“I think what the Kurds have been able to do,” US Senator Tammy Duckworth said earlier this week, “sets an example” for the rest of Iraq.
Duckworth fought in the US Army in the early years of Operation Iraqi Freedom OIF), as the pilot of a Blackhawk helicopter. In 2004, her helicopter was shot down near Taji. Badly wounded, she lost both legs. But nothing ever damaged the spirit of this amazing woman, and she is now one of two Democratic senators from Illinois.
Last month, Duckworth led two other senators, Angus King (Independent, Maine) and Johnny Isakson (R, Georgia) in a fact-finding mission to Iraq. She spoke about that trip on Monday at Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies.
That was her first trip back to Iraq, including the Kurdistan Region, in fifteen years, and she was struck by the difference.
“When I used to go up to the Kurdish Region, there was one fancy hotel on top of a hill and that was it,” she said, recalling the early days of OIF. “We landed on a hillside and parked our helicopters and walked up to the one hotel.”
Now, there are “high-rises, it’s gleaming, it’s modern”—in sum “an international cosmopolitan city,” Duckworth said.
Baghdad, however, has not seen the same changes, although Duckworth did note significant improvements. Many of the blast protection “T-walls” have been taken down by the new government. There is traffic on the roads and significant commercial activity.
She attributed the difference between Erbil and Baghdad in major part to different rules and regulations in the Kurdistan Region and the rest of Iraq. Kurdistan is open to the world, while Iraq is closed, perhaps, retaining the habits and practices of Saddam Hussein’s regime.
For example, there is a vast difference in the processing of visas for the Kurdistan Region and for Iraq. A US businessman can get a multi-entry visa to Erbil “pretty quickly,” Duckworth said, but a visa to Baghdad takes three months, and then it is a single-entry visa. Of course, no foreign business can operate under such circumstances.
Moreover, Iraq’s financial sector needs to be brought up to international standards. “I heard from young people, especially in the Kurdish area, ‘I want to be able to buy stuff from Amazon too, but I can’t get a credit card, because the banking system here isn’t good enough,’” Duckworth explained.
She also noted that in Africa, people have managed to figure out how to do banking on their phones. “If you can solve this problem in Africa, why can’t you solve this problem in Iraq?”
Duckworth is very impressed by Iraq’s new Prime Minister, Adil Abdul Mahdi, as well as its new Speaker of Parliament, Mohammed al-Halbousi, describing them as “very dynamic” and “brilliant men.”
Abdul Mahdi told the Senator that he would address the visa problem. Also, he had just returned from Europe, where he signed a major contract to build a facility to process Iraq’s natural gas.
Iraq has been flaring its gas while importing gas from Iran—just one of many irrationalities in Iraq’s economy that Duckworth hopes the new government will address. Indeed, she believes it is very important for the US to press it to do so.
In addition to Iraq’s considerable economic problems, the country faces a major security threat: the Islamic State has not been defeated.
Duckworth was clear, unequivocal, and concerned. Before visiting Iraq, “I was of the belief that ISIS had been defeated,” she said. “ISIS is defeated in the sense that it no longer holds territory,” she continued, “but the personnel, those fighters, are still there.”
“Many of them,” I learned, “have been ordered to be intentionally captured, so they can use some of the camps to reset, get fed, get stronger” and “be able to fight another day,” she explained.
Moreover, the terrorist organization still has considerable financial resources. The wives, widows, and children of Islamic State fighters—some 30,000 people—are housed in what are essentially internment camps.
The Islamic State is making “widow’s payments” to those women. “They are actually able to enter successfully into these camps and make payments,” Duckworth said. “They don’t hold territory, but they’re still very powerful, and they still very much have resources.”
Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman, Kurdistan Regional Government Representative (KRG) to the United States, attended the discussion with Duckworth and spoke afterward to Kurdistan 24.
“I’m really happy” that Senator Duckworth “mentioned that she visited Erbil,” the KRG Representative explained. “She gave Kurdistan as an example for the rest of Iraq” and she described Erbil “as modern and cosmopolitan,” which was “wonderful for us.”
Abdul Rahman has met regularly with Duckworth as part of the KRG’s outreach to the US Congress. “I think I’ve met her three, maybe four times,” Abdul Rahman said. “I thanked her for her service in Iraq, and I told her of how admiring we are of people like her, who made sacrifices in Iraq for liberating our people.”
“She’s a very smart, very dynamic senator, who wants to get things done,” Abdul Rahman continued. In January, Duckworth became a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, which has made her role “even more important,” she said.
Abdul Rahman also noted that the Senator had been “very clear in setting out all the challenges” that Baghdad faces: “the re-emergence of ISIS,” including the camps housing Islamic State families—a “ticking time bomb;” as well as more mundane problems, like providing sufficient electricity to the south in the coming summer months.
“Honestly, these are huge challenges for any government,” Abdul Rahman said. “Definitely it’s a huge challenge for Baghdad.”
A similar perspective prompted a question to the Senator from Kurdistan 24. Can the Iraqi government really address the array of major challenges that it faces, without a significant restructuring?
Perhaps along the lines of the US Senate’s call, a decade ago, for a decentralized, federal government in Iraq? A non-binding resolution to that effect was sponsored by Senators Sam Brownback (R, Kansas) and Joe Biden (D, Delaware), and supported by Les Gelb, Professor Emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations.
The Senate, including Sen. Hillary Clinton (D, New York), approved the measure in September 2007, by a vote of 75 to 23. As the last twelve years in Iraq have not gone so well, maybe, it’s time to start thinking of something different.
Duckworth, however, has confidence in the new Iraqi government, particularly Abdul Mahdi and Halbousi. She responded that it would be better to keep “pushing them, being very firm and pushing them” to undertake the necessary reforms.
If they would undertake “some of these very simple liberalization” efforts, “I think what the Kurds have been able to do up north sets an example of the type of progress that can be made,” she said.