"Driving through Irbil is like driving through Fresno."
That quote struck me as odd last winter when I spoke with a member of a Modesto-based National Guard unit that was deployed in northern Iraq, making convoy runs to safe cities like Irbil and not-so-safe cities like Kirkuk.
Now that I'm here, I have to say the Guardsman was right.
Fresno does come to mind in this hot and dry Kurdish city, though I'm sure the local Iraqis would be envious of the irrigation that makes Fresno County so lush with agriculture (most of the time, anyway).
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I'm also reminded of several Western reporters who told me visiting Irbil feels as if you're leaving Iraq. You don't need an escort and you don't need to look over your shoulder.
Irbil doesn't have the legions of Iraqi soldiers with guns on the street, checkpoints, blast walls, barricades or barbed wire that characterize Baghdad. It doesn't have the detritus left from bombs and improvised explosive devices. It's not the Iraq I experienced when I worked in Baghdad for McClatchy between November and January.
In fact, I'm sitting in a well air-conditioned hotel that advertises itself as a place for business conferences.
Irbil has a long head start on Baghdad, which explains the ways it has advanced beyond the Iraqi capital since the war started six years ago. Irbil has been mostly safe from war since 1991, when the United States began protecting Kurdish regions with a no-fly zone that enabled people here to lay the groundwork for their own government and economic development apart from Saddam Hussein's dictatorship.
And that's why I'm here.
Three Kurdish provinces are holding elections this weekend for a president and parliament for their regional government, a body often seen as rivaling Baghdad for power over territory and oil. Some liken the arrangement to a state Capitol, while others view it as a threat to Iraq's central government.
It's a pretty exciting election, I might add. The political parties that have dominated Kurdish politics for decades are getting a serious challenge from new blocs that could take a chunk of the 80 seats held by the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and the Kurdish Democratic Party in the 111-seat parliament.
Building-size posters of Kurdish President Massoud Barzani mark the cityscape here. The KDP leader and incumbent president is a hero to many because of his family's long history of defending Kurds against hostile governments in Baghdad. His critics are taking a swipe at his present leadership alleging it's corrupt with nepotism and favoritism.
Still, it's hard to view Barzani as anything but the front-runner in his re-election bid. We'll see what happens.
Getting here was much smoother this time. I never felt I was in danger of being deported, as I feared when I landed in Baghdad in November with tough customs officials who didn't think I had enough paperwork to leave the airport.
I averted that fate by toting as many badges as I could fit in my wallet.
So, when the man at the gate questioned the visa I obtained from the Iraq Embassy in Washington and told me I needed a badge, I had the press ID I got from the U.S. military.
When that wasn't enough, I offered a business card written in Arabic identifying me as a reporter for the McClatchy Baghdad Bureau.
When that didn't get me through, I put forward my California driver's license. Next would have been my Modesto Bee security badge.
He gave in, but didn't seem to think I had enough documents.
Ask me the first thing I did when I met the interpreter who's working with me over the next few days.
Take a guess.
I got another badge!
This one comes from a government election commission and it says I can report on the Kurdish elections. Phew, because I came a long way and wasn't going to be turned back.
Bee staff writer Adam Ashton is in Iraq on a two-month assignment for McClatchy Newspapers.