- The Washington Times - Monday, December 25, 2000

DERBAND RAYAT, Northern Iraq Her house looks more like a two-story construction site than an ancestral home, but Naska Aziz feels planted here.

After living in tents and temporary shelters for more than 20 years, Naska and Ahmad are back by the banks of the Great Zab River, within sight of the apricot, peach and apple orchards Ahmad Aziz's family has tended for generations.

The family was uprooted by the Iran-Iraq war, and the hills surrounding their village were seeded with land mines. Next, the central government in Baghdad relocated tens of thousands of Kurds to refugee camps without work, land or modern conveniences.

But after that war and the subsequent Persian Gulf war, the 11-member Aziz family returned home. They are rebuilding the house with help from U.N. Habitat. Water eventually will be piped into houses, and construction soon will begin on a power generator for the village.

Until then, the Aziz women like everyone else here go to the river to bring up water and bring down dishes and the laundry.

"Life is difficult, especially with so many children," said Mrs. Aziz, whose sons and daughters range in age from 2 months to 18 years. Presiding over afternoon tea at the riverbank with a dozen members of her extended family, Mrs. Aziz joked, "Maybe, with water inside the house, I'll finally become fat."

The Kurds of northern Iraq like to say they are the real winners of the 1991 Gulf war. After decades of repression from Baghdad or similar treatment by the governments of Iran, Turkey and Syria the Kurds enjoy being pretty much on their own.

An ethnically and culturally distinct minority, Kurds more closely resemble Iranians than most of their Arab neighbors. Most are Shi'ite, not Sunni, Muslims, and their language sounds more like Farsi than Arabic.

Spread across the northern area of the Middle East, including portions of Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran, the Kurds were promised a country of their own at the end of World War I, but the various governments ruling their lands rejected the decision, which was not enforced.

The region has some 14 million Kurds, including 4 million in northern Iraq. For many decades, surrounding governments regarded them with suspicion, blaming them often rightly whenever resistance arose.

"We are a separate group, we pine for our freedom and independence from the central [Iraqi] government," said Anala Mohamad, a grandmother of three who describes her existence as "a terrible life in a beautiful place."

The difference between central Iraq, which is governed from Baghdad, and the Kurdish northern governorates where the United States and Britain have forcibly excluded Iraqi authorities for a decade is pronounced.

In what Washington calls Iraq's northern "no-fly zone," satellite dishes sprout from every balcony and rooftop.

The people are more comfortable with strangers, making eye contact with passers-by and eager to practice their English. Foreigners are invited into private homes, and even to join boisterous wedding parties that start in late afternoon and end early the next morning.

The United States imposed the no-fly zone in Iraq north of the 36th parallel after the Gulf war to protect the Kurdish minority, which has sought U.S. support, from retaliation by the Iraqi military. A southern no-fly zone was instituted in 1992 to protect southern Shi'ite Muslims and to protect Iraq's neighbors, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. The southern no-fly zone extends north to Baghdad's outer suburbs.

Despite the general poverty among the Kurds, larger towns and cities have pockets of construction.

Merchants, smugglers and politicians are building houses with marble facades.

U.N. Habitat is covering hillsides with geometric housing developments. Roads, sewers and electric generators are under fitful repair.

One frequently told joke is that before the Gulf war, the Kurdish share of Iraq's oil revenues was limited to mortars, mines and nerve gas. But today, with oil revenues administered by the United Nations, the three northern governorates receive roughly 13 percent of the proceeds of oil sales more than $183 million worth of food staples every six months.

The U.N. Office of the Iraq Program administers a sprawling food-distribution network, created by Baghdad and financed by oil. It is supposed to be the same one that aids nearly 22 million families in south and central Iraq, but by any measure including Baghdad's people in the north are far healthier than those elsewhere in Iraq.

"The people of the north have many natural advantages that the people in the south and center of the country do not," said program administrator Tun Myet.

Northern Iraq has lush hills and mountains, and the elevation means cooler summers, wetter winters and a variety of fruits and vegetables available nearly year round. Pasture is available for goats, sheep and cattle, and Kurds enjoy the streams that had been favored summer destinations for Baghdad's middle class.

The Kurds say they are grateful for international assistance but critical of U.N. agencies' slow efforts to build utilities.

Unlike many other development zones, there is competition here to build a self-sustaining economy.

A dynamic Kurdish diaspora has created a global network of entrepreneurs eager to invest in their homeland. Aid groups are building hospitals, housing and schools for a population that has long gone without them.

The two rival Kurdish political clans that largely run the three northern governorates are eager to win hearts and minds by heavily subsidizing capital improvements, reading programs and other investments.

The Kurds themselves are not shy about exploiting their primary advantage: location. Situated among central Iraq, Turkey, Syria and Iran, the Kurds control routes that generate income from tolls, tariffs, bribes and smuggling.

By comparison, little aid is flowing into central Iraq or the arid south, save for highly publicized sanction-busters, who bring in relatively small amounts of necessities from pencils to penicillin.

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