- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 29, 2005

IRBIL, Iraq

As the victims of bombings and kidnappings add up in Bagh-dad, the most remarkable thing about this northern city is that it is quite normal. There are no explosions, nogunfire mixed with the evening

call of the imams to prayer, no burned-out cars by the roadside.

The situation in Kurdistan, a region of northern Iraq where about 4 million Kurds live, is so detached from the rest of the country that the Iraqi flag is not even visible here.

Instead, the red, white, green and golden sun flag of Kurdistan flies from every government building. Kurdistan describes itself on the Internet as “the other Iraq,” and Kurds take pains to point out that they are not Arabs.



The price of peace in Kurdistan has been steep — the Kurds were slaughtered by the thousands by dictator Saddam Hussein, fought a civil war and shed their blood alongside U.S. troops to overthrow the dictator. Its leaders are ready to keep it secure at any cost, including secession.

“We will take any measure to secure our people from violence,” Massoud Barzani, president of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), told The Washington Times.

Controlling their destiny

Kurdistan’s borders are guarded by the fierce peshmerga, literally “those who face death,” a band of warriors that emerged in the 1920s during Kurdistan’s struggle for independence.

Said to number roughly 80,000, the peshmerga are deeply respected by their own people and by the Americans who fought alongside them in the failed anti-Saddam uprising in 1991 and again in 2003.

“People think it is coming out of no effort, but it took a lot of effort to have such a secure and stable environment, compared to the rest of Iraq,” said Falah M. Bakir, drinking tea in Irbil’s newest luxury hotel.

“There was no trust between people and the police, because the police were seen as a symbol of terror and a tool of the regime. We had to work hard to establish a proper police force and integrate the peshmerga into the system,” said Mr. Bakir, a minister in the KRG’s office of the prime minister.

What that means is that Arabs put in place by Saddam were removed from the security forces and replaced by Kurds, who are ethnically different from the Sunni and Shi’ite Arabs of the rest of Iraq.

“Those days are over that we give our destiny and fate to Baghdad,” Mr. Bakir said.

For decades, the Kurds sought independence, then fought Saddam. After repeated Kurdish revolts, Saddam tried to crush the region with chemical gas attacks and mass executions, reportedly killing almost 200,000 people.

Although Kurdistan experienced a degree of political autonomy in the 1990s, they also faced a double economic blockade — one imposed by Saddam, the other by the United Nations because of Iraq’s nuclear noncompliance.

But, under the 1991 U.S.-imposed no-fly zone that prevented Iraqi government attacks on the region, Kurdish politics developed, and by 1992 the two main Kurdish parties had joined to form a national assembly.

In 1994, civil war broke out between the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, led by Iraq’s current President Jalal Talabani, and the Kurdistan Democratic Party, led by Mr. Barzani. The two signed a peace agreement in Washington in 1998 and joined forces in 2002.

Kurds say their strong Kurdish identity, forged after decades of fighting for an independent country and the 1998 political agreement, has left no space for the kind of religious and ethnic bloodletting that afflicts the rest of Iraq.

“Terrorism and violence do not have a base in our country,” said Mr. Bakir, referring to Kurdistan as many here do as a separate entity from Arab-dominated Iraq.

“The Kurds were liberated from a dictatorial rule, whereas [in Baghdad] others have lost power,” Mr. Barzani said. Kurdistan doesn’t offer terrorists “a popular base, and we have effective security and police forces.”

And, he added, “We keep tight control and monitor our borders.”

Arabs complain that it is difficult for them to get into Kurdistan. At entry, they are quizzed at checkpoints by peshmerga, who never fail to ask how long and where they plan to stay.

A different world

The drive from Baghdad to Irbil has many military checkpoints, but the crossing into the three-province area of Kurdistan has peshmerga forces, and the Kurdish flag — not the Iraqi one — flutters over the checkpoint.

Iraq has yet to change the flag used under Saddam, and the Kurds refuse to honor it, preferring to wait until a new flag is designed. In Baghdad and the rest of Iraq, Saddam’s flag with the words “God is Great” is still used.

“Shame on them,” said Mr. Barzani, who joined the peshmerga when he was a teenager and whose father led the struggle for independence.

Unlike Baghdad, which is filled with concrete barriers, razor wire, police vehicles and armored Humvees, Irbil has little visible military presence. Foreigners move about freely, and like Kurdish businessmen, have begun investing in the area.

A sprawling glass-and-marble showroom for Toyota and Kia cars on the road to Kirkuk testifies to growing investor confidence. Started by four brothers, the business is run by the Cihan group, which also imports tea and electronics and makes furniture.

