Quite another country

IN A STRANGE parallel reality, Tony Blair is a "liberator" and the secret police apologise after accidentally beating journalists. John Smith went there for Fortean Times and offers a few tips.

THE MINISTER of Tourism, seated in his office in the mountain resort of Sarchinar, Northern Iraq, admitted that his country had "something of an image problem" as a destination for Western tourists. I was interviewing him after showing him my accreditation from Fortean Times (strapline "The World of Strange Phenomena"). Welcome to the surreal territory of Northern Iraq, also known as "Kurdistan Regional Government" or "Iraqi Kurdistan".

Photo © John Smith
Radio Civil Society, broadcasting fromthe former Baath Party torturechamber inSarchinar

The scariest part of a trip to Kurdistan is getting across the Turkish border - a military zone, where the "gendarmes" (military police) don't want to see journalists at all. You cross into Iraq entirely at their discretion. Fortunately, their search of my belongings failed to uncover my press cards. Once inside "Iraqi Kurdistan", nobody asked me what I was doing there. They rarely even asked to see my ID. It's a very isolated region, where any foreign visitors are appreciated - especially British or American. I was treated to constant reminders of the wonderfulness of "liberator" Tony Blair.

The Kurdish Peshmerga (it means "those who face death") have a good record of providing security, thanks mainly to tip-offs from the local population about suspicious activity. These are often on the lines of "I said 'Hello' to these guys in the street and they didn't say 'Hello' back". There are anti-suicide-bomber barriers around the towns, but most of them are planted with pretty mountain flowers. My hosts advised me I could walk the streets alone, even at night, which I frequently did.

There's a degree of press freedom, and Kurdish journalists' press cards - which feature their blood group - are recognized by local security forces. The progressive newspaper Welati (The Citizen) ran a story while I was there, about a journalist in the border city of Dohuk investigating a find of explosives belonging to a fundamentalist group. He was seized by the secret police, beaten up and thrown into jail. Then they went through his pockets, found his press card, apologized profusely and released him.

While the scary bits of Iraq to the South dominate the news, editors seem uninterested in the much safer Kurdish region in the North. Apart, that is, from Fortean Times, who wanted a piece on the Yezidi religious minority. As one old Baghdadi hand reminded me, "What bleeds, leads."

I'd planned my trip to Northern Iraq for most of a year, advised by former colleagues at a Kurdish community centre in London, one of whom met me on the Turkish side of the border. Their security advice was: "Don't use bodyguards or travel in a convoy, you'll only draw attention to yourself. Sit in the back of the car when you're travelling... And grow a moustache."

While I will probably be visiting Iraqi Kurdistan again, a word of advice to freelances thinking of going out to the (Arab) South of the country to get a scoop - don't. It's not big and it's not clever.

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