The Kurds Go Their Own Way

Can freedom flower in Iraqi Kurdistan?


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.)

In January 2005 the Iraqi Kurds held an informal referendum on independence. More than 80 percent turned out to vote, and 98.7 percent of those voted to secede. The Kurds have long dreamed of self-determination; today, when they look south, they see only Islamism, Ba'athism, blood, fire, and mayhem. To them, Baghdad is the capital of a deranged foreign country. The only people I met who thought of Kurdistan as "Iraq" were the foreigners. When a Palestinian-American aid worker warned me about security, he told me, "Never forget that you're in Iraq." But the Kurds kept saying, "This isn't Iraq."

The Push for Independence

If Middle Easterners had drawn the borders themselves, Iraq wouldn't even exist. Blame the British for shackling Kurds and Arabs together when they created the post-colonial, post-Ottoman map. The Kurds do. Like the English, they refer to a toilet as "a W.C."—but they insist that stands for "Winston Churchill."

Arab Iraqis who want to "keep" Kurdistan should thank the heavens for Talabani, Iraq's president. He belongs to the 1.3 percent of Iraqi Kurds who at least say they want to remain tied to Baghdad. Meanwhile, Masoud Barzani, president of Kurdistan and chief of the conservative Kurdistan Democratic Party, is playing bad cop. While Talabani is in Baghdad trying to forge a federal Iraq with official Kurdish autonomy, Barzani broods in his mountain palace and openly threatens secession. "Self-determination is the natural right of our people," he said early last year. "When the right time comes, it will become a reality."

It's hard to overstate just how long and how badly the Kurds have wanted out. Barzani's father, the guerilla leader Moula Mustafa, once told Jim Hoagland of The Washington Post, "We can become your 51st state and provide you with oil." That was back in 1973.

Indeed, the dream of an independent Kurdistan dates back to the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I. The League of Nations promised the Kurds a homeland of their own. Instead their homeland was broken into shards and parceled out to Iraq, Turkey, Syria, and Iran. Only in Iran, where the local Kurds call the Persians "cousins," do they feel much kinship with their nominal countrymen.

Nowhere do Kurds feel more distant from their fellow citizens than in Iraq. They have had their own de facto independent state here for the last 15 years. Most of Kurdistan north of Suleimaniya was protected by the U.S. and U.K. "no fly" zones during the interim between the first and second Gulf Wars. Young Iraqi Kurds have no memory of living under Saddam, no memory of ties to Baghdad, no memory of associating with Arabs, no memory of the oppression, the genocide, or the war. They see no point in creating ties with Baghdad that haven't existed in living memory—especially when Baghdad is burning.

Sidqi Khan Bradosti, whose family owns the Zozik Trading Company, put it more mildly than anyone else. "We have nothing to do with Baghdad," he said. "And I don't want to have anything to do with Baghdad if it can't be part of a federal rule-of-law democracy." The comments of English teacher Birzo Abdulkadir were more typical: "We have nothing to do with the rest of Iraq. It was inflicted on us. What do we have to do with Arabism?"

Most Kurds are moderately conservative Sunni Muslims. But their religious tradition is historically more liberal and lenient than many others in the Middle East. "I speak and read Arabic fluently," Abdulkadir told me. "I have read the Koran in its original language. I know it's more flexible than most Arab imams admit."

Kurds have "no friends but the mountains," or so an old saying goes. It's hard for Westerners to grasp just how isolated these people feel. That partly explains their fanatical pro-Americanism: A friend, at last!

Their isolation has also produced a you-leave-us-alone-and-we'll-leave-you-alone mentality. The mayor of Halabja, the city where Saddam used chemical weapons to massacre thousands in one day, wanted to make sure I understood this. "We never terrorized anyone in any country," he said. "We occupied no one's land. We defended ourselves with humble military force against a powerful enemy. We consider our nation a protector of human rights."

The mayor conveniently left out the terror campaign waged by the Marxist-Leninist Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in Turkey from the 1970s to the 1990s. The PKK was, after all, occasionally supported by some Kurdish groups in Iraq. Even so, several Kurds I spoke to thought the PKK was a strategic and moral disaster. "Abdullah Öcalan was our own Yasser Arafat," one person told me, referring to the PKK's former leader. "The difference between us and the Palestinians is that we learn from our mistakes."

The president of Dohok University, Asmat M. Khalid, whose office is in that city's old Ba'ath Party headquarters, told me the Kurds intend to build a new country with this idea as its foundation: "We have a different way of thinking here. We believe the key is to be civilized.…We don't want our new generation to be aggressive. We don't want them to have to fight. It is not our habit to kill." The Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) does what it can to broadcast this message to Arab Iraqis on its Arabic-language satellite station Il Takhi. Il takhi means brothers. There is no Arabic equivalent of such a channel in Kurdish.