“Before we opened the showroom, we were selling maybe 60 to 100 vehicles a year. Now we are closer to 600 to 1,000 a year,” said engineer Hunar Majeed in his office overlooking the showroom’s fleet of new Toyota Land Cruisers.

Cihan’s sales rose from $125 million in 2001 to $200 million in 2003, according to a company statement.

Manufactured products here are still of low to medium grade, and the city awaits its first supermarket and mall. But business is brisk in city markets and in side-street mazes of shops packed with clothes from Syria, Turkey and China.

In the shadow of downtown Irbil’s 8,000-year old citadel, a group of ancient dwellings on a high mound, shoppers browse through clothes displayed for sale.

Overhead are cat’s cradles of wires crisscrossing the street, as shop owners tap into power lines and all available generators.

An open economy

Stone mansions with large glass windows are being built in Irbil and along the road to Salahaddin, 45 minutes away — a sign business is good. But there is some disagreement about who is making money and how.

“Kurdistan is one big duty-free zone. Everything is traded there, goods, drugs,” said a former American adviser to the Iraqi government who did not want to be named.

Mr. Barzani concedes problems, but insists they are no greater than in any other free-market economy.

“Like any other country, there are positive and negative factors” to having an open economy, said Mr. Barzani in his office in Sahirash, just outside Irbil.

The law against drugs is very firm, he said, and customs and security forces have “clear instructions” not to allow smuggling.

The government is tackling corruption “according to civilized and modern laws,” the Kurdistan president said. “It is not an easy task; it takes effort and time.”

There is also much investment in housing, construction, farming and trade, mostly from neighboring Turkey. Irbil’s glass-fronted International Hotel, for example, is managed by a Turkish company. There is also a new international airport in Irbil and plans to build a larger one linking the region directly with the United Arab Emirates, Germany and Britain.

“The Kurds represent what Iraq could be if security could be obtained,” said Phebe Marr of the United States Institute of Peace.

In search of secession

For Kurdistan’s young people, change is coming too slowly. The generation that grew up in a semi-autonomous Kurdistan does not feel any ties to Iraq and is losing patience with leaders in Baghdad.

“We are different from Arab people,” said Hallo Hosman, 23, a student, standing with friends outside the office of the president of Salahadin University. “We want to be independent, because we have all the conditions to be a country.”

Heshu Sirouan, 21, a student in denim jeans and jacket, pink sweater and a Che Guevara locket on her necklace, agreed.

“In Baghdad they cannot secure themselves because they are not strong,” she said. “We are not Iraqis; we are Kurds. We want independence. We want to separate completely from Baghdad.”

Mr. Barzani admits the calls for separation. He said the Kurdish leadership needs to win the support of the younger generation for Kurdistan as part of a democratic, pluralistic and federal Iraq.

“In the end, we have to tell them that independence is a natural right as a people, but at the same time they have to consider reality, and the difference between what you wish … and what can be achieved,” Mr. Barzani said.

The desire for independence is as strong as the Kurdish insistence that the oil-rich city of Kirkuk belongs to them — a very contentious point that was partially resolved with the central government through the new constitution.

Approved in a national referendum Oct. 15, it says the administrative status of Kirkuk will be decided by referendum in 2007 after efforts to mitigate Saddam’s “Arabization” of the area.

In his office, Kamal Karkukli, the deputy parliament speaker, carefully took down laminated copies of maps dating from the Ottoman empire and spread them on a table.

Tracing his finger around the 1794 border of Kurdistan, which includes the contested city, Mr. Karkukli said, “If Kirkuk does not come to the Kurds after the referendum, there will be fighting.”

Documents dating back hundreds of years, he said, show that Kurds represented about 65 percent of the Kirkuk’s population. Saddam pushed Iraqi Arabs into the city and Kurds out in an effort to put Kirkuk firmly under Baghdad’s control.

“Saddam tried to change the demographics. He sent the Kurds out, destroyed 779 villages around Kirkuk, and 2,000 houses inside Kirkuk,” said the deputy speaker, whose family fell victim to this effort.

“They took our land, our property, our houses,” he said. “Now it is time for the Arabs to leave and the Kurds to return.”

According to Human Rights Watch, thousands of internally displaced Kurds, Turkomans and others have returned to Kirkuk and other regions since April 2003 to reclaim their homes and land.

Many of those who returned are living in abandoned buildings and tent camps, the group says. And many of the Arabs have been forced to leave their homes and are also living in temporary shelters.

“If these property disputes are not addressed as a matter of urgency, rising tensions between returning Kurds and Arab settlers could soon explode into open violence,” warned Sarah Leah Whitson, Human Rights Watch executive director for the Middle East and North Africa in a statement.

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