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Kleptocracy, Theocracy (and Democracy) in the Middle East

Posted on Dec 8, 2006
Reese Erlich
Courtesy Reese Erlich

Reporter Reese Erlich reports from a mine field near the Afghan-Iranian border in 2004.

By Joshua Scheer

Editor’s note: Investigative reporter Reese Erlich, just back from a tour of the Middle East, tells Truthdig research editor Josuha Scheer that the U.S. efforts to promote democracy in that part of the world are beset by religious fundamentalists on one side and unabashed kleptocrats on the other.

Truthdig: How long were you in the Middle East?

Erlich: A total of two and a half weeks.

Truthdig: Is it as dangerous as people are talking about?

Erlich: Yeah, in Iraq it is.  Sure.


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Truthdig: But in Iran, is it all bad?

Erlich: No, certainly in Tehran it is safe.  It’s safer than some U.S. cities. Unless you are a political dissident, in which case it is very dangerous.  But for ordinary citizens, travelers, and for me as a foreign journalist—I wasn’t worried about bombs going off, or getting machine-gunned or something like that.  They’re increasingly restrictive of how foreign journalists can operate.

Truthdig: Did you go through a press office?

Erlich: The U.S. government is fine with travel to Iran; there are no restrictions, like [with] Cuba for example.  But it is very hard to get an Iranian visa.  They don’t let you leave Tehran without official permission, and they try to closely monitor who you interview….

Truthdig: You were there for two and a half weeks; so you were able to work?

Erlich: Oh yeah. I’ve never let government restrictions stand in my way.

Truthdig: We hear about violence between Sunnis and Shiites all the time, and the civil war.  I was just wondering, is there a place in Iraq that’s stable?

Erlich: Yeah, the northern part, the Kurdish area. 

Truthdig: How do they get that kind of stability?

Erlich: You have to understand a bit of the history.  From the end of the Gulf War in ‘91 till the U.S. invasion of 2003, the U.S. enforced this no-fly zone in the Kurdish area, and the Kurds were basically free to develop their own country. So when the U.S. invaded in 2003 the Kurds had an advanced start of roughly 10 years in which they had their own economy…and they are a distinct ethnic group separate from Iraqi Arabs. So the violence that inhabits the rest of Iraq is largely absent from the Kurdish-controlled areas, and they do everything they can to keep the Iraqi Arabs out. There are checkpoints all over the place. Even though theoretically they are part of Iraq, if you are Iraqi Arab you have to register with the police and tell them what you are doing there, and generally it’s as inhospitable as possible. 

Truthdig: Is it [like] the Iran of the north, where it is harder to get around but there is less violence?

Erlich: It’s not quite accurate to talk about it as Iran of the north.  The good news is that you can drive around. I drove around at night between two cities, which would be impossible in the rest of Iraq.  People walk freely on the streets. There is an economic building boom in Suleimaniyeh, where I was, for example—all kinds of buildings going up, public works things going on, etc. And that’s all impossible in the rest of Iraq. People go to work, people go to school, people are in university, and that’s no small accomplishment, given the tremendous violence, both the resistance to the U.S. and a civil war between the various ethnic groups….

But it’s tricky, because Kurdistan has become basically a little U.S. client state, and that’s where the U.S. is going to fall back to when the rest of Iraq collapses. There’re elections and all that, but it’s a kleptocracy. The parties that run the legislature—there’s two Kurdish parties—officially grant themselves money out of the state treasury. It just goes straight into the coffers of the political parties, you don’t need a Jack Abramoff, or anything like that ... you just take the money.  It’s like if Jack Abramoff and Tom DeLay just took several billion dollars and put it directly into the Republican Party, and built themselves houses and bought themselves cars. That’s what they’re doing in Kurdistan. So long-term it’s a serious problem; it’s a story that’s been completely underreported, because of all the violence in the rest of Iraq.

Truthdig: Are the Kurds an example for the rest of Iraq, [in terms of] violence?

Erlich: Well’s its unique, it is an area that’s one ethnicity and one religion.  And they do everything they can to keep other people out. It’s not a model because once the rest of Iraq falls apart, the Kurds are going to start invading other parts like Kirkuk, where the oil is.  When that happens, the Kurds are going to try to seize control of areas, and drive out anybody who’s not Kurdish, and the other sides are going to drive out the Kurds. So you are going to see the same kind of civil war that’s going on in the rest of Iraq. [It] will break out in the northern part as well, where there’re contested areas.

