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Oil and 'gasolina' in Kurdistan

About the author
Spencer Ackerman is an associate editor of the New Republic, where he writes regularly about intelligence and United States national security. His work has also appeared in the Washington Monthly, Salon, CQ Homeland Security, and other publications.

There isn't any doubt who runs these streets among the teenage vendors of black-market gasoline in Irbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan. On a cold morning, the word goes out along 60th Street, the thoroughfare that rings through Irbil, that the police are about to crack down. That means today isn't like most days. On most days, the sidewalk would be crowded with plastic twenty-litre jerrycans of the precious commodity, stacked up like they were meant to offer protection from an explosion, enticing any driver looking for relief from the Kurdistan Democratic Party's imposed limit of thirty litres per week. Just as soon as such a driver pulls to the kerb, a 14-year-old in a faded Sergio Valente jean-jacket and a hint of a moustache would compete with a half-dozen others for the privilege of leaning into the passenger-side window and the promise of hustling a little cash.

Today, though, the threat of a crackdown has thinned the crowd. From the gas-hustlers' perspective, the cops can do almost anything they want to enforce the rationing. Since most cars in Irbil fill up through the black market, the security forces frequently look the other way. But when they need to demonstrate who's in charge, it's all heavy manners. "The second time I was arrested, I got a million-dinar fine", says one half-awake vendor. A million dinars is about $7,000, which he obviously couldn't afford, given that a day's take is typically in the neighborhood of $15.

More often, the security forces will just confiscate their gas. Either option represents a serious setback for gas-hustlers, so the few kids on the street today nervously look over their shoulders as they use cut-off soda-bottlers to fill their customer's tanks. "The cops tell us today on the street that we can't sell", another teenager says stoically. "But there is no other work." The security forces aren't really concerned. These are their streets, and they're the safest in Iraq.

Spencer Ackerman is an associate editor of the New Republic, where he writes regularly about intelligence and United States national security. His work has also appeared in the Washington Monthly, Salon, CQ Homeland Security, and other publications.

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The gas-hustlers have a comfort, though – chilly as it may be in the face of a security crackdown. Wafting through the airwaves and onto the streets of Irbil is an unlikely palliative speaking directly to the Kurdish imagination in this current moment of netherworldly nationhood: reggaetón. At precisely the right moment of national confusion, this hybrid confection of Jamaican dancehall reggae and Latin lyrical thuggishness is musing to northern Iraq about the liberating possibilities of gasolina. In a bizarre but tangible sense, the peshmergas' status as Irbil street bosses has competition from a San Juan rapper named Daddy Yankee.

Gasolina is Daddy Yankee's anthem, the track that earned him his crown as king of reggaetón and a 5,000-word profile in the New York Times Magazine. It's possible to hear the song three times a day over the radio in Irbil, probably more often than it appeared on the New York City FM dial at the height of its stateside ubiquity in 2005.

That's thanks largely to Radio Sawa, the much-derided brainchild of the United States broadcasting board of governors that mixes American pop and agitprop, which mainlines Gasolina directly to Irbil. The song is so popular in the city that a trip to the Happy Times restaurant and shisha lounge in the middle-class neighbourhood of Ainkawa is an invitation to a reggaetón barrage. On a typical evening, the restaurant's massive projector screen shows Daddy Yankee merrily waxing down a woman's shapely and barely-concealed derrière while patrons nod their heads and chew pizza.

Bemused incredulity over the popularity of reggaetón in Kurdistan is among the most telling indications of a first-time visitor.

It would be a stretch to say that the enthusiasm for Gasolina has to do with its subject matter, especially when considering its aggressive rhythm and near-pornographic video. But Daddy Yankee's signature track is a sexually-explicit ode to what gasolina can provide – and here "gasoline" can mean, as Sasha Frere-Jones in the New Yorker, speed, rum, semen or gasoline – and that, of course, is unadulterated pleasure. And at the moment, as Iraq disintegrates, the Kurds are betting quite heavily on what gasoline can do for them.

Near the reggaetón parlor of Happy Times is the Irbil office of a Norwegian company called DNO. With the exception of Halliburton, DNO is the most controversial corporation in Iraq. In November 2005, DNO arrived in the Kurdish city of Zakho, 160 kilometres (100 miles) northwest of Irbil on the Turkish border, to begin work on an oilfield. Less than a month before, Iraqis had approved a new constitution that contains an ill-defined mechanism for controlling and distributing oil revenue from "current fields" – a controversial provision that contributed to a sectarian split over the document, with Shi'a and Kurds approving it and Sunnis rejecting it.

But Zakho isn't a "current field"; it's a new one. And over newly-developed fields, the Kurdish position is that the constitution allows them to tithe not a single petrodollar to Baghdad. When DNO struck oil at Zakho's Tawke-1 well on 22 December, it was like a national holiday, eliciting a feeling of ecstasy as primordial and pure as that of Daddy Yankee's female interlocutor, who begs him for more gasoline. While she might consider the pleasure of gasoline as an end in itself, the Kurds, thinking strategically, believe their oil wealth will eventually purchase them nationhood.

The gas-hustlers don't have any such grand plans. Their preoccupation is to avoid police harassment and make money, something the streets of San Juan can understand and reflect through reggaetón. Every morning at 7 a.m. the hustlers queue up at a nearby black market called Mahmoud so the oil trucks – probably from the massive refinery at Baiji, which is effectively controlled by Sunni insurgents – can sell them blue 200-litre barrels. "It's expensive", says a 15-year-old businessman in a red ski jacket. "But it's good gas."

With Gasolina providing a national anthem for Kurdistan, it's impossible to imagine any other kind.

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