Kurdistan: The Other Iraq

Families out for an evening stroll, friends sipping coffee at sidewalk cafes, tourists seeing the sights without a police escort – am I still in Iraq?

Sort of.

I’m in Kurdistan, an autonomous region made up of Iraq’s three northernmost provinces. The Kurds kicked out Saddam in 1991 after suffering years of bloody persecution, and they’ve pretty much been doing their own thing ever since. I never saw an Iraqi flag flying in the Kurdish region, only the Kurdish “regional” flag that everyone seems to look to as their national flag. The region even has its own national anthem. The Kurdish government also acts independently at times, such as making oil deals with foreign companies even though they’re supposed to be approved by Baghdad.

Erbil, the region’s capital, is a boomtown. New buildings are going up everywhere and the shops are full of expensive products and people who can afford to buy them. Auto dealerships, electronics stores, and swank restaurants are everywhere. There’s a relaxed, optimistic mood in the air.

The Kurds have reason to be optimistic. A distinct people with their own culture and language, their population stretches across several international boundaries. Kurds are found in Iraq, Iran, Turkey, and Syria. Being a minority with a strong sense of independence has meant they’ve faced persecution in all of these countries. Now they have their own region and they’re doing well for themselves. Kurdistan has the lowest rate of poverty in Iraq thanks to a booming oil and gas industry.

There’s even a tourism industry. This is the one part of Iraq where you can travel individually, and an increasing number of curious Westerners are doing just that. Kurdistan’s mixture of ancient sites, functioning cities and rugged mountains has a lot to offer.

%Gallery-172501%Like everywhere else in the Middle East, foreign visitors are treated with curiosity and hospitality. Tourism isn’t big enough here yet for visitors to be pestered by carpet sellers like in Istanbul or Cairo. The relaxed vibe extends to everyone. As we visited the impressive Erbil citadel, a medieval fortress built atop ruins stretching back at least 7,000 years, we had a steady stream of people welcome us to Kurdistan (always Kurdistan, never Iraq) and chat with us as much as their English would allow.

We had people coming up to us all through Iraq, but here it was different. The locals were less surprised to see us, less anxious to know what we thought of their country. The Kurds show a confidence not seen in other parts of Iraq.

It’s difficult to judge a region after such a short visit. I only got to hang out in Erbil for a day, plus see some ancient Assyrian sites and an Iraqi Christian monastery. My impressions are only first impressions and I’m sure I missed a lot. The Kurdish hinterland, with its various factions and ethnic groups, is a mystery to me that would require another long visit to even partially unravel.

There’s no doubt that Kurdistan has its share of problems. Not everyone is profiting from the good economy and ethnic minorities complain they aren’t getting their fair cut. Still, I get the sense that they’re better off than in other parts of Iraq. The oil industry is booming and the leaders of the various factions are keeping a lid on the worst of the violence in order to make money. That’s something the factions in the rest of Iraq, intent on getting the whole pie for themselves, just don’t understand. They’re wrecking the very economy they’re trying to control.

Example: on my first day in Baghdad I ditched my guards and went to the market to find my son an Iraq National team football uniform. I nearly got arrested by the Iraqi police and didn’t even get the uniform. The security situation made the cops jittery and the market streets were clogged by a series of checkpoints. This, of course, hurts businesses. In Erbil, I wandered freely through a busy market and after a bit of hunting in a new, clean shopping mall found a uniform in my son’s size. When I paid for it the shopkeeper added my money to a huge wad of notes he pulled from his pocket. Business was good that day.

I was happy, the shopkeeper was happy, and my son was happy. The difference between Baghdad and Erbil really comes down to that – stability brings prosperity, and that’s better for everyone.

Don’t miss the rest of my series, “Destination: Iraq,” chronicling my 17-day journey across this strife-ridden country in search of adventure, archaeology and AK-47s.

Coming up next: “A Family Night Out In Baghdad!”

[Top photo by Sean McLachlan. Bottom photo by Rob Hammond]

Travel industry battered by world crises says CNN

A recent report from CNN says that the spate of world crises that have occurred in the first three months of the year has hit the travel industry especially hard. Natural disasters and political unrest have left many travelers rethinking their plans or cancelling trips altogether as they scramble to avoid a host of issues across the globe.

The earthquake and tsunami in Japan, coupled with fears of radiation and a potential nuclear meltdown in power plants there, has significantly reduced demand for travel to that country. It has gotten so bad that Delta Airlines has announced that they are cutting capacity to Tokyo’s Narita International Airport by as much as 20% through May, and suspending flights to another regional airport altogether.

