Diplomatic Exchange

The Iraqi president's son visits Tucson to forge new connections

You probably didn't give much thought to northern Iraq when you were drawing up your summer travel plans.

But Qubad Jalal Talabany, the son of newly elected Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, sees Iraq's Kurdish region as ripe with potential to become "a tourist hub of the Middle East."

Learning about the tourism industry was high on the list of Talabany, the urbane U.S. representative of the leading political party in Iraqi Kurdistan, the PUK (Patriotic Union of Kurdistan). Talabany, who makes his home in Washington, visited Tucson last week as part of a Partners in Peace program that has linked Tucson with Sulaimaniyah, a city in northern Iraq that's insulated from much of the violence in other regions.

"The Kurdish region is safe and secure," assured Talabany in a crisp English accent that reflects his upbringing in London while his rebel parents lived underground "in the mountains."

Thanks to the no-fly zone of the 1990s, the Kurds had a functioning government when U.S. troops toppled Saddam Hussein, so they've been spared much of the chaos that has plagued other parts of Iraq.

"It's prospering, and the security situation is incredibly calm," Talabany said. "We pride ourselves on the statistics that no foreign security personnel have been killed or kidnapped in our region."

But those killings and kidnappings continue relentlessly elsewhere in Iraq. Last week, a female member of parliament was shot dead in her Baghdad home; over the weekend, a series of coordinated car bombings killed at least 65 people in Baghdad and Mosul.

Talabany says coverage of the violence--which he readily concedes as "newsworthy"--overshadows the good news in Iraq: new schools, hospitals and, perhaps most dramatic, newly elected city councils engaged in "heated debate--which is great, because people have a sense of being part of developing a new country."

Talabany predicts that once a new government is fully seated, officials will make more headway against the insurgency on a number of levels.

"Developing a sound economic development policy which can distribute services to the people will be as crucial to crushing the insurgency as developing our own security forces," Talabany said. "We have to turn the average population against the insurgents."

Talabany describes the insurgents as driven by "the unimaginable thought of having a secular, democratic and plural Iraq in the heart of the Middle East, and the notion that the United States came into the heart of the Islamic Middle East, took out a despotic regime and allowed democracy to foster."

While Tucson has not yet formally embraced Sulaimaniyah as a sister city, it's taking steps to forge ties with the Iraqi city through the Partners in Peace program, funded by a $20,000 grant from the U.S. State Department, according Sharon Hekman of the Arizona-Kazakhstan Partnership Foundation.

Among other projects, the grant will cover the cost of bringing two agricultural professors from the University of Sulaimaniyah to Tucson in June.

Hekman hopes to duplicate the successful political, educational, medical, economic and cultural exchanges that Tucson has had with Alma Ata, a Sister City in Kazakhstan. Hekman says Tucsonans have helped Kazakhs learn American customs, ranging from campaigning for office to brokering mortgages.

"If we can do similar sorts of projects in Sulaimaniyah," Hekman says, "we can empower people to believe that they can make a difference."

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