Meanwhile, there are plenty of flaws in the picture of Iraqi Kurdistan as a peaceful, prosperous, and Western-friendly island. Progress in the KRG has been
marred by allegations of corruption, cronyism and bribery. While prices of food and housing in Erbil skyrocket, salaries remain low and jobs can be hard to
find for the unconnected. Meanwhile the Barzanis -- still remembered as revolutionary leaders -- live in an opulent, gated area just outside of Erbil. When
people can't afford food, they size up their leader's mansions. In 2011, anti-government protests in Sulaymaniyah were brutally stopped by security forces.
Journalists who have criticized the government have been censored, or worse. People complain that the majority of Erbil's budget goes unaccounted for, and
people are starting to complain a lot.
Alongside the discontent with the present government is a measured disapproval of their friend the U.S., weighed against the removal of Saddam. "I'm sorry
to say that Bush is an idiot," a businessman (who asked for anonymity) told me last September. "But without his help it would not have been possible to
liberate Iraq. I like what America did. They removed Saddam. But they created a lot of mini Saddams."
These "mini-Saddams," according to the businessman, are the Kurdish leaders, including the three amigos' friend and tour guide, Massoud Barzani. "It was a
liberation, but then it was destroyed," the businessman continued. "Now we are number one for corruption in the world. Where is the freedom? If you say
that you don't like it, they kill you."
"Kurdish people don't understand," he continued. "They think America can do anything, but that's not true. America is the best country in the world, but
they act in their own interest. They know what's going on now, but Marines won't come in and change our system for us. You will see, soon there will be
200,000 in the street. When there are 200,000 in the street, what can America do? Who did the American senators talk to? They should go to the streets.
Everyone is angry there. Otherwise why even come? They could have just called on the telephone."
I was reminded of nine years earlier, in September 2003, when Colin Powell traveled to Halabja. He was there to dedicate a memorial to the those killed by
Saddam's chemical weapons, and, so close to the invasion, it was a highly photogenic trip. Large crowds greeted Powell waving American flags and holding
photos of Bush and Cheney, American war heroes. At the time of the attacks, the U.S. response had been muted, but this was a new, post-Saddam era. America
had redeemed itself and Powell's message was clear. "I can't tell you that Saddam Hussein was a murderous tyrant. You know that," he said. "What I can tell
you is that what happened here in 1988 is never going to happen again." The visit completed a transaction. Kurds got Powell's reassurance of American
protection; Powell got a dose of positive reinforcement. Both side had the world's attention.