The Magazine

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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Many new arrivals settle in the mountain town of Soron, an hour’s drive from Erbil. Soron has 125,000 residents, 64 percent of whom are refugees from Iran. In part because Kurds are fleeing Iran so rapidly, Soron’s population is expected to grow by 50,000 over the coming decade.

Although she was born in Iran, Fatima Ahmad couldn’t obtain Iranian citizenship because her parents were Iraqi Kurds. “I was alive but had no life,” she explains. “I couldn’t own property or get a passport. I couldn’t even travel inside the country without police permission.”

So four years ago Fatima stuffed everything she had into one suitcase and walked across the border into Iraq. Two microfinance loans backed by the United States allowed her to start a profitable beauty salon. “One thing I know for certain,” she smiles. “I never would have gotten a microfinance loan in Iran.” 

Much of Kurdistan’s rapid economic growth is due to the problems suffered by the rest of Iraq, which is crippled by bureaucratic ineptitude, widespread corruption, adherence to central planning, and a refusal to embrace international business norms. These and other frustrations prompted Exxon and Chevron to invest around $10 billion in Kurdistan, but Baghdad says the KRG has no authority to export oil or sign exploration contracts. As a consequence, petroleum companies must abandon the Kurds if they want to do business in Iraq. 

No longer is Baghdad’s Shiite government willing to negotiate the fate of disputed lands outside Kurdistan’s three home provinces. Neither will it cede control of the oil under the areas the Kurds control. According to the 2005 constitution, 17 percent of Iraq’s federal budget should be directed to the Kurds. Baghdad wants to unilaterally lower that share to 12 percent. In the past, the United States helped mediate disputes, but now Baghdad no longer wants Americans present during bilateral negotiations. 

Despite the snub, the Obama administration appears to support Baghdad in the hope Maliki’s Shiite administration will restrain Iran’s ayatollahs. Given Iraq’s Shiite revival and the support Maliki already has extended to Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, it appears the Obama administration may be willing to sacrifice Kurdish autonomy in return for illusory strategic leverage.

The Iraqi prime minister is in no mood to compromise. Three months ago, Maliki moved part of Iraq’s army into Kirkuk, a disputed province widely regarded as part of the Kurdish homeland. With two armies in artillery range of each other, the Kurds are seeking a diplomatic solution. “We have studied the question of independence and concluded that the Kurdish region is best served as a loyal part of Iraq,” former Kurdish prime minister Barham Salih told a group of Western aid workers early last year. In contrast, Nuri al-Maliki seems to be preparing for war. 

Last year, Iraq took final delivery of 140 American M1A1 Abrams tanks. The total cost of the tanks was $860 million, but Washington discounted the price so that Baghdad only had to pay $800 million. The savings helped Baghdad initiate a second purchase of 36 F-16 fighters, each costing $126 million. As part of the deal, Iraq will receive 100 Sidewinder heat-seeking air-to-air missiles, 150 Sparrow radar homing missiles, and 40,000 rounds of 20mm auto cannon ammo. 

For more than two decades, America nurtured the Kurdish revival. Is it today inadvertently planting seeds of future instability? That’s what some Kurds are starting to fear. 

A quarter-century ago, Iraq’s Kurds faced extermination at the hands of a more heavily armed Iraqi Army. Today, the KRG’s Peshmerga is better equipped, but it still is no match for a sophisticated 1.2 million-man army from Baghdad.

David DeVoss recently returned from four years in Iraq, where he served as communications director on a $192 million provincial economic growth program.

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