorrow, the Syrians.

> $10,000

We broke $10,000 yesterday, and that means it’s time to go.

By the way, everyone. We broke $10,000 yesterday… Many, _many_ thanks to all of you. There’s no way this would have happened without those members of the _real_ “Coalition of the Willing” (formerly “Angel Investors”) to the right. Everyone on that list deserves every reader’s thanks. And they definitely have mine.
Also, George over at Warblogging deserves a big thanks for helping host this site, and helping get tons of bandwidth
My brother, Michael, will also deserve a big hand, since he’s going to be the one actually pushing the button to publish this blog while I’m in-country. The sat-phone is pretty narrow bandwidth, so I’ll email out the the dispatches on the donors’ listserv I’ve set up and later in the day, Michael will copy and paste the day’s email(s) into blog entries. (I’d link to his site, but he’s serving it on an iMac out of his home. I don’t think his ISP would appreciate the attention.)
Friends, family and others too many to mention here: You have my gratitude. This could never have happened without their support and encouragement.
And now, the fear sets in. Tomorrow will be a busy day. I’ll likely not blog until Friday when I get to Ankara and give an update, but I’ll do what I can.