I did sometimes hear Kurds expressing racist comments. Iqbal Ali Muhammad of the Kurdistan Islamic Union, a moderate Islamist organization that is the third largest party in Iraqi Kurdistan, bluntly said, "The Arab, he is wild. He is not a civilized person."

Funny place, Kurdistan. I have defended Arabs before. But I never expected to do so in front of a Middle Easterner who described himself as an Islamist. Iqbal patiently listened to what I had to say in defense of Arabs generally, if not in defense of Saddam Hussein's campaign of Black Arabism and genocide. I could tell I didn't convince him.

Arab Iraqis might not mind Kurdish independence as much as some expect. The Baghdad-based blogger Omar Fadhil wasn't allowed to meet me in Erbil because he's an Arab (more on that later), so he told me in an e-mail that maybe he could meet me someday when I "visit Iraq." It isn't just the Kurds who have come to internalize the border between this region and the rest of the country.

Schoolteacher Raz Rasool lived for a while in Baghdad before returning to Suleimaniya. She thinks that if the Kurds decide to secede most Arab Iraqis will shrug and say, "Fine then, get out"—at least as long as they don't try to take Kirkuk's oil fields with them. (Granted, that's a big if.)

"Arab Iraqis don't care about any of our problems in Kurdistan," Rasool said. "They think of our problems as our problems, not theirs. They don't care that the Turkish military has soldiers stationed in parts of northern Iraq. That's because they don't think about Kurdistan as part of Iraq. They only care about Kirkuk, and they only care about Kirkuk because of the oil."

Many Arab Iraqis aren't even aware that Saddam's regime committed genocide against Kurds. "A gum-smacking teenage Arab girl from Baghdad recently visited the genocide museum here," Rasool told me, referring to an old Ba'ath Party dungeon that has since been converted into a monument to the tortured and the dead. The girl had no idea hundreds of thousands were murdered. She had no idea 5,000 villages were completely annihilated. She didn't know that thousands, including children, were tortured to death in the prison blocks.

"She broke down in tears," Rasool said. "She only knew that Kurds were supposedly troublemakers. She said she was so sorry, that she was ashamed to be an Arab."

A Tightly Guarded Utah

Some Middle Eastern countries—Egypt, for instance—are grim, depressing places that feel like they're circling the drain. Iraqi Kurdistan is optimistic, full of hope, infused top to bottom with a go-go, build-build attitude. Vast tracts of lovely new housing developments are under construction all over the major cities. Suleimaniya, the region's cultural capital, has doubled in population in the last three years. It's up to around 800,000 now, although no one is sure how many people actually live there. Like all cities that undergo rapid urban migration, most of the newcomers live on the outskirts. Unlike most Third World cities that explode in population, the outskirts of Suleimaniya are more prosperous than the old inner city.

Urban beautification campaigns are under way everywhere. Freshly cut bricks are being laid into sidewalks. Enormous new parks, some so large you might need a car to get from one end to the other, can be found in both Erbil and Suleimaniya. Highways are well-signed and in perfect condition. Advertisements for DSL Internet connections line the road from Erbil to the resort town of Salahhadin. There are no statues of tyrants, dead or alive. Most of the statues I saw were of poets. It's a different world from the shattered country below. It's easy to imagine the place as a reasonably well-functioning conservative democracy, a moderately prosperous Utah of the Middle East.

The longer central Iraq burns, the more distant the Kurds feel from Baghdad. But while the Kurds may not feel like they belong to Iraq, they don't pretend they aren't still shackled to it.

Erbil's faux Sheraton is surrounded on four sides by six-inch thick concrete bomb blast walls. It isn't physically possible to drive anywhere near the front entrance, let alone park there. Well-armed soldiers at the far end of the driveway search every inch inside, outside, and underneath each car before manually lowering the saw-toothed tire-busting blockade. Security agents in a squat concrete building scrutinize everyone who walks toward the front door from behind one-way glass windows.

Erbil's international airport likewise is built with one-way glass. Step outside, turn around, and you'll find that you can't see a thing inside the terminal.

Every time I walked into a government office in Suleimaniya, security guards asked if I had any guns. I didn't, but there was always a pile of them on a table that others had dropped off before they were let inside.

I expected the Peshmerga to let me blow through the checkpoints with minimal hassle because I'm American. Instead, they scrutinized me just like everyone else. A couple of times I got pulled out of the line for even closer inspection. The soldiers were cold, serious professionals. The only people who have an easy time at these checkpoints are those who perfectly speak Kurdish with a local accent. That's the one trait that can't easily be faked, and it's the only trait that can be trusted.

