Two hours into my first tour of Erbil, my guide for the day taught me to feel lucky. “If we were doing this in Baghdad, we would be dead by now,” he said.
Our driver nodded vigorously.
“It’s that dangerous?” I asked.
“With your face,” my guide replied, “and with our Kurdish license plates on the car, we could not last two hours.”
So goes the capital of Iraq. But I was touring the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, where the war is already over.
There are no insurgents in Kurdistan. Nor are there any kidnappings. A hard internal border between the Kurds’ territory and the Arab-dominated center and south has been in place since the Kurdish uprising at the end of the 1991 Gulf War. Cars on the road heading north are stopped at a series of checkpoints. Questions are asked. ID cards are checked. Vehicles are searched and sometimes taken apart on the side of the road. Smugglers, insurgents, and terrorists who attempt to sneak into Kurdistan by crossing Iraq’s wilderness areas are ambushed by border patrols.
The second line of defense is the Kurds themselves. Out of desperate necessity, they have forged one of the most vigilant anti-terrorist communities in the world. Anyone who doesn’t speak Kurdish as their native language—and Iraq’s troublemakers overwhelmingly fall into this category—stands out among the general population. There is no friendly sea of the people, to borrow Mao’s formulation, that insurgents can freely swim in. Al Qaeda members who do manage to infiltrate the area are hunted down like rats. This conservative Muslim society does a better job rooting out and keeping out Islamist killers than the U.S. military can manage in the kinda sorta halfway “safe” Green Zone in Baghdad.
In a region where rule by reactionary clerics, gangster elites, and calcified military dictatorships is the norm, Iraqi Kurdistan is, by local standards, an open, liberal, and peaceful society. Its government is elected by a popular vote, competing political parties run their own newspapers, and the press is (mostly) free. Religion and the state are separate, and women can and do vote. The citizens here are tired of war, and they’re doing everything in their power to make their corner of the Middle East a normal, stable place where it’s safe to live, and to invest and build.
But to carve out their breathing space, the Kurds have adopted discriminatory policies that would make any liberal-minded Westerner squirm. It remains to be seen how the contradictions will sort themselves out in the long run. But the outcome is important, especially if Kurdistan reaches the day—and it seems increasingly likely that it will—that it breaks entirely free of Baghdad and declares independence.
The Kurdish Autonomous Zone
Only 200 U.S. troops are stationed in Iraq’s Kurdistan region. Even those are mere tokens. The Kurdish armed forces, the Peshmerga (“those who face death”), are in charge of security. They do a remarkable job. Since Saddam Hussein’s Ba’athist regime was toppled, only a handful of violent attacks have taken place in their part of the country.
Granted: In 2004 a suicide bomber killed Sami Abdul Rahman, the deputy vice president of the Kurdistan Regional Government, along with more than 100 other people. Last year another suicide bomber self-detonated just outside the perimeter of the fake knock-off “Sheraton” hotel. Bits of flesh splattered the flowers near the front door.
Those were major attacks. But not much else has happened. Meanwhile, the rest of the Kurds’ country—if we can still think of Iraq as their country—is the most terrorized place in the world.
For that reason, among many others, Iraq might not survive in one piece. The overwhelming majority of Iraqi Kurdistan’s people are packing their bags for independence. Most have already said goodbye.
Not one Iraqi flag flies in Erbil. The national flag does appear above government buildings in the eastern city of Suleimaniya. But it’s the old flag, the pre-Saddam flag, the one that doesn’t have Allahu Akbar (“God is Great”) scrawled across the middle of it. The only reason it’s flown in Suleimaniya at all is that the city is headquarters to Jalal Talabani’s political party, the left-wing Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, and Talabani is the president of Iraq. (Note: The prime minister, not the president, is head of the government.)