by Shane Horan on January 4, 2018
“The Iraqi army have taken Pirde 30kms south of here and may advance northwards tonight. What do you want to do?” asked my local Kurdish guide; Balin after pulling me aside. It was October 21st last and we had just arrived in Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan.
I’ve been managing international tours in “places your mother would rather you stay away from” for quite a few years now. My job entails making quick decisions on the ground but this was the first time that a decision of this magnitude needed to be made.
How did we get to this situation in the middle of northern Iraq in the midst of a political crisis?
Let’s Rewind to the 25th of September when the autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan held an independence referendum against widespread condemnation from the international community. Although the region had voted for separation from Baghdad, the poll had alienated the Kurds regionally and backfired badly on their leadership. The Kurds had felt that independence was now or never. They had helped practically wipe out ISIS and so thus were owed a little something in return.
Unfortunately for them, it didn’t quite work out that way.
Following the vote, the Iraqi government tightened the noose around Erbil and the Kurdistan regional government. Control of the airspace was taken over and the borders were in serious doubt. Baghdad wanted to suffocate Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani and his cronies.
On the 16th October Iraqi forces began taking back the disputed lands that the Kurdish Peshmerga had controlled since I.S blitzkriegd the region in 2014. Much of this land was taken without force as the Peshmerga retreated but at the border town of Pirde or Altun Kupri, they fought back with the ferociousness and brevity famously associated with the fighting force.
YPT had been planning our fourth trip to Iraqi Kurdistan tour for a year but when it seemed that the airports were not going to reopen we had to make a last minute change to the itinerary. The tour would start in Istanbul airport where we would meet, fly to the border town of Cizre and drive over the border to Iraq. This date was October 16th – The day that Baghdad decided Kirkuk province and the surrounding areas were rightfully theirs.
Fast forward to October 20th and we were driving from Sulaymaniyah to Erbil. I had been following developments in Kirkuk governorate closely online and especially in the checkpoint town of Pirde where fierce clashes were ongoing. We arrived in the city in the late afternoon, there was little activity in the normally bustling bazaar. People were still enjoying tea around the central citadel. It seemed an eerie calm.
“Tell me everything you know right now”, I uttered back.
It turned out Balin’s uncle in law was the head honcho of the Erbil police force who had informed him that the city was close to an evacuation order and that we should hit the road. The Iraqis were re-grouping at the southern check point and may advance in the middle of the night. They were reeling from heavy losses that day fighting for as they saw it; their own territory. They had come this far so why not continue to Erbil and get rid of the Barzani government once and for all.
Upon hearing that, there was really only one option in my mind. We were to drive two hours North West to Duhok to be closer to the Turkish border. Any advance on Erbil was unlikely but however small the risk was, it was one not worth taking.
We arrived safely in Duhok that night where we spent the next day visiting the sacred Yazidi temple at Lalish and dropped by the largest Yazidi IDA (Internally displaced people) camp in Iraq to mingle with some of the temporary residents.
This was my third visit to the Kurdistan region and it never fails to disappoint. There is beauty, warmth, a fascinating culture and best of all; surprises around every corner. As a tour manager, it’s always a pleasure.
Here’s to our next visit to Iraqi Kurdistan in April 2018.