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Kleptocracy, Theocracy (and Democracy) in the Middle East
Posted on Dec 8, 2006
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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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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