The moment I told my friends, family and colleagues I was traveling to Iraq to begin working on a short documentary, I received a plethora of forcefully concerned responses. "Make sure you wear a bulletproof vest." "Keep your head low." "Send my regards to our troops." "Make sure you get back safe."
These kinds of statements continued via text, email, through tweets and facebook messages every day I was there last week. Despite that I was blogging and posting video of the region. Funny thing was I never stated that the focus of the documentary had anything to do with President Obama's troop withdrawal strategy or that I wanted to cover increasing violence in and around Baghdad as our brave men and women in the armed services pullout. In fact, I was really direct that my interest lied about 198 miles from Baghdad in the Kurdistan region of the country; a place that is more and more being known within the country as "The Other Iraq". The fact that those closest to me were unable to conceptualize the difference between the conflict area where U.S. soldiers continue to give their lives on a daily basis, and the Kurdish Region of Iraq is because most mainstream American media outlets don't find this social and political experiment worth reporting.
This in many cases is why I was there and will be going back next week. The journalist in me sees a story worth telling and the activist in me wants to help in a very tangible way.
On Saturday, July 25, 2009 the Iraqi contingent of the largest ethnic minority in the world without a home state will continue their quest to provide a local working model of democracy in a region of the world that has few. Moreover, this region of Iraq has not seen a coalition casualty in nearly three years and has been able to create a social reality that stands in stark contradiction to the ongoing violence in Baghdad. But despite the pro-U.S. ideology of the Kurdish Regional Government, the overwhelming population of the Kurdish people in Iraq has not seemed to move many U.S. elected officials to care about this population (despite the fact that Kurdish soldiers fought alongside American troops), nor care about their long term security as our nation shifts its military focus to Afghanistan.
I was never one of the American citizens in favor of our troops going into Iraq in the first place. Furthermore, I was encouraged when President Obama set a date for our strategic and measured withdrawal. But, I wonder if it's possible to see a silver lining after the death of thousands of American soldiers and Iraqi civilians.
I would encourage our nation and its elected officials not to predicate comprehensive progress in Iraq based on what happens with the central government in Baghdad alone. Much of the rhetoric of our former President, federally elected officials, and countless pundits has implied that the advancement of democracy and thus the formation of a government of and by the Iraqi people would define ultimate success. While there has been considerable progress towards not only an established, but also a thriving autonomous central government, the shining example of Iraqi democratic evolution is found more in Erbil than Baghdad.
Now, I am not so naive that I ignore the unique challenges of maintaining civil stability in Baghdad. But, I would simultaneously recommend that we not ignore the stability constructed from virtual chaos in the Northern region of the country, by what is arguably the most ignored population of Iraq.
Next week will symbolize the evolution of a region that for the second time will democratically elect their leadership. What is even more encouraging is the emergence of political challengers to the dominant coalition party, Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP); and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK),coming from the new CHANGE political party. While assessing the ideological details of these political parties would take more time than is available for this blog, the point is that the very emergence of challenging parties speaks to the open democratic environment established in Kurdistan.
This is not a proclamation of Kurdish perfection in the face of increasing violence in other parts of Iraq. However, more U.S. press outlets should be covering this process and more U.S. law makers should be ensuring that the Kurds are not ignored in our policy as it relates to Iraq.
Time will tell what the next chapter of the Democracy story in Iraq is, but Kurdistan is providing an encouraging introduction.