Two years after the self-immolation of a street vendor protesting police corruption in Tunisia, the promise of the Arab Spring remains unrealized. Instead of ushering in an era of stable self-determination, much of the Middle East remains in disarray. Syria is in flames, Egypt almost ungovernable. Libyan terrorists responsible for the Benghazi massacre are still at large, and Tunisia soon could have its second government in as many years.
In Iraq, more than 50 people a week continue to die violently, while the Shia government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki grows more authoritarian by the day. As America approaches the tenth anniversary of Operation Iraqi Freedom on March 20, however, Washington can take pride in one shining success: Iraqi Kurdistan.
Northern Iraq’s three Kurdish provinces—Dahuk, Erbil, and Sulaymaniyah—are the country’s safest and most prosperous. The semiautonomous area has an economy growing 12 percent a year and a per capita GDP that is 50 percent higher than the rest of the country. In a clear sign of its growing importance, the region now hosts 25 consulates and foreign representations, seven universities and two international airports. Some 1,500 Turkish companies already have taken advantage of the stable business environment, along with 50 multinationals including Exxon, Total, Chevron, Hunt Oil, and John Deere.
Compared with Baghdad, where security concerns adversely impact private investment, Kurdistan’s financial capital of Erbil (home to 1.5 million) is developing rapidly. The city adds a new five-star hotel nearly every year. Modern shopping malls are full of families who indulge children in game arcades and snack at American fast-food restaurants. These establishments would be targeted as anti-Islamic if they existed in Arab cities to the south.
Passenger traffic at the city’s $550 million airport has increased 37 percent between 2011 and 2012. New arrivals have plenty of choices when it comes to residential housing. Lebanese contractors are building Dream City, a 1,200-unit development that boasts a New York-style steakhouse. Another Turkish company is selling modern condominiums in an area called Naz City. Three new satellite suburbs contain schools, supermarkets, and police stations. English Village has 400 homes ranging in price from $130,000 to $160,000, all of which sold more than a year before completion. Tree-lined streets meander through Italian Village close to the airport. American Village is an $80 million development where a 3,500-square-foot home sells for $160,000 and $585,000 will buy an 8,600-square-foot palace.
Erbil’s newest neighborhood is The Atlantic Villas & Apartments, a $160 million mixed-use development by the Claremont Group, a New York construction company. It is scheduled for completion this fall, and more than a third of the 1,543 townhouses and apartments have already sold. “Erbil is an excellent place to build because the Kurds really want U.S. investment,” says Stephen Lari, Claremont’s head of overseas relations, who also has approval to build a 196-room Hilton Doubletree Suites costing $35 million.
“The Kurds believe the more foreign investment they attract, the less likely Baghdad will be to interfere,” Lari explains. “They want Kurdistan to become too big to fail.”
That Iraq even has a Kurdish population is due largely to the efforts of President George H.W. Bush, who launched Operation Provide Comfort in 1991 to halt Saddam Hussein’s genocidal attacks on the Kurds. Saddam’s war of extermination began three years before, when he sent his cousin, Gen. Ali Hassan al-Majid, to destroy the town of Halabja. Ali blanketed the area with deadly Sarin gas, which killed 5,000 Kurds and enfeebled 6,000 others. To make the devastation complete, he then systematically reduced Halabja to rubble and forced survivors to walk north to a barren settlement whose newly bulldozed streets were shaped to resemble Saddam’s initials. The genocidal attack earned him the nickname “Chemical Ali.”
Coming in the wake of Bush’s Desert Storm victory in Kuwait, Operation Provide Comfort prevented the Kurds’ annihilation by supplying humanitarian assistance and establishing a “no fly zone” for Iraqi aircraft. Bush’s intervention, reinforced six years later by President Bill Clinton’s Operation Northern Watch, kept Saddam’s air force out of Kurdistan for 12 years and effectively made the region autonomous from the rest of Iraq.