The 'other Iraq' forges ahead
IRBIL, northern Iraq - In the town of Amadiya, sitting atop a picturesque outcrop on the Iraqi-Turkish border, Kivi and his brother have recently returned from Australia.
"We just arrived here from Irbil yesterday and we're here for four months. Coming back here from Perth is like walking into a time warp." It's mid-December and locals say snow is just around the corner. "The women in Australia are not so good, not so genuine, so we've come back here to find a Kurdish girl," adds Kivi, or Kevin as he likes to be called by his English-speaking friends.
Just last February, and again in May, Turkish forces launched major assaults into Iraqi Kurdistan in pursuit of renegade Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) fighters, many of whom are now seeking refuge in the autonomous northern Iraqi region.
One local points out that at the other side of a nearby mountain on the Ser Amadiya mountain range, the "fighters" warded off the Turkish enemy recently.
The Kurdish region in northern Iraq has stayed several steps ahead of the rest of the country since Saddam Hussein was deposed in 2003. Under his rule, the Kurdish minority was treated dreadfully, with close to 200,000 killed, often by gassing.
Kivi and his family left Iraq during the first Gulf War in 1991. "It was impossible to stay, even up here in this isolated town people suffered persecution, and so we ran over the border to Turkey and finally settled in Australia."
During the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, the Kurdish minority was regarded by the regime as siding with Iran. Now, the Kurdish-populated cities of Dohuk, Irbil and Sulaimaniya are bustling centers of trade. Locals say the war never really arrived in the north, in comparison to the rest of the country.
Things looking up
In recent months, the rest of Iraq has seen attacks abate and Barack Obama has been voted in as the next American president on a campaign promise of scaling down in Iraq.
A massive step towards facilitating a sovereign Iraq took place on November 27 when the Iraqi parliament passed the Status of Forces Agreement by almost three to one, adding legal grounding for the departure of American troops by the end of 2011.
Primer Minister Nuri al-Maliki followed up by making it publicly clear that no extension was to be facilitated. Regional elections expected to take place at the end of January will stand as one of the first steps to an all-encompassing nationwide democratic forum. Fourteen of Iraq's 18 provinces are set to cast ballots which, according to the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, will provide "the most detailed insight so far into the relative strength of Iraq's political parties".
In September, an internationally renowned school opened its doors to students in Khanzad on the outskirts of Irbil, the capital of the autonomous Kurdish region. Raed Mahmoud, a Choueifat school representative at the new facility, said, "We have enrolled students from Lebanon, Romania and the United States among other countries, but interestingly, the majority of students are Kurds coming back from other countries." Violence across the country has dropped to the lowest level since the 2003 American-led invasion.
Stability sees problems evolve
However, with the countrywide decline in violence, inevitable political quagmires have mushroomed and look set to dominate the new face of Iraq. Headlines depicting the awful carnage that has seen thousands killed and millions displaced have waned, but fears remain over how Iraq's long-term reconstruction plans will be divided among the country's various ethnic groups. Homogenous regions previously regarded as havens of stability could become political flashpoints as Iraq's vast reserves of oil and gas become focal points of importance. Iraqi Kurdistan is a prime case in point.
In Kurdistan, signs depicting civil society organizations are now commonplace. In Amadiya, a town of about 6,000, offices promoting women's liberties, support groups for political prisoners and the Kurdistan Communist Party can be found all along a single street. The word "Kurdistan" appears everywhere and nationalism has blossomed in light of newfound freedoms.
The Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) has been working hard to depict itself as being an opposite to the rest of Iraq, even posting a website under the title of "The Other Iraq" whereby it is encouraging tourists with imagery of breathtaking scenery.
More important in terms of politics, it is looking to exploit and further utilize the most valuable asset in its possession, oil. In a country where crude oil reserves are estimated at 115 billion barrels, ownership of this precious commodity has quickly become a sticking point and for the territorial integrity of the entire country, this means bad news.