Truthdig: So the Kurds will be a part of more and more violence?

Erlich: Yes, exactly. There will be ethnic cleansing on all sides, when the Kurds decide to declare their own independent country.

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By Robert Griffin, January 4, 2007 at 5:26 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Dear Elizabeth Farnum,

I can’t speak for Reese, but I can add information on the issue.  Other than Turkish (and likely Iranian) opposition to a three state solution, there is another probable genocidal result.

Kurds have been eyeing Assyrian (Chaldo-Assyrian) territory around and north of Mosul for some time. Kurdish repression of non-Kurds both in and near predominantly Kurdish territory has been documented over the past decade, more so since the American occupation. Placing these areas under Kurdish control will allow the Kurdish government to act with impunity against the Assyrians (or Chaldo-Assyrians) and Yezidis in their ancient homelands. On the other hand, placing the area under Sunni control spreads the jeopardy to these non-Muslim minorities from Muslim fanatics.

Be Well,
Bob Griffin

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By Kim Viner, December 30, 2006 at 2:44 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Re: 41704 by felicity:  Your point about Vietnam is acurate to at least some degree but does not, unfortunately apply to Iraq.  The Vietnamese (particularly in the north) resisted Chinese southward expansion for centuries and even fought a war aginst them after we “left” at the end of the Vietnam War. Most Shia in the south of Iraq hold no such historical animosity toward Iran. In fact, they view Iran as a potential bulwark against any repeat of attempted Sunni domination.

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By Socrates, December 27, 2006 at 4:49 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

There are some real problems with media in general, not just in the US, when hearing something fairly obvious becomes surprising and/or refreshing. Good to see this kind of material on Truthdig…keep up the good work!


“As Shakespeare (?) said, ‘There’s nothing new under the sun.’”

That’s from Ecclesiastes, and has been recycled in literature and music hundreds of times.

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By CSavage, December 15, 2006 at 8:04 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Good summary but…...
Turkey, with its large and oppressed Kurdish population, will never stand to have a freestanding Kurdistan sitting right next to it.
It won’t matter how many Starbucks the Kurds have been able to build in the 10 years of the “no-fly-zone”, they have no way of protecting themselves from the military capabilities of Turkey and the US doesn’t have the will or the resources to protect the Kurds from Turkey. No one can seriously look at the quagmire of the Middle East and not figure Turkey into the mix.

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By Tony Wicher, December 15, 2006 at 3:15 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

“Erlich: The right-wingers and some liberals, for that matter, argue that these terrorists are our sworn enemies no matter what. No matter what concessions you make to them, they will continue to bomb and attack us. Well it’s true, there are some fundamentalist right-wingers in the Arab world and Muslim world who would hate the U.S. and Israel no matter what they did.”

There is only one concession Israel can make that will bring peace. It is not the return of the occupied territories. The concession that would really work is to give up on the idea of a separate Jewish state in favor of a secular multi-ethnic democracy to govern the whole area. That is the only concession that would satisfy the requirements of justice and universal human rights. Israel as a Jewish separatist state violates these principles. Only inclusion of the Palestinians living together with Israelis as equal citizens will satisfy these requirements.

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By BGood, December 14, 2006 at 3:57 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

First, thank you for clarity and common sense in explaining what, until your comments, had been very fuzzy for me.
The US is a republic, not a democracy.  We endorse capitalism and offer opportunity for all willing to do whatever it takes to win.
Like obscene profits taken by Exxon Mobil and others as a payoff after “the conspired bunch” realized the honeypot in Iraq had morphed into a hornet’s nest with no easy pickins.
Oh, what a creative imagination I have!

I’m new to and am fortunate to be here. Thank you!

Best to all,


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By elizabeth farnum, December 13, 2006 at 9:27 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I’m curious to know Reese’s thoughts about the “three state solution”  to Iraq promulgated by Galbraith, etc.

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By jb, December 13, 2006 at 5:54 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

A realistic if depressing assessment.

Thanks for the info on northern Iraq: ‘The Other Iraq’ on their web sites.

The future direction of Iraq might still be spelled K-i-r-k-u-k, might it not?

