- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 21, 2007

IRBIL, Iraq — A black cloud of smoke hung over the ancient citadel at the city center this week amid sporadic explosions that shook its foundation.

Anywhere else in Iraq, this would be cause for alarm. But for the people of Iraqi Kurdistan, the festivities begin with a colorful bang.

Norooz, or New Year’s on the Kurdish calendar, marks a weeklong homage to the return of spring. Family and a love of nature are pillars of Kurdish culture, and the enthusiasm with which both are embraced has bounced back after years of persecution under Saddam Hussein.

“Norooz is a time when we can embrace our identity and traditions as Kurds, which was not always possible,” said Salim Salim, a local hotel owner. “It is also the best time to be in Kurdistan because you can see how different life is here from the rest of the country. … Even Arabs come from Baghdad and other places in the south come to have some peace.”

Crowds throng the sidewalks at the city center well into the evening, talking over tea and snapping photos as the firework fusillades rained down.

Taxi drivers pounded on their horns, and musicians gave impromptu concerts that encouraged some men to dance while others laugh. Security is visible without being invasive.

Walid Aziz, a mechanic from Samarra, said he brought his family to Irbil for the week to escape the heat and stress that dominate daily life back home.

“Things are so difficult right now that we have to come here every couple of months for a weekend, just to walk around and feel normal,” he said, as he had his caricature portrait drawn. “You can really relax here. … I stop worrying.”

Circumstances have not always been so calm.

In Saddam’s Iraq, Kurds were the victim of systematic ethnic cleansing. Conservative estimates hold that some 2,000 villages were razed and more than 50,000 Kurds killed, among them many victims of chemical weapons.

The Irbil-based Kurdish government now enjoys autonomous status under the Iraqi Constitution to oversee three provinces, where a stringent security apparatus of peshmerga soldiers and police remains on guard.

However, Irbil Police Chief Abdullah Khaylani said that all Iraqis — Kurds, Arab-Muslims and Christians alike — are always welcome in the region, especially those eager to ring in the New Year’s in peace.

“The Kurdish people have no problem with anyone. This is their home; we are welcoming everyone,” he said. “We guarantee their safety.”

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