In Iraq's Kurdistan, political pessimism
By Adam Ashton
August 11, 2009
Kurdistan region 'Iraq', — The
regional capital of Kurdish northern Iraq has the
feel of a massive business convention, imploring
visitors on every street to invest in a safe gateway
to the Iraqi economy where no American soldier has
died since the first Gulf War in 1991.
More than 1,000 foreign companies are doing business
in the three Kurdish provinces. The regional
government counts 16 foreign consulates, including
increasingly close ties with Turkey, long hostile to
the Kurds but now their largest trading partner.
The small airport in Erbil has regular flights to
Vienna, Stockholm, Istanbul, Tehran and Amman. New
universities are being built outside Sulaimaniyah
and Erbil. Smooth, new roads loop around Erbil.
Erbil car dealer Khalid Hammad Amin, 30, worries
that tensions between Baghdad and the Kurdish
Regional Government could disrupt economic gains in
his city. Photo: MCT
Billboards advertise the comforts of "American
Village," where houses look as if they belong in
Orange County, Calif. If that doesn't suit an
investor's tastes, "Swedish Village" with clusters
of wooden cabins is nearby, as is the Asian-themed
In unguarded moments, residents speculate that their
leaders are planning to make Kurdistan the next
Dubai, the Persian Gulf shopping mecca (slogan:
"Buy, Buy Dubai."). They can point to two dozen new
contracts with oil companies to make their case,www.ekurd.net
they can look to the cranes rising above soon-to-be
hotels, fitness centers and shopping malls.
Still, many Kurds remain uneasy, frustrated that the
benefits of economic development haven't trickled
down to their pocketbooks. They turned out in large
numbers in last month's regional election to support
a new political party that's promising "change" in
the broadest sense.
Some also fear that the Kurdish regional government
may be either unable or unwilling to resolve the
Kurds' dispute with the central government in
Baghdad over a broad swath of territory that the
semiautonomous Kurds want to annex. They worry that
an armed conflict between the Iraqi military and the
Kurdish militia, the peshmerga, would wipe out their
recent economic gains.
The epicenter of the conflict between Baghdad and
its Kurdish provinces is the oil-rich city of
Kirkuk, which Kurds consider part of their homeland
and want to annex.
Baghdad moved an Iraqi army division near Kirkuk in
late 2008, igniting fears that the central
government would try to use force to dislodge the
Kurds. Kurdish politicians responded with
nationalistic rhetoric that implied that they'd
fight for Kirkuk or secede from Iraq.
"If they don't meet our needs, we as Kurds have a
right to determine our own rights," said Sherwan
Haidary, an influential leader in the Kurdish
parliament and a member of Kurdish President Massoud
Barzani's Kurdish Democratic Party.
It's a heartfelt debate for Kurds, many of who were
driven out of Kirkuk by the late Arab dictator
Saddam Hussein's campaign to "Arabize" Kirkuk. Sunni
Muslims now complain that the Kurds are conducting a
the population now is divided roughly equally among
Kurds, Arabs and Turkmen, with a Christian minority.
Erbil Toyota dealer Khalid Hammad Amin exemplifies
the contradiction between economic optimism and
political pessimism. Things have been going well for
him lately, with money in his pocket and enough
income to pay his parents' medical bills. An
expansion of credit to customers could help him earn
Yet Amin has a dour outlook on the next few years.
He doesn't trust Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al
Maliki, a Shiite Arab, and he can't understand why
the Kurdish leaders in the highest levels of Iraqi's
national government, starting with President Jalal
Talabani, haven't been able to settle the Kurds'
differences with their Shiite and Sunni Arab
"I wish for a better future, but if you ask anyone,
no one is certain. I'm pessimistic," he said.
Maliki last week sought to temper the Baghdad-Erbil
conflict with a high profile visit to Kurdish
President Massoud Barzani and a trip to Halabja, the
site of a brutal 1988 chemical attack on Kurdish
civilians by Saddam's military.
"Remember this crime every year," Maliki said. "It
affirms our determination to reject dictatorship and
bad policies. We will go forward to build our state
on the basis of democracy, respect others' opinions
and have a bright future."
The American military saw Maliki's visit as a major
sign of progress, said Army Brig. Gen. Stephen Lanza.
U.S. leaders have tried to bring Kurds and Arabs
together for the past year, and Defense Secretary
Robert Gates recently urged Kurdish and Arab leaders
to use the remaining two years in which American
forces are expected to serve in Iraq to settle their
"There's a window of opportunity to embrace this,"
He said that Army Gen. Ray Odierno, the top American
commander in Iraq, is working with Iraqi and Kurdish
leaders to unite the Kurdish peshmerga with the
Iraqi army through training or joint missions. Those
relationships could cool tempers, Lanza said.
Dara Jalil al Khyat, the president of the Erbil
Chamber of Commerce, welcomes the offer of American
"The history has proved that we can't solve our
problems on our own," he said, drawing on more than
30 years of conflicts between Arabs and Kurds over
Kirkuk. "We need a third party to help us solve
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