I happened to have written this year at the tender age of fifty a book, my first, by the name of “Gözden Irakta” that translates as “Far from Sight”. As “far” is also “Irak” and “Irak” is Iraq in Turkish, you guessed it right: half of the book is based on my own experience working either in or on Iraq during the second decade of my ill-fated twenty-year diplomatic career.
The private plane carrying the temporary PM Ahmad Chalabi and his delegation returning from Ankara touched ground at Baghdad International Airport on September 14, 2003. I had spent the previous year at our Permanent Delegation to the OECD in Paris.
Being utterly disillusioned with the petty work I was doing there and convinced that the first decade of my so-called career had led me nowhere, I had asked for an early rotation to get assigned as the General Consul to Mazar Sharif in northern Afghanistan. The Ministry came up with a better—or more sinister—idea, and appointed me Deputy Chief of Mission in Baghdad, in the line of fire.
That was both unexpected and gratifying to me. That year, still in 2003, that is, while the U.S. war machine was gearing up to intervene in Iraq and not yet knowing that I was going to end up in Iraq and also being bored to death of what I was doing at the OECD, I was intellectually drawn to study the so-called “neo-con” thought.
Through Amazon I started to familiarize myself with the works of Leo Strauss and Allan Bloom, read articles by Fouad Ajami and others and even devoured Saul Bellow’s Ravelstein. To admit the narrow limits of my meager computing capacity, the latter was by far the most enjoyable read for me. Therefore, when I ended up being assigned to Baghdad with short notice, the gist of my mental preparation was not rooted in the study of Iraq’s history or demography but in neo-con thought.
Freedom, martial spirit, protecting the republic, creative chaos, hermetic thinking, so on and so forth: I marched into the quagmire. Exactly one month later, I had the privilege of being at the receiving end of a VBIED attack on our Embassy that caused, by sheer luck, no casualties but significant material damage. Often times at nights our compound outside the Green Zone was hit by baby Katyushas and fired upon by light machine guns, generally from the British Military Cemetery right across the street. At night, we listened to the sounds of explosions, far or near.
Baghdad slowly but steadily whirled into chaos. By the end of 2004, members of our embassy protection team, all Police Special Ops Section members, were ambushed and savagely killed near Mosul. By the end of 2005, Ambassador Çeviköz narrowly escaped an assassination attempt with the help of his Palestinian driver’s sangfroid, and managed to return to the relative safety of our Embassy, his armored vehicle riddled with bullets.
Three years later, I returned to Ankara and took up work within the Ministry, but this time at the Office of Special Representative for Iraq with the title of Head of the Iraq Desk. After two more years of so-to-say “Sisyphean” bureaucratic efforts, I was offered the prized position of counselor at our Embassy in DC in charge of Iraq and C/T files. Less than two years later, I volunteered again to go back to Iraq to open our General Consulate in Erbil in March 2010, only to hand in my resignation from government service with disgust exactly three years and three months later.
By then, in one decade, Iraq had experienced the U.S. military takeover, hanging of Saddam, and a Sunni-Shia civil war, and had become a federation with Kurdistan as the single region with, until today, officially undefined internal borders. Six years on from June 2013, that is, since when I resigned, ISIS/Daesh also came and went, but the endemic corruption and the dysfunction of the government remained in place.
To make a long story short, Turkey’s approach to the Iraqi Kurdistan Region (IKR) changed from ignorance to animosity, evolved from animosity to friendship and mutual dependence, and then got stuck at somewhere in between. I myself, as a diplomat, had gone from zero to hero and then back again abruptly to zero, falling flat on my face. Still, I did not lose interest in Iraq, but I also didn't entertain any starry-eyed feelings of longing about it either. Iraq was, and still is, a difficult cake to break.
It has enormous riches, and its location on the map and geographic and demographic size allows it to be a key actor in the region. It has three interconnected big cities from Mosul in the north, to Baghdad in the center and Basra in the South. Its constitution, as a document on paper, is by far the most modern compared to the constitutions of its peers. Or, to say the least, there is no need today in Iraq to crown the current “thawra” (“revolution” in Arabic) with a new constitution.
I had half-entertained the hope that the fight against Daesh barbarism would cement the unity of the country and bring about a new national and functional government. At the same time, I had mused whether an able-bodied general would emerge from that fight as the next Bonaparte, or failing to that, the next Saddam of Iraq. But I did never expect hundreds of thousands to pour into the streets for, yes I am sorry I will say it, freedom.
Where will Iraq go from here, I do not know. The historical process triggered by the U.S. military that toppled the most brutal dictator of its era in 2003 does not yet appear to have arrived at its final destination. It is perhaps a good enough thing to be alive for some of us, but then again, for some of us to merely survive is not enough. The brave young generation of Iraq, unlike the frequent traveler that your humble servant was, plays this game for their lives: They want to live, to be free and pursue their happiness as they see fit.
I admire their courage and hold my breath to see whether they will succeed or the motley crew of gangs and militias will gain the upper hand to sink Iraq back into slaughterhouse politics. Whichever way this story ends, it will be better than any script, or what any pinstripe-suited or turbaned “gray man” can come up with. For the moment Iraq is alive, but not ablaze. There is fifty-fifty chance they will make it. If they do, it will be for the better for all of us.