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    Monday, October 20, 2008

    My own Iraq war

    Sulaymaniyah, Iraq - Monday, Oct. 20

    This morning, after five years of covering the war here in Iraq – and managing to largely stay clear of the fighting – I finally became a participant in the violence. Upon arriving in my hotel room here in Sulaymaniyah, exhausted after a journey from Kish Island that included two flights and a long drive, I was confronted by a real live terrorist. A cockroach almost the size of my closed fist. The Osama bin Laden of the insect world.

    I won’t drive you off the website with all the gory details, but suffice it to say that this was a real this-room-isn’t-big-enough-for-both-of-us battle that lasted upwards of half an hour. The fall of Baghdad didn’t take this long.

    The plastic slipper I found in the bathroom did nothing but tickle this behemoth of a bug. I swear he was giggling as I slapped him with it repeatedly. Next up, I tried a shock-and-awe campaign using the sole of my shoe that at least managed to irritate my many-legged nemesis. Finally, borrowing from the U.S. Army’s overkill playbook (think air strikes and wedding parties), I lifted up the minibar fridge and dropped it on the offending roach, ending his one-bug intifada against my occupation of room 207.

    Surely there’s some metaphor for the entire “war on terror” somewhere in that story.

    The Battle of Room 207 was a bloody end to an exhausting journey from Kish Island in southern Iran to the eastern corner of northern Iraq. The plan had been to get from there to here overland across the Islamic Republic, but after the mullahs decided I wasn’t worthy of even a transit visa across their country, I had to abandon that plan and travel to Sulaymaniyah – the next stop on my itinerary – the long way (answering the question posed by Dion Nissenbaum over at McClatchey newspapers). Two flights and a three-hour drive later, I was face-to-face with Osama the Cockroach.

    More geopolitically relevant than my discovery of new uses for a minibar was the reception I got upon landing in Northern Iraq. Walking into the pre-fabricated airport at Irbil, the effective capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, is always a reminder of how detached from the rest of Iraq this place has become.

    The fact that I had no Iraqi visa didn’t matter to the blue-uniformed guard who marked page 17 of my passport with a red-and-blue “Kurdistan Regional Government” stamp. There was no sign of the Iraqi flag anywhere inside the terminal – in fact, Arabs from the rest of Iraq were the only people on my flight who received serious scrutiny when they landed in Irbil.

    The growing independence of Iraqi Kurdistan is fraught with problems. The Kurds aren’t content with the three northern provinces they currently control, and a conflict with Baghdad is looming over the future of oil-rich Kirkuk, a city Iraqi Kurds refer to as their “Jerusalem.” An independent Kurdistan of any size is also anathema to neighbouring Iran and Turkey, who each have their own large and restive Kurdish populations. Fighting between the Turkish army and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, has escalated along the Turkish-Iraqi border again in recent days, and Iran has also taken to shelling Northern Iraq, targeting Iranian Kurdish groups who use Iraqi Kurdistan as a rear base.

    But being here and seeing the determination with which the Kurds have gone about building their own mini-state over the past five years, it’s clear that a point of no return has been passed somewhere along the way. The Kurds will never accept the return of Baghdad’s authority over this land they’ve fought so long to call their own.

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