Flew up from Baghdad to the northern Iraqi city of Suleimaniyah this afternoon, crossing the "border" between Arab Iraq and Kurdish Iraq. There is of course, no border there - Iraqi Kurdistan is part of Iraq, de jure if not always de facto.
You have to show your passport when you prepare to leave Baghdad International Airport and again when you arrive in Sul-y, as some people call it for short, even though it's an internal domestic flight. In Sul-y, there are no pictures of Arab politicians. The face of Jalal Talabani, Iraq's president and head of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan party, and of Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani, are much in evidence.
We drove into the city, down well-lit avenues with nice shops and restauarants. After three weeks in Baghdad, I marveled at the lack of checkpoints and armed, at least publicly armed, men. It's like a different country. The Kurds would like it to be, and frictions between Kurds, Arabs and other minorities have made volatile "disputed areas" out of a belt of territories between Kurdistan proper and the rest of Iraq.
As we arrived near our downtown hotel, we had to get out and walk 30 yards or so because the road was torn up by construction. The key word here is "construction." I must have counted a half-dozen construction cranes on the drive into the airport, in various stages of building apartment buildings and other structures.
What a contrast. There is no construction worth mentioning in Baghdad. Trash piles up in the street. Roads are blocked. Despite the emergence of some normal life since the worst violence of 2005-2007, the city still has a stultifying feel, mixed with lots of edginess. The only construction I noticed of note in Baghdad is a huge building that I was told will be a guest house under the control of Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki and his succesors. It, of course, is in the protected Green Zone.
I feel sad for Baghdad, a proud city of immense historical importance. But for tonight, it feels nice to be able to walk down city streets like a normal person.