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By T.E.Chester, December 13, 2006 at 4:02 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

It is a refreshing read.  I’ve read similar articles by those, who, for lack of a better term and not meant as a show of disrepect, are not “main stream.”  By this I mean, Bello, Fox, Clear Channel are sadly considered “main stream.”
  I feel that this administration actually felt that the info they were getting from the Iraqi dissidents was the end all be all truth.  The idea of being greated with “Sweets and flowers” were just too much for them to ignore.
  Maybe they thought it would be like allies liberating Europe during World War II.  And since most of the NeoCons avoided military service during the Vietnam conflict, I guess it would make them feel better about themselves.
  Sadly it has blown up in their faces.  And the American public’s face as well. 
  I can tell you this, I am going to forward this article to my friends and family.

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By Bukko in Australia, December 12, 2006 at 10:53 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Quy: Remember that Talabani, the Iraqi president who denounced the ISG report that wanted U.S. troops slowly pulled out, is Kurdish. The U.S. occupation of its oil colony has worked out very well for the Kurds. Until the U.S. betrays them as it has so many times in the past, cf course…

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By JWW, December 12, 2006 at 9:39 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Now would be the time for progressives to start projecting a true new beginning for Iraq. I know that Bush is in power for the next two years but Americans need hope that a Democratic president would truly bring closure to the Iraq war.

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By felicity, December 11, 2006 at 2:42 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

As Shakespeare (?) said, “There’s nothing new under the sun.”

The same inflated gibberish that China and North Korea…were in North Vietnam for nefarious reasons (establishing a Communist regime) in the guise of “helping” the North in its fight with the South was daily propaganda fare when our government was trying to sell us on why we needed to be in Nam.

The truth was neither North nor South Vietnam wanted ANY foreign entities in their country - France, the US, China, North Korea, Australia, GB…and any who were would be shown the door as soon as the US left.

It’s a safe bet that the Iraqis don’t welcome Iran, Syria, Al Quaeda…in their country and as soon as the Americans leave other foreign entities will be shown the door.

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By Quy Tran, December 11, 2006 at 11:47 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

The president of Iraq on Sunday sharply criticized the U.S. team report on Iraq as “an insult to the people of Iraq”. He also said U.S. training of Iraq’s army and police had gone “from failure to failure”.

“Generally, I reject this report”, he concluded.

Dear Mr. President, you rejected this report a little bit late because we denied it before it was sent to our King. We have known this report was a sordic trick played by dirtiest politicians. But we’re still praised your courage to speak loudly. You’re not the same caliber of Nguyen Van Thieu of Saigon Government who only known to bow and knee down in front of his U.S. honchos begging for more favors. You can look up with proud. Just keep being hero exactly like Mr. Matak, the president of Cambodia who refused to be flee out of his country and had been killed by his ennemies.

Never trust the so-called “ALLIES” because there’re absolutely no ALLIES between the master and his servants.

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By B ukko in Australia, December 11, 2006 at 4:06 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

For once, I agree with Spinoza (you bomb-thrower, you!) Good reportage. I read all the time about Middle Eastern news, but I was unaware of the duopolistic political undercurrents in Kurdistan, and how the Iranians supported overthrowing the Taliban. Shows what happens when you cooperate with Bush—you still get the shank in the back. Articles like this give credence to the “truth dig” name.

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By felicity, December 10, 2006 at 4:46 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Is it possible that the US State Department, Pentagon, Department of Defense, Oval Office, the hundreds of “think tanks” - we’re talking about a lot of people drawing a lot of big salaries courtesy of us in most cases - failed so abysmally to read the landscape in Iraq?  Odds are not.  Most of us don’t succumb easily to clandestine plots occurring behind closed doors, yet the situation in Iraq is looking more and more like a deal that occurred behind closed doors and will ultimately work out to benefit the world’s oil barons as planned.

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By Geronimo, December 9, 2006 at 1:33 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

It’s been this way ever since our president got us into this mess and the only thing that’s certain now is that every day it gets worse.  Meaning it’s not so much lack of information that prevents us from stopping the Iraq war, it’s that we haven’t made the transition yet from merely opposing it to actually ending it.  What’s holding us back?  Not having begun, that’s what, because we can’t miss, once we start.  ..

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By Spinoza, December 8, 2006 at 11:42 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Rather good straight foward reporting and analysis. What we need in the rest of the press.

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