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It's a land of big dreams - in Iraq

Peace and patience prevail in the Kurdish north. That boom you hear is luxury housing on the rise.

By SUSAN TAYLOR MARTIN, Times Senior Correspondent
Published August 12, 2007


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IRBIL, Iraq - They call this "The Other Iraq."

The one where people still think rivers are for swimming in, not dumping headless bodies.

The one where Spc. Jotyar Tile, a U.S. soldier, can shop at the market on Saturdays without fear of being kidnapped or killed.

The one where life is generally so calm there's serious talk of developing tourism.

This is also the part of Iraq where you almost never see the Iraqi flag or hear anyone call themselves "Iraqi." Instead, 5-million Kurds know it as Kurdistan -- a veritable country within a country.

"All the negatives aside, we've managed our region," says Vian Ahmad Pasha, a member of the Kurdish Parliament. "There is peace in our land - this is a very important point."

While other parts of Iraq remain paralyzed by insurgents and extremists, the Kurds are building a comparatively safe and progressive society. There's so much construction -- schools, highways, luxury housing -- that Kurdistan is being compared to Dubai and Kuwait at the start of their boom times.

And like the rich gulf states, Kurdistan floats on a vast sea of oil.

For now, Kurds say they are willing to share their oil wealth and remain part of Iraq, albeit a largely separate one with its own government, flag and security forces. But it's no secret that Kurds distrust their Arab countrymen, that they think the main Iraqi government is a dysfunctional mess and that they hope to have a nation of their own.

"I'm not in a hurry," says Imad Sedeek, a Kurdish hotel owner. "Let us get our energy infrastructure, our roads, a good higher education system. When we have everything, then we are a state."

Isolated no longer

Passengers at the Kurdish airports in Irbil and Sulaimaniyah need a lot of patience.

The United States still controls all Iraqi airspace, meaning civilian planes can be delayed eight, even 20 hours when there is military action elsewhere in Iraq.

But for Kurds, it's a minor annoyance compared with the heady sense of independence that comes from being able to fly nonstop to Vienna, Dubai and other foreign cities without going through Baghdad.

"This was a big dream for us," says Rizgar Hamawandi, associate director of the Kurdistan Development Corp. "This was like a gate opening to all the world."

A non-Arab people with their own language and customs, Kurds have long lived in relative isolation in mountainous northern Iraq. During Saddam Hussein's era, as many as 500,000 were killed or disappeared when he tried to "Arab-ize" the country.

Kurds rose up against Hussein after the 1991 Persian Gulf War, but the revolt failed when expected U.S. support failed to materialize. More than a million Kurds fled to the mountains along the Turkish border. Thousands died of cold and starvation when Turkey denied them entry.

Faced with world outrage, the United Nations created a haven for Kurds in three northern Iraqi provinces. With the protection of U.S. fighter jets and the help of foreign aid money, Kurds began rebuilding their region while the rest of Iraq stagnated under international sanctions.

The fall of Hussein's regime in 2003 brought hopes of a united, peaceful Iraq. But scenes of mayhem quickly convinced the Kurds that their continued progress lay in protecting themselves from Arab terrorism.

"We have a problem with Arabs," says Sabah Khidr of Assayish, the Kurdish version of the FBI. "We have suffered too much from Arabs."

Security is tightest at Kurdistan's two new airports. Departing passengers go through three checkpoints and a maze of barricades before reaching a remote waiting hall, where they and their luggage are screened. A bus takes passengers to the terminal a mile away.

"The security is inconvenient, but we have to do it," says Handren Hiwamufa, manager of the Sulaimaniyah airport. "We don't want to be embarrassed."

The Kurds have also dug a deep ditch around Irbil, their capital and largest city. That forces all cars from Baghdad and other non-Kurdish areas to go through checkpoints, where guards search every vehicle and examine identity papers.

Arabs cannot enter unless sponsored by a Kurd, who must go to the checkpoint in person.

The system is not foolproof: In May, a truck bomb killed 14 people. The bombers had entered Kurdistan legally, paying a Kurdish sponsor who wanted money to buy his brother a taxi.