Similarly, travel to Northern Africa and the Middle East has also dropped significantly as political upheaval has spread across that region. It hasn’t just been the airlines that have felt the pinch however, as disruption in travel to Bahrain, Tunisia, and most importantly Egypt, has put a dent in the cruise industry too. According to Carnival Cruise Lines more than 280 of their cruises have seen a change in their itineraries thanks to issues in the Middle East. They estimate a loss of $44 million so far, and the region hasn’t stabilized just yet.

The Middle East unrest has brought another unwelcome side effect to the travel industry as well. Any threat to the distribution of oil means an increase in prices, which is always passed on to the consumer. Soaring oil prices has led to an increase in the cost of airfares, and the dreaded term “fuel surcharge” has reared its ugly head once again too. With the busy summer travel season still ahead, it seems unlikely that oil prices will be coming down again anytime soon.

2011 is certainly off to a turbulent start. If the first few months are any indication, we could be in for one very memorable, but chaotic, year. Has any of the recent global calamities caused you to change your plans? Are you now going elsewhere because of recent events? Worse yet, have you canceled your plans to travel this year altogether?

Post-Gulf Spill: The more things change, the more slippery they get

A trio of news stories out of the Gulf remind that the more things change in the region — whether natural disaster (hurricanes), manmade screw up (oil rig explosions) or government intervention (drilling bans) — the more they stay the same.

Within weeks after the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded and sank nearly one year ago the Obama Administration banned all new deepwater drilling. The ban lasted until October 12. This week the Department of Interior announced it had approved its first new permit to drill deep in the Gulf of Mexico since the spill.

Noble Energy, a Houston-based operator, is the prizewinner, which the new Bureau of Ocean Energy, Regulation and Enforcement – the reorganized Minerals Management Service, the federal office that had cozied up to the oil industry for years — says it thoroughly vetted. Noble had begun drilling to 13,858 feet when it was halted by the spill.

The announcement was welcomed by the oil industry as its shares jumped on Wall Street. “We expect further deepwater permits to be approved in coming weeks and months based on the same process that led to the approval of this permit,” said the agency’s director Michael Bromwich.

For Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal the permit was a “good first step.” The first-term governor – who faces election this November — wants more permits granted faster. “We must quickly get to a level of issuing permits that represents a critical mass so thousands of oil and gas industry workers can get back to work fueling America again.”

It’s no surprise of course that’s Jindal’s take. As the Times pointed out this week he’s long been “cozy” with the oil industry, relationships complicated – or greased, dependent on your view — by a foundation set up by his wife the month after he was elected in 2007, the Supriva Jindal Foundation for Louisiana’s Children.

Among the biggest donors – all legal under Louisiana law – are Marathon Oil ($250,000), Israeli oil company Alon USA ($250,00), Dow Chemical ($100,000), Northrop Grumman, AT&T as well as other oil companies, insurers and construction companies.

While campaign donations are limited, donations to Mrs. Jindal’s Foundation are not.
What’s in it for the corporations, above and beyond supporting the foundation’s goal of delivering much-needed hi-tech equipment to schools in the poorest neighborhoods of Louisiana? AT&T hopes the governor will sign a law allowing it to sell cable TV rights without negotiating directly with individual parishes; Marathon was granted approval a year ago to expand the amount of oil it can refine at its Louisiana plant; Alon is seeking permit to dump more pollutants at its Krotz Spring refinery. And on and on.

Politicians using do-good foundations to (vaguely) mask corporate bribery is hardly a new tactic. PACs and political interest groups on both sides of the fence have been doing it for decades.
But in Louisiana, where corruption is a long-practiced fine art, the Jindals’ mutual interests aren’t masked at all. A picture of the governor with his wife graces the foundation’s website, his chief fundraiser is the charity’s treasurer and an employee of the governor’s office, working as an aide to Mrs. Jindal, is the contact for the foundation’s books.

While corporations continue to get their way in Louisiana, it appears many of those whose lives were impacted by last April’s oil spill will have to wait a bit longer for re-compensation.
Citing “lack of adequate documentation,” Ken Feinberg – appointed by Obama to dole out up to $20 billion of BP’s money to those whose livelihoods were affected by the spill – admitted that more than 100,000 claims currently on file might never be paid.

“Roughly 80 percent of the claims that we now have in the queue lack proof,” Feinberg said last week in Washington, admitting it was “a huge number.”

To-date his office has paid out nearly $3.6 billion, to 168,000 individuals and businesses across the Gulf, mostly emergency payments of a few thousand dollars.

Feinberg’s denials angered state governments in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida, the White House … and a boatload of individuals in the region who’ve either already lost businesses or need money to jump start them. The states are appealing to the courts for redress, which means the lack of payments will certainly go on for months. Individuals are largely left holding the bag.

