Iraq Connection: Dinner and democracy discussions with Kurds

Last week, my fixer Mahdi invited me to his house for a Kurdish dinner with his wife.

She's about a week away from bringing their first daughter into the world, but she still took the time to stuff me with chicken soup, dolma, eggplant packed with lamb and, my favorite, beriyani (a rice dish flavored with saffron and sweet dried fruits).

Three of her brothers dropped by after the meal. You couldn't have a more informal setting with Iraqis. They quizzed me about America, and seemed especially concerned that people in the United States lump all Muslims with the terrorists in al-Qaida.

Since we were trading questions, I asked, "Do you think it was good for America to invade Iraq in 2003?"

I got an unequivocal 'yes.' I'd never heard that from someone here, save possibly from politicians who benefited from Saddam Hussein's downfall.

In less stable central Iraq, it's more common to hear Iraqis acknowledge Saddam's crimes, but also discuss friends and family they lost in the violence that gripped their country, especially between 2005 and 2008. The implication being that the new government wasn't worth the chaos.

The root of Kurdish support for the war, of course, comes from the protection Americans offered from Saddam after the Gulf War in 1991, when the U.S. military established a no-fly zone that allowed Kurds to govern themselves.

Kurds suffered severely at Saddam's hands, and they remember. I've seen several plaques honoring Kurds who died in massive gas attacks. Portraits of political martyrs hang in the main circle in Sulaimaniyah.

I've been welcomed everywhere I visited in the past week. A group of Assyrian Christians I linked up with through a friend in Modesto showed me their city and took me bowling. They stuffed me with dolma, too.

Politicians opened their doors when I visited without notice. Shopkeepers were eager to chat about their economy.

Kurds kept asking me what I thought about their election. I'd tell them it appeared fair to me, and I enjoyed seeing their heartfelt debates about their political parties.

Still, it was troubling that so many people felt their opportunities in life would be capped without pledging allegiance to one of the dominant parties, the Kurdish Democratic Party or the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan.

It could be left over from last Saturday's election, but Kurdish President Massoud Barzani seems to stare out from most buildings. His father was a famed guerrilla leader whose portrait hangs inside many government offices. Barzani's face is pasted to shop windows and his images dangles from key chains in Irbil's taxis.

Some of the people with those images tell me they keep them just to avoid suspicion from the government.

Some say the dominant parties dole out jobs and cash to keep people on their side.

A priest asked me if that's the way democracy works in America. I said, "That's the way it did at one point."

"Then they shouldn't call it democracy," he said. I couldn't argue with that.

I observed KDP and PUK representatives taking the chunk of seats they lost to an opposition party graciously, at least in public.

They stressed they wanted a democratic Kurdistan, even if that meant a loud opposition rooting around for their lapses. They rejected charges that they'd intimidated voters. One of them said no one follows a voter into the voting booth. I couldn't argue with that, either.

Bee staff writer Adam Ashton is in Iraq on a two-month assignment for McClatchy Newspapers.