Still, terrorism is rare enough to allow a rush of construction.

Irbil's 300,000 residents now have their first bowling alley and health club, with separate swimming pools for men and women.

In the center of town, work starts next month on a hypermarket, theater, mall and four-star hotel. Outside the city, construction is well under way on a $50-million international school for 2,000 students. Hundreds of luxury townhomes are going up in "American Village" and "English Village" - names unthinkable elsewhere in Iraq.

Most of the projects are partnerships between the Kurdish government, which provides the land, and Persian Gulf companies. Hamawandi of the development council regrets there has been little investment by U.S. firms, which are leery of building in what insurers consider a war zone.

He also wonders if some of the current projects should be priorities, especially when electricity is sporadic, rural roads are terrible and many Kurds still live in mud huts.

"We've got Naz City," Hamawandi says, referring to the 14 upscale condo towers near the airport. "Apartments cost $165,000. Who can pay this? And it has to be in cash!"

Enemies all around

Traveling around the Kurdish north, a visitor saw only one Iraqi flag - in the Sulaimaniyah airport from which Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, flies to Baghdad.

"The Kurdish government doesn't allow the flag, but Talabani told us to put it up," says Hiwamufta, the manager. So Iraq's flag hangs in the VIP lounge, mostly hidden from sight, while the Kurdish flag with its big yellow sun waves prominently outside the terminal.

The flag issue reflects the fact that Kurdistan is still largely controlled by two men: Talabani, whose political base is around Sulaimaniyah, and Massoud Barzani, the current president of Kurdistan who has a mountaintop retreat outside Irbil.

Kurds acknowledge their government is not as democratic as sometimes portrayed. But they are glad the once-bitter rivals now share power.

"I think the best thing is for the two parties to join together against the rise of radical Muslim movements," says Sedeek, the hotel owner. "I don't want to see Kurdistan and the nice people we have here end up in organizations like Hamas."

On a national level, Kurds have an uncomfortable alliance with Iraq's Shiite majority. Both groups favor a decentralized Iraqi government, with the oil-rich Kurdish north and the oil-rich Shiite south having considerable autonomy from Sunnis in the oil-poor Baghdad area.

But Kurds, many of them secular Muslims who enjoy their beer and wine, don't want conservative Shiites telling them how to act. And both Shiites and Sunnis are angry at the Kurds' aggressive effort to claim Kirkuk, a city with vast oil reserves.

Barzani recently warned that Iraq is headed for "a real civil war" if Baghdad keeps delaying a referendum that could annex Kirkuk to the Kurdish region.

As much as they distrust the Arabs, most Kurds concede they couldn't break away from Iraq without a violent response from Turkey, Iran and Syria. All have restive Kurdish populations and fear the growing autonomy of Iraqi Kurds could fuel separatist movements in their own countries.

"We must stay together with Iraq because we are surrounded by enemies," says Hamawandi of the Kurdish Development Council. "They will not accept our independence."

To protect them from threats inside and out, Kurds would like the United States to establish a major military base in their region. Sen. Joe Biden, a Democratic presidential candidate, and some other U.S. politicians endorse the idea as a way to get troops out of volatile areas, but keep a presence in Iraq.

Kurdistan is so stable that only a few dozen U.S. soldiers are there now, most of them working in a supply depot at the Turkish border. Among them is Spc. Tile, a Kurd who moved to North Dakota during Hussein's era, became a U.S. citizen and joined the Army Reserves.

"People here are very, very proud of me being Kurdish," says Tile, 37. He interprets when he and fellow soldiers are invited to Kurdish homes for lunch, as they often are. Unlike most Iraqis, Kurds are fond of Americans.

"We need good relations in this region," Tile says, "and Americans are doing a good job at it. But we need more people to help."

 

COMING MONDAY: Wrangling over oil laws.

Susan Taylor Martin can be contacted at susan@sptimes.com.

[Last modified August 11, 2007, 22:15:52]


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