- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 7, 2004

DOKAN, Iraq — When it first leaves the bank, the raft, made of a few planks of wood slung over four truck tires, barely seems to be moving. Then the current catches it, flinging its ragtag crew into the middle of the Little Zab river.

“This is the life,” Huseyin Mohsen, a technician in Kirkuk’s oil fields, shouts over the screams of his four children.

The boatman ignores him, working his oar to avoid the worst of the eddies.

“My wife wasn’t too keen on me taking the kids for this ride — none of them can swim,” Mr. Mohsen says as the boat swirls past banks thick with families roasting meat on makeshift barbecues. “I told her I’d dive in and save them if anything happened.”

Like countless others from the south and the center of the country, Mr. Mohsen and his family couldn’t face the prospect of yet another Friday of leaden heat. So they decided to come to the Kurdish-controlled north. Nestled under a huge dam, the picturesque town of Dokan was an obvious choice.

“Kids need water, and in Kirkuk, all we have is oil,” Nejat Mahmud Safwat says with a grimace. Like his cousin, Mr. Mohsen is a member of Iraq’s Turkmen minority.

Now in their 40s, they have visited Dokan for the first time since the creation of a de facto independent Kurdish territory in 1991.

“After the first Gulf war, it was almost impossible to travel to the north,” Mr. Safwat says. “The Ba’athists assumed you were trying to flee the country.”

With the north once again accessible, Mr. Mohsen says nothing has changed here. His cousin isn’t so sure. He points to the wicker-roofed shelters that line the Little Zab’s riverbank.

“None of this was here before; you just drove up and set up camp,” the cousin says. “Now you have to pay people even to say thank you.”

After a decade of stagnation, Dokan is booming. Holiday homes and cafeterias have sprung up where once there were reed beds. In a crowded restaurant overlooking the bridge, visitors are charged hefty prices for chicken, rice and the local specialty, marinated apricots.

“Tourists have been coming to Dokan for decades,” says Shaho Qadir Ahmed, a former Iraqi volleyball player who runs the Daban Tourist Village overlooking Dokan dam, “but I’ve never seen anything like this.”

People come from as far away as Basra to stay in one of his 53 holiday cabins, priced at $30 to $40 a night.

The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, the party that holds sway in the southern part of Iraqi Kurdistan, owns the property, and some of the profits from the village go toward the upkeep of the local militia, or peshmerga. With the rest, Mr. Ahmed plans to build more cabins and houses for visitors wishing to stay for a month or more.

The 20 visitors from Baghdad unanimously say they came here because it is safe.

An engineering student from a wealthy district of Baghdad, Mohammed Jamal, says he was kidnapped by bandits earlier this year. They released him only when his father paid a ransom of $10,000.

“The shock was too much for him,” Mr. Jamal says. “He packed the whole family off and told us to spend two weeks in Dokan. He’s back at home making sure the house doesn’t get looted.”

He says there’s no shortage of tourist destinations much closer to home — Habaniyya lake, for example. The only trouble is, he says, Habaniyya is now a resort for U.S. troops and is out of bounds for ordinary Iraqis.

Saddam once got all the best places in Iraq. Now, some Iraqis grumble that the Americans get their pick.

Even at Dokan lake, U.S. soldiers in civilian clothes use a beach a hundred yards away from the one the Jamal family has claimed.

On the hill above them stands the Ashura, the most expensive hotel in these parts. For the past three months, the U.S. Army has taken it over.

In the plush lobby filled with the music of Beyonce Knowles, a receptionist says he has no idea when the hotel manager will be free.

“He’s in a meeting with a U.S. delegation,” he explains. “Try another day.”


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