Since the last time I checked in I’m happy to report that my security situation has settled down. IREX and I are in the final stages of selecting the new security company, I’m hopeful that soon everything will be more or less back the way it was, although without my lovely International Zone (IZ) villa for weekends. So these weekends I’m back to staying at the guesthouse I was first living in when I arrived in country. It’s nice, but not the same as having an IZ villa. For instance today I had a meeting in the morning and another in the evening in the IZ…. so I went and hung out at a friend’s villa for the interim. Fine… but not the same as having my own room to go to in between. But still… all is fine.
Things are changing here quite rapidly. The US military withdrew from all cities towns and villages, except for Mosul, which has remained a stubborn pocket of violence and resistance all the time. The Iraqi army and police are now fully in charge of security. Checkpoint procedures are changing; the other day they decided that Iraqis who come into the IZ (and many come in to work for various foreign companies and Embassies) now need additional letters of authorization from their companies. Vehicles need to have Iraqi plates. None of this is affecting me directly, as our cars already had Iraqi plates, we work in the red zone… but a lot of my friends who live and work in IZ this week all of sudden couldn’t move anywhere (a lot of the cars moving around the IZ don’t have Iraqi plates, as they never went out of the IZ). So people are scrambling to adapt to the ever-changing situation. It caused so many problems that apparently the US Embassy got involved, and the latest development is that now there is a 50-day grace period for everyone to get their various papers, badges, letters, etc. sorted out.
Tension is rising in the country, as the troops withdraw, and elections draw near. There is a rise in violence; there was a bank robbery last week in which 8 police were killed. Many expect serious violence to break out between the Kurds and Arabs (i.e. the rest of Iraq). Most of it stems over tension about so-called ‘disputed areas’ in northern Iraq, an area called Kirkuk which has a lot of oil, and which used to be populated primarily by Kurds until Saddam forcibly expelled most of them and “Arabized’ it. Kurds believe it to be part of Kurdistan, Baghdad believes it to belong to the rest of the country. The Kurds don’t trust the central government to be fair with them regarding oil revenues, there’s years of bad blood between them all.
Recently the Kurdish parliament drafted a law unilaterally annexing the disputed areas, and tried to force a referendum on the issue during the recent elections. That vote didn’t occur, but it probably will, and the issue is causing tremendous tension between the two sides. Changes are happening in the IZ, there are now nighttime checkpoints throughout the IZ, manned by Iraqi police. People don’t travel around alone, and overall, people believe the IZ is becoming less secure. It’s a shifting uncertain time. It doesn’t affect my operations or work, but we all feel it.
There were important elections in Kurdistan July 25th. They had not voted during the provincial elections last January (I don’t know why that decision was made, it was firmly in place when I arrived in November). The recent elections there were for the members of the Kurdish Parliament, and for the President of the semi-autonomous region. To no one’s surprise, the current president Barzani has been re-elected with a healthy margin (70%). What has been a surprise is that a strong opposition movement has emerged, gaining possibly as much as one-third of the seats of Parliament. Started by a former insider of Barzani’s party (PUK), this new party (aptly named CHANGE), gained a lot of seats. We are hoping this will bring some much-needed reform to the government, which is notoriously corrupt, and ruled by basically two families: Barzani, and the Prime Minister Talabani. IREX was not as heavily involved in this election as were in the other, but our office staff in Kurdistan were plenty busy with trainings, and getting some programming going on radio, television, newspaper and websites.
The big national elections are set for mid-January 2010, so we are starting to gear up for that, sending out requests for proposals to media outlets, producing some public service announcements for voter registration which starts next month. The election meetings I was going to last fall have started up again. We are negotiating with the electoral commission regarding running a press center for them again.
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