The northern city of Kirkuk, populated by an ethnic mix of Arabs, Christians, Kurds and Turkomans, sits adjacent to one of the largest untapped oilfields in the region. For all concerned, the status of Kirkuk represents a strategic crossroad and legitimate claims can be made by the KRG and the central government.
Kirkuk was dominated by a Kurdish majority until Saddam's attempted "Arabization" of the northern provinces during the 1970s. Now it rests under the administrative control of Baghdad and is populated by an eclectic mix of Arabs, Kurds, Turkomans and other minorities. The relative stability enjoyed in the north has allowed the KRG to push ahead in pursuing deals with international energy companies. So far, two dozen contracts have been signed with companies from Canada, South Korea and Turkey, among others.
For over 12 months, negotiations have been continuing between the KRG and Baghdad over oil concerns. When Oil Minister Hussein al-Shahristani visited Irbil in November, his comments that Kurdish oil would be connected to national pipelines bound for Turkey led many to think a softening in relations was imminent.
However, Baghdad insists the KRG has no right to conduct oil deals with foreign interests independently, based on Article 140 of the historic 2005 Iraqi constitution. The KRG claims exactly the opposite. As such, up to 20 contracts signed by the KRG with Iraqi and foreign interests since February 2007 - without authorization from the central government - have been regarded as "illegitimate".
In addition to this, the decrease in the price of oil has led to increased competition among international companies, something that has led to renewed interest in the "safe part" of Iraq. Such events can only conspire to hasten conflict over the issue, still governed by an oil trade law from the Saddam era. The law itself supposes control of oilfields to the Baghdad-controlled Oil Ministry.
New potential for violence
That the northern Kurdish region has until now passed under the radar of observers drawn to the violence in Baghdad, Fallujah and the western provinces is something that seems set to change.
The disagreements over oil ownership, of which the International Crisis Group regards as "arguably exceed[ing] the Sunni-Shi'ite divide that spawned the 2005-2007 sectarian war", have been fueling other problems.
Since late 2007, standoffs between Iraqi forces and the Kurdish paramilitary Peshmerga have increased. In August, one such incident in Khanaqin, close to the Iranian border, saw Kurdish forces, openly operating in territory under Baghdad’s control, confronted and removed by Iraqi soldiers. The KRG claims it has a right to protect Kurds wherever they may be in Iraq.
The bombing in Kirkuk on the third day of the festival of Eid al-Adha this month was the deadliest in Iraq for six months. Fifty-five people were killed in a restaurant attack where a meeting of local Arab leaders and representatives of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan was the suspected target.
It is believed leaders were meeting to thrash out the future status of Kirkuk and its accompanying oil reserves. On the border we caught up with Ali, a 25-year-old Turkoman from the Askarie neighborhood in north Kirkuk. He said, "Of course the bombing's a surprise. Us, the Kurds and Arabs get on well in Kirkuk and it's a shame to see Iraq reported on for all its bad points."
However, attacks on Christians in Kirkuk and across the north over the past 12 months, and on the Yezidi sect more recently, are timely reminders that while foreign troops - so often conductors of violence - have started to pull out (only 15 of the original 35 "coalition of the willing" countries remain in Iraq), distributing Iraq's spoils will require a new direction in diplomacy to transcend the fog of war.
It is part of the Kurdish identity to battle against outsiders and the dozens of checkpoints, the presence of Turkish troops and a tank hidden away in a parking lot remind one of the palpable sense of uncertainly in Amadiya and throughout Iraqi Kurdistan. Now that they have access to valuable assets, Kurds are seeking a profitable new future.
At the Azrahim Khalil border crossing, hundreds of trucks heading north to Turkey undergo extensive examinations, with the vehicles stripped down and their contents and licenses checked. Throwing an eye across the trucks, oil tankers dominate the cargo being shipped out of Kurdistan, with similar scenes to be found on highways all across Iraqi Kurdistan.
The central government in Baghdad may disapprove of such activity taking place right underneath its nose, but regardless, the KRG wants the world - and Baghdad - to know it means, and is seeking out, business.
Stephen Starr is a freelance journalist based in Damascus where he serves as deputy editor of the Syria Times.