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The Other Iraq

Kurdistan prospers, even as pressure from Baghdad grows

Mar 4, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 24 • By DAVID DEVOSS
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But America’s involvement was not limited to military activity and humanitarian aid. Washington urged northern Iraq’s two leading political parties to stop fighting each other, and in 1998 the Kurdistan Democratic party in Erbil and the Sulaymaniyah-based Patriotic Union of Kurdistan laid down their weapons and agreed to share power in a unified Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) opposed to Saddam. This alliance remains intact. In the Kurdish cabinet, each minister has a deputy from the other party.

When Lt. Col. Harry Schute landed in Kurdistan in April 2003 to head a U.S. Army civil affairs battalion, he was greeted with flowers. “I felt like a soldier driving through France at the end of World War II,” he remembers. “Cheering people lined the highway in every village we passed. Restaurants in Erbil refused to let us pay for food.” 

The following year, when I traveled to Erbil to inspect a water purification plant built by the U.S. Agency for International Development, I casually referred to America’s “invasion” of Iraq. “It was no invasion,” a Kurdish engineer traveling with me responded. “For Kurds, the arrival of the U.S. Army was a liberation.”

Iraq’s Kurds have a rich history. Saladin, the great Islamic commander who dealt the European Crusaders a decisive defeat in 1187, was a Kurd. But under Baath party rule, Kurdish culture was reviled. All books in Kurdish were removed from the libraries of northern Iraq and burned. Arabic became the language of instruction in Kurdish schools. The burial monuments of famous Kurds were plastered over and re-engraved in Arabic script. When Saddam’s Republican Guard retreated from the region in 2003 it poured cement in water wells as it went.

Kurdistan today calls itself “The Other Iraq,” and in many ways it does resemble a separate country. The Kurdish provinces have their own parliament, investment policy, and customs regime. Passengers arriving on flights from Baghdad must go through a Kurdish passport control despite the fact they’re still in Iraq. Sectarian militias that prowl the rest of the country find no foothold here. Kurdistan has its own army, the Peshmerga (“those who face death”), that keeps the region free of al Qaeda. The national government in Baghdad is as rancorous as that in Washington, D.C., while the Kurds maintain the unity they promised the United States in 2006 and meticulously share power throughout the government. 

Indeed, the Kurds were so thankful for the assistance received from the George W. Bush administration that they paid for a massive “Thank you, America” campaign in 2006. The videos from that campaign still are posted on the Internet (youtu.be/NyrStaIoh-w).

“America makes mistakes, but it’s important for Americans to know that we can do a lot of things right,” says Douglas Layton, a 62-year-old entrepreneur who is writing a book called When America Gets It Right: The Kurdish Miracle. Back in 1991 Layton helped resettle Kurdish refugees in Nashville. Today he operates The Other Iraq Tours, a company that takes adventurous travelers to places like Gaugamela, the site of the 331 b.c. battle where Alexander the Great defeated Persian emperor Darius III. 

“The Kurds are just different,” he says. “They are pro-American and have no antagonism against Israel. I think it’s because the United States protected them for more than a decade. It was an opportunity southern Iraqis didn’t have.”

There was no protection for the Kurds at the end of World War I when Europe carved up the Ottoman Empire and denied them a nation. Today the region’s 35 million Kurds are scattered. Approximately 18 million live in Turkey, with some 2 million in Syria, 8 million in Iran, and 7 million in Iraq. 

Because of its stability and growing prosperity, Iraqi Kurdistan now serves as both a homeland for the Kurdish diaspora and a refuge for persecuted Christians. Since 2003, some 15,000 Christian families have been forced to flee central and southern Iraq. Though some went to Europe, most reside in Iraqi Kurdistan, where they are joined by a growing flow of Kurds from Iran.

According to the KRG’s Bureau of Migration and Displacement, 250 Kurdish families, or about 1,500 people, move from Iran to Kurdistan every year. Last year they were joined by 2,400 Kurds from Europe who returned under the International Office of Migration’s voluntary repatriation program or with assistance from France and Sweden. The migrations underscore the repression Kurds face in Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s Iran as well as the promise of northern Iraq’s economy.

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