Kurds enjoy peaceful corner of Iraq

Posted in Iraq | 02-Nov-04 | Author: Thomas Fuller| Source: International Herald Tribune

ERBIL, Iraq Truck drivers here say they are not worried about ambushes; shopkeepers report that security is not an issue; and local residents shrug off questions about violence and kidnappings.

"We have not closed our shutters at night in seven years," Abdul Wahid Hassan said inside his shop filled with brand-new refrigerators, televisions and air conditioners.

While cities like Baghdad and Falluja are riven by insurgency, this dusty, sprawling city is part of the other Iraq, a region that stays out of headlines and where life resembles something closer to normalcy.

Populated mainly by Kurds, Iraq's northernmost region forms a thin peace crescent around the upper rim of the country, extending from Duhok to Erbil and Sulaimaniya, cities that are less familiar abroad precisely because they have largely avoided attacks.

One northern governor talks about promoting tourism, a seemingly outlandish idea in a country gripped by violence but a measure of the security that Kurds feel they have achieved.

"People find it very difficult to believe that there is a safe area in Iraq," said Barzan Dezayee, the minister of municipalities in the regional Kurdish government, who is leading a campaign to raise funds for water and sewage projects.

"We need to convince people that not all of Iraq is Falluja, that Kurdistan is safe," Dezayee said.

Iraqi Kurdistan covers about 36,000 square kilometers, or almost 14,000 square miles, an area slightly smaller than Switzerland, and is home to about 3.5 million of Iraq's 25 million people.

Today it provides a glimmer of hope for the rest of Iraq: parents and their children linger at restaurants and shops long after darkness sets in, foreign aid workers walk unarmed through the streets, and the police and most soldiers wear soft hats.

While it might be tempting for President George W. Bush to cite Iraqi Kurdistan as an example of what has gone right in Iraq, the relative peace here is not a result of the U.S.-led invasion.

Iraqi Kurdistan has been autonomous since the end of the first Gulf war in 1991 and thus has had a lot more time to stabilize and rebuild. Much of the area was protected by the no-flight zone patrolled by U.S. and British aircraft after that war and was largely free from the grip of Saddam Hussein during that period.

For several years, Kurds who fled Saddam's Iraq decades ago have been returning to take posts in the government, private sector and universities here.

Dezayee, who left Iraq in 1974, was educated in Britain and worked as a civil engineer in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries, returned three months ago to take up his government post. Like many other returnees he is building a house, contributing to a construction boom in Kurdistan.

"I had been away for 30 years, and it was time to come back and do something for my people," Dezayee said.

Iraqi Kurdistan has not been entirely peaceful. In February, two simultaneous suicide attacks at the offices of Kurdish political parties in Erbil killed more than 65 people.

Since then, however, there have been no reported attacks in the region, a stark contrast to the dozens of daily attacks against U.S. forces and civilians in the central and southern parts of the country.

Aziz Weysi, commander of special forces of the Kurdish army in northwestern Iraq, attributes the relative stability here to the fact that Kurdish people identify with their regional government and feel they have a stake in maintaining peace.

"If you rule a country with oppression and force you have to surround it with fortresses," Weysi said in his office in the mountains outside of Duhok. "But if the people are on your side they become your fortress."

There is very little U.S. military presence in the north and thus people say they do not feel occupied; Kurdistan is also relatively homogeneous.

Insurgents had tried "many times" to stage attacks by bringing explosives into the Kurdish areas but had been caught, he said, declining to elaborate. But he said would-be attackers have no "base" in Iraqi Kurdistan.

"There's very good relations between all parts of society - the police, the army and the people," Weysi said.

Nechervan Ahmed, governor of Duhok Province, says there is a consensus among the Kurdish political parties - notoriously divided in the past - on the paramount importance of security.

"This is a golden age for the Kurds in Iraq," Ahmed said.

"What has been achieved here has never been seen before."

The local prison in Duhok, used in the 1980s by Saddam's government to jail political opponents, now houses low-income families.

For wealthier residents, workers are building multistoried villas on the fringes of the city.

Yet for all the good news here there are many questions dogging Iraqi Kurdistan. Relations with the rest of Iraq are shaky, and many Arabs consider the Kurds traitors for working with the United States and its allies.

"What happens to the Kurds when the Americans leave Iraq? That's the question," said Jonathan Randal, an expert on the region and author of a book about the Kurds, "After Such Knowledge What Forgiveness?"

Randal noted that the Kurds have a saying: "We have no friends but the mountains."

Turkey, Iran and Syria, all of which have Kurdish populations, are wary of the autonomy achieved by Iraqi Kurds, fearing the effects it might have on Kurds in their own countries.

"The Kurds are surrounded by countries that are enemies with each other except when it comes to the Kurds - then they are friends," said Hamed Ali, an aide to Ahmed.

With most roads linking Kurdistan to the rest of Iraq often too dangerous to travel, essential supplies like cement and steel come mostly from Turkey.

But because the Turks only allow a limited number of trucks to cross the border daily, Kurdistan is suffering from shortages in essential building supplies.

Officials are seeking to connect themselves with the outside world through more direct means: an international airport terminal in Erbil is nearing completion, and the runway is already used by Kurdistan's leaders to fly in and out of Iraq. Another airport in Sulaimaniya is under construction.

With security seemingly under control the most pressing problem here is more old-fashioned: poverty.

Sabah Humir, a 24-year-old construction worker, says he makes the equivalent of $75 a month, barely enough to pay his rent, let alone buy food.

The United Nations provides Iraqis monthly rations of sugar, oil, flour, tea and powdered milk, but that lasts only halfway through the month, Humir said.

He described his situation using a local Kurdish expression: "I only eat sorrow and misery."

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