From its perspective, BP feels Feinberg has been “overly generous.” Any of the $20 billion not paid out goes back to BP. Meanwhile the oil company is paying Feinberg’s law firm $850,000 a month to administer the fund, which is currently being renegotiated – upwards. The lawyers are most likely happy to see the payment process drag on … and on.

[flickr photo via DVIDSHUB]

Allegiant Airlines plans to sell tickets fluctuate with oil

One of the biggest factors that comes into the cost of your airline tickets is the price of oil. Since the market is so competitive and the products so similar, airlines operate on razor thin margins — margins that take a big hit when the price of crude goes through the roof.

This is why you hear all sorts of bellyaching from the industry when consumers lament the days of $250 transcontinental tickets. Oil has gone up dramatically over the last forty years while ticket prices haven’t matured in kind.

Allegiant Airlines, however, has a new strategy to mitigate the price of jet fuel. With their planned “variable-price” tickets, an additional fee added to your ticket will fluctuate with the price of oil. If tensions in the Middle East take off and oil prices spike? Then you pay a bit more for your ticket when you get the the airport. If the United States taps into its secret reserve and hands out oil in the streets in milk jugs? Then you get a little back when you head to the airport.

It’s genius in a way, because this way the airline can help mitigate the impact of oil on it’s revenue stream and passengers get the small slice of hope that their tickets might fall in price. It’s the perfect model for an airline based out of Las Vegas.

Scott Mayerowitz, AP writer hosted at the Seattle Times has the full details on the proposed plan. Note, the airline has not concrete plans to implement the variable priced tickets, but it’s a model that they’re heavily considering.

Update from the shores of Louisiana

A trio of events happening simultaneously this week along the Gulf coast is stirring debate:

  1. The team responsible for paying out damages to Gulf spill victims is about to start writing checks to those who’ve proved they deserve it;
  2. NOAA has given its blessing to reopening a 4,200-square-mile area of the Gulf of Meico to fishing, near where the BP well exploded;
  3. and chemical researchers are still trying to draw attention to what they regard as fact, that the Gulf seafood bears toxic levels that are still too high for human consumption.

Like most things in Louisiana, the three are inextricably related: In order to write checks, Ken Feinberg – charged with doling out $20 billion of BP’s cash — needs to be able, as best he can, to ascertain the long-term impacts of the spill on the region. The researcher he hired has issued a report that suggests the impacts of the spill will be less severe than anticipated, on both fish and man. Yet there is a fervent crowd of scientists and environmentalists working in the region who contend the testing being done by the government is insufficient and that the seafood is still tainted. Amid that confusion the federal government (via NOAA) feels a need open closed fishing grounds in order to get fishermen back to work and stimulate the local economies.
As reported in the Times, marine biologist Wes Tunnell was hired by Feinberg, to guesstimate how long the Gulf and particularly its seafood would take to recover from the spill. His 39-page report was released yesterday. While admitting the report would not be the last word, Tunnell – a marine researcher and associate director of Texas A&M’s Harte Research Institute which focuses on the Gulf of Mexico – says the Gulf is undergoing a “strong recovery, with overall fish populations potentially back to pre-spill levels by the end of 2012.”

Criticism came fast. Ian MacDonald, a member of the National Wildlife Federation’s science advisory panel said, “This is not a scientific report, it’s an opinion.” LSU biological oceanographer James Cowan said, “He may be right, and I hope he’s right. But it doesn’t sit well with me. I think it’s too soon to just write it off.”

Nonetheless, Feinberg will use the Tunnell report to base his payouts.

The same day that Tunnell claimed repairing the Gulf was happening more quickly than expected, the federal government reopened fishing grounds off Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama which had first been closed immediately after the April 20 spill, then reopened in the fall and closed again on November 24 when a commercial shrimper found tar balls in his net.

After some investigation, NOAA decided those tar balls were unrelated to the BP spill, so opened the 4,200 square miles again to deepwater shrimping.

None of which sits well with those who still believe that human health has been adversely impacted by high levels of polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) in Gulf seafood and the impact of all that oil and dispersants that were released into both the water and air.

Citing stats from recent blood tests on Gulf residents and clean-up workers, which show high levels of a variety of “volatile solvents,” the Emergency Committee to Stop the Gulf Oil Disaster has organized a public forum in New Orleans. Led by Dr. Wilma Subra the hope of the forum is to air some of these differing takes and remind local residents that the impacts of the spill linger.

The forum can be streamed live at Fluxview, USA

Read more from Jon Bowermaster’s Adventures here.