When we want to understand what’s happening in Iraq, Fresh Air frequently turns to Dexter Filkins. His stories are like movies that grab you and make clear all the complexities and horrors over there. He returned to Iraq this summer to report on the Kurds. The U.S. is arming and training the Kurdish military forces, the Peshmerga (pictured), who stood up to ISIS in northern Iraq after the Iraqi soldiers retreated as ISIS approached. But the Kurds want independence, and fortifying their military doesn’t sit well with the government in Baghdad. Filkins’ new article, The Fight Of Their Lives, is in the current issue of The New Yorker.
Terry Gross: Why did you want to go to Kurdistan for this piece?
Dexter Filkins: [When you say] ‘Iraq,’ what do you think of? You think of chaos and car bombs and bloodshed and political strife and stalemate and everything else and when you go to Kurdistan, this small corner of Iraq, it’s nothing like that. … Baghdad is a wreck. It looks pretty much the way it did during the war. Then I got on a plane and I flew to Erbil, which is the capitol of Kurdistan and you feel like Dorothy. It’s amazing. There’s a Jaguar dealership in Erbil and there’s sushi restaurants and there’s dance clubs and I remember one night I had been out of town and I drove back … and I found a liquor store open and bought a six-pack of beer at 3 o’clock in the morning in the Middle East, I mean, that’s impossible anywhere for a thousand miles! It’s such a shock when you see it. You think, ‘God! I can’t believe I’m still in Iraq,’ and … that’s really what the story is about. In a way, it’s really not part of Iraq. Not anymore.
Gross: They don’t want to be part of Iraq anymore.
Filkins: Technically they’re part of Iraq but they don’t want to be and in a de-facto way, in very real way, they’re not part of Iraq, they’re pulling away. They want to make it official and I think probably … it will be independent I think sooner rather than later—though it’s hard to tell exactly when.
Gross: So how close is ISIS now to Kurdistan?
Filkins: It’s right on the border. It’s really weird, actually. The Erbil that I just described, you know, sushi restaurants and Jaguar dealerships and high-rises being built everywhere—30 miles away is ISIS and the 8th century. It’s weird because you can just drive, you can leave your fancy hotel, get in a car and drive to the front line in an hour and there it is. I was on a canal south of the city of Kirkuk and … and right across the canal was ISIS and you could see, they were flying their flags, they were driving around, you could see them over there manning their checkpoints, and I have to say it felt really eerie, like I was on the border of two countries.
Photo Credit: Spencer Platt / Getty Staff
Caption: KIRKUK, IRAQ - JULY 03: Soldiers with the Kurdish peshmerga walk at an outpost on the edges of the contested city of Kirkuk on July 3, 2014 in Kirkuk, Iraq.