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.
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.
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.