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Resort rising in semi-autonomous northern Iraq

- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 18, 2008

IRBIL, Iraq - Getting a tee time in Iraq may seem far-fetched, but a $4.5 billion development planned in the more secure northern Kurdish area would bring 9 holes, a country club and a resort to northern Iraq.

The Tarin Hills project announced this month is a made-to-order community including apartments and houses, a mosque, primary and secondary schools, a medical center and a lake running through what is now dusty foothills home to no one but a few scattered families and shepherds.

The rest of Iraq is focused on security and building up the fledgling government, and getting vital services to citizens. Kurdish citizens, too, still want for regular electricity, food and other daily supplies.

But with internationally protected semi-autonomy under a U.S. no-fly zone since 1991, the Kurdistan region is able to leverage its economic, security and political head start to lure investment.

"This is a point for Kurdistan that its stable and we can do a huge project like that. This project will give opportunity for labor forces, for entertaining for people, housing" said Nawroz Muhammad Amin, a director general at the Kurdish Regional Government's Board of Investment.

"Kurdistan is a big gate to bring investments to whole Iraq. By way of Kurdistan all Iraq can find investors and have these progressed projects."

International companies courted by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) see a home in northern Iraq, as well as an eventual gateway south when the climate allows.

The KRG is also developing oil fields and agriculture while welcoming industries to produce their goods here.

Even a major pastry factory in southern Iraq has sought the safety of producing its baklava by moving to Iraqi Kurdistan.

"If we can focus on these two sectors - agriculture and tourism - then the oil can be an insurance policy for us," said Qubad Talabani, the KRG's representative to the United States.

Construction is seemingly everywhere in the major cities of Irbil and Sulimaniyah and on the roads between. Those who can afford a car and fuel have options of shopping at Chevrolet and Nissan dealerships.

But it's the Tarin Hills project, complete with two hotels, shopping malls and water theme park that Iraqi Kurdistan sees as fulfilling its unofficial business motto: "tourism, not terrorism."

The drive north out of Irbil is lined with multistory buildings of cement and rebar.

Tarin Hills will take up about 170 million square feet when it's completed. It's to start construction the fourth quarter of this year and finish in three years, local officials say.

It will displace about 35 families, who will be compensated, The Times is told. The project will abut one of several new American suburban-style developments in the Irbil area, this one called American Village.

The project was announced this month by Kurdish leaders led by regional Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani in Dubai, home of the developer Damac Properties.

Though Kurdish citizens have complained about a lack of jobs. Mr. Barzani said at a news conference that the Tarin Hills project will create local employment.

Although Iraqi Kurdistan is hands-down safer than the rest of Iraq, there are still complaints.

Mohammed Maulod Waily sits in his cafe overlooked by the KRG capital's historic citadel and criticizes a lack of health care, education and a weakening currency.

"During the liberation and invasion the U.S. has promised Iraqis with a lot of dreams and a lot of nice things to do," Mr. Waily, 47, said as the crowd of early afternoon customers grew, looking for tea and a game of pool.

"Now we can see that Baghdad and the south going worse and worse day after day. People left their houses. Where did all their promises go?"

But in Kurdistan he sees a brighter future. He now owns two personal computers - two more than before 2003.

"Life has been changed. We need more than before to have a good life," he said. And with Kurdistan finally getting a cut of Iraq's oil revenue, Mr. Waily wants better redistribution. "They should do some projects. Give this to people. Spend on people to have a better life."

There are more than 100 private investment projects in Iraq Kurdistan totaling more than $16 billion, a Kurdish financial officer told United Press International.

The Kurdistan Investment Authority was established in 2006 as part of a regional investment law to encourage redevelopment. It exempts investment projects in the region from non-custom taxes and duties for 10 years.