Graeme Wood

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Birth of a Nation

The south of Iraq is dominated by prickly and humorless factions — groups often indifferent to the perceptions of outsiders, and rarely willing to soften their image to soothe the nerves of the journalists who want to report on them. The north of Iraq presents the opposite problem: the Kurds are just so damned smooth, so endlessly accommodating, that a journalist has to keep his guard up to make sure he isn’t getting played.

Quil Lawrence gives all evidence of being aware of the Kurds’ polish. A young journalist who has reported from Iraq since before the U.S.-led invasion of 2003, he has produced a fine journalistic account of the personalities that animate the northern third of the country. They are all canny operators. Lawrence tells the story of Gen. Jay Garner’s meeting with Jalal Talabani in 1991, when the latter (now president of the Republic of Iraq) was a guerilla scampering through the mountains to avoid Saddam. Shocked by Talabani’s awareness of the war in areas well beyond his redoubt, Garner asked him his intelligence sources. Talabani showed Garner a room of electronics, as fancy as the general’s own, and said he talked with John Major twice a day. This is the enigma of the Kurdish leadership in miniature: they are hardier than mountain goats and slicker than lobbyists. Lawrence’s book captures both registers, as well as many in between.

The book is especially strong in its coverage of the early stages of the Iraq invasion — the author was present for the fateful seizure of Kirkuk by PUK forces, before the Americans could arrive — and of the undercurrents of dissatisfaction in Kurdistan. Though easily the most peaceful, pro-American, and well-run region of Iraq, Kurdistan is still functionally a one-party state, and the dissidents of Kurdistan are underreported. Invisible Nation is not the best book on modern Iraqi Kurdish history — that honor remains, even a decade on, with Jonathan Randal’s After Such Knowledge, What Forgiveness? — but it is the best single volume to explain the politics of the region during this war.

Originally appeared at TheAtlantic.com

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