Northern Iraq

From "Kurdistan's Season of Hope"
by Kevin McKiernan
Los Angeles Times Magazine August 23, 1992

The dingy lobby of the Salam Hotel in Sulaymaniyah has a single portable heater, a stinky kerosene burner that gives off more fumes than heat.  Several men wearing overcoats are seated, talking and drinking piala, sweetened tea in miniature glasses, their AK-47s propped up against the lobby tables and couches.  The hotel electricity is out again, and the only light comes through the steamed-up lobby windows past the X patterns of masking tape on the glass, a reminder of shelling last fall by the Iraqi army.

The clerk at the reception desk is bundled up in a wool scarf and a white London Fog trench coat.  He is smoking a long, filter-tipped cigarette and calmly reading a scrap of paper by the dim light of an oil lamp.  He seems a little too urbane for these surroundings, a David Niven sort who maintains an air of privilege whatever the adversity.  The clerk's name is Mohammed and, in fact, he has worked in the "better hotels" of both Baghdad and Basra.  He is the clerk the other hotel people rely on for the infrequent occasion when an English-speaking guest shows up.

We have an exchange going, Mohammed and I.  He often asks for information on getting U.S. visas and for other suggestions on how he and his family might get out of Iraq.  In return, he sells me Iraqi dinars at the attractive black market rate and lets me use a scanning device behind the reception desk that is supposed to detect counterfeit money.  (With both the CIA and Iran flooding Iraq with phony bills to destabilize the economy, counterfeit dinars are rampant.)

Mohammed also gives me tips, warning me, for example, to double-check bottles of drinking water to make sure the seals are unbroken.  The water is particularly dirty since the Allied bombing of the treatment plants.  Some unscrupulous vendors, he says, are refilling the blue plastic bottles with ordinary tap water.  This is not a good place to get sick.

Six armed guerrillas collect me at the hotel and drive me to the mountain headquarters of their leader, Jalal Talabani, the head of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan.  Two of the guerrillas work in the Sulaymaniyah hospital, which explains why we are riding in a large ambulance that, incidentally, bears Kuwaiti license plates.  Apparently, the Kurds captured it from the Iraqi army, which in turn had captured it from Kuwait.  The shiny ambulance is a 1990 Chevrolet, distinguished by a bullet hole in the windshield and a stretcher full of machine guns in the back.




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