Iraq has improved immeasurably since the dark days of 2006 when hundreds were being killed every day by al Qaeda bombs and Sadrist death squads in Baghdad. But terrorist bombs continue to go off intermittently, and lingering instability and ineptitude still block economic development. Indeed, the political situation has recently taken a turn for the worse, with Iraq’s political parties at a stalemate in their quest to form a new government more than two months after parliamentary elections were held.
Driving down Baghdad’s dingy streets, as I did recently as part of a delegation from the Council on Foreign Relations, one is sometimes tempted to despair. What chance is there, the visitor may reasonably wonder, that the capital of this oil-rich country will ever be truly peaceful, not to mention as luxurious as Doha, Dubai, or other boomtowns to the south on the Persian Gulf?
A short trip north to the Kurdish region, where 4.5 million of Iraq’s 30 million people live, offers a different, more hopeful perspective. Known as the Kurdish Regional Government, or KRG, this area feels as safe as it gets in the Middle East. Terrorist attacks aren’t a concern. Americans can wander around without body armor or bodyguards—even if they’re in uniform. Don’t try it in Baghdad. That’s a tribute to the effectiveness of the Kurdish intelligence service, the Asayesh, and to their peshmerga troops (“those who face death”). It also has something to do with Kurdish attitudes toward the United States. There is none of the lingering resentment that is still prevalent in the rest of Iraq; Kurds are among the most pro-American people on the planet. They regularly and profusely thank American visitors for liberating them from Saddam Hussein’s murderous regime—not something one often hears from Iraqi Arabs.
There are also many sights in Erbil that you don’t see in the rest of Iraq. They include a spanking new airport that puts dinosaurs like New York’s Kennedy Airport to shame, and new shopping malls, banks, stores, homes, and hotels that would not be out of place in Europe. Erbil, the capital of the KRG, seems a world away from the rest of Iraq even though it is located only 50 miles from Mosul, the most violent city in the entire country and the only one where Al Qaeda in Iraq remains a major threat. Almost all of the development has occurred in the last few years, filling once-empty fields with modern buildings.
The Kurdish region’s prosperity is fueled by oil. The KRG actually has considerably less oil than the rest of Iraq. It is entitled to just 17 percent of Iraqi oil revenues. So why is the KRG so much richer today? The difference is that the KRG government has gotten its act together and is much further along in attracting foreign investment, exploiting its natural wealth, and spending the proceeds.
There was nothing inevitable about this. Kurdish politics in the past have been as violent and divisive and dysfunctional as in the rest of Iraq. As recently as the 1990s, the two major Kurdish factions—Massoud Barzani’s Democratic Party of Kurdistan and Jalal Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan—were fighting one another. Barzani even sought help from Saddam Hussein, while Talabani turned for assistance to Iran. But eventually these two old adversaries realized they could do better by joining hands and splitting the spoils of an ever-growing economy. In 1998 they signed an American-brokered peace treaty in Washington. In 2002, just prior to the U.S. invasion of Iraq, they created a joint parliament in Erbil uniting the Barzani-controlled areas (Dohuk and Erbil) with Talabani’s preserve (Sulaymaniyah). The Kurdish compact, which has deepened over the years, allows Barzani predominance in the KRG while Talabani represents Kurdish interests in Baghdad as president of Iraq. This is a rare instance of veteran guerrilla fighters hanging up their guns and concentrating on peaceful development, making the kind of leap that Yasser Arafat never could.
Taking advantage of their newfound autonomy, the Kurds have instituted pro-growth policies that encourage outside investment, something that is still viewed with great suspicion in the rest of Iraq, where the socialist legacy of the Baathist state lingers even among the most strident anti-Baathists.