Kurds love freedom, but they love checkpoints too; in general, they see them as the barrier that holds back the horrors from the south. People don't merely trust and appreciate the security. They feel it. A detached garden restaurant on the grounds of the "Sheraton" has all-glass walls on three sides. The only wall made of metal and stone is the one behind the well-stocked bar. Suburban Suleimaniya is a wonderland of brand-new modern shiny glass buildings. No one in their right mind in Baghdad would build brand-new structures like these.

During Beirut's civil war the profits of window and glass companies perfectly tracked the rise and fall of the level of violence. When people felt safe from the chaos of war, they replaced the windows blown out from bullets, rockets, and car bombs. When they felt under siege and pessimistic, they didn't bother. Iraqi Kurds are so optimistic they're putting up new glass buildings for the first time in their history.

There is some disgruntlement. I met a university professor who got so wound up in his opposition to both major parties I thought he might have a heart attack. "They are all corrupt!" he said as he flailed about in his chair. "All of them!" There is, indeed, an enormous amount of corruption. Leaders and functionaries in both parties take a cut from almost every business that matters. "And they want everyone to become a Peshmerga!" the professor exclaimed. "We have more generals than the Red Army!"

Perhaps the security apparatus is a bit overdone. Few Kurds are in the mood to take any chances, though. The Peshmerga are in charge of security here; the Iraqi army has been infiltrated by Ba'athists and isn't allowed anywhere inside the autonomous zone. Like most people, the Kurds believe a modern civilized country needs a state with a monopoly on the use of force. But they don't think the state in Baghdad is civilized yet.

The Peshmerga offered to patrol the roads in and out of Kirkuk, which is just outside Kurdish government territory. But the U.S. authority on the ground wouldn't have it. Arab tribes in the area might get twitchy about being policed by the Kurds.

The Kurds took the pushback in stride. The minister of the interior in Suleimaniya laughed out loud when I asked him how well they get along with the American military. "Ha ha ha, our relationship is very good," he said.

Racial Profiling, Kurdish-Style

It's certainly better than their relationship with Arabs. The Kurds may be the most liberal of Iraq's three dominant ethnicities, but they're the quickest to impose illiberal laws on everyone else. I learned that when Omar and Mohammad Fadhil, the bloggers behind Iraq the Model, drove up to Kurdistan from Baghdad to meet me at my hotel. They never made it. The Peshmerga told them Arabs were not allowed to enter the region without a Kurdish escort.

It was racial profiling at its worst. The Fadhils did nothing at all to deserve that kind of treatment. Two upstanding citizens were not allowed to visit a region in their own country for no reason except that they're Arabs. The Economist Intelligence Unit's Index of Political Freedom ranks Iraq the third freest Arab-majority country, after Lebanon and Morocco. Yet freedom of movement, one of the most basic freedoms, still doesn't exist. It's a one-way limitation too: Kurds can visit the north, center, and south of Iraq whenever they feel like it.

Meanwhile, the Kurdistan Regional Government actually provides money and housing for Arab Christians who want to pick up and resettle in the north. The overwhelming majority of Kurds are Sunni Muslims. Yet they discriminate against their fellow Sunnis in favor of "infidels."

Arab Muslims aren't barred from the region. They can visit as tourists, and they can buy new homes there. But they must have connections if they want to settle in Kurdistan, and they must prove they aren't a security threat before they can even show up.

And then there's Kirkuk. Perhaps nothing in all Iraq poses a bigger challenge to Western liberal principles than this city.

Kirkuk sits atop one of Iraq's biggest oil fields. It has always been an ethnically mixed city on the southernmost fringe of Iraqi Kurdistan. Today it lies just beyond the Kurdistan Regional Government's autonomous zone. From 1986 to 1989 Saddam Hussein ethnically cleansed a good portion of the Kurds who refused to change their ethnicity to "Arab," then moved more Arabs, Stalin-style, into the Kurds' former homes.

No ethnic group dominates the city today. Kurds, Sunni Arabs, Shia Arabs, Turkmen (Iraqi Turks who speak their own dialect of Turkish), and Assyrian and Chaldean Christians live cheek by jowl. It's a little Lebanon where everyone is a minority. And it's one of the worst tinderboxes in all of Iraq. Two violent incidents, from terrorism to kidnapping to sniping, occur every day in that city.

The Kurds want it back. They don't want to leave Iraq without the city they call "Our Jerusalem." Nor will they tolerate a federal Iraq that doesn't include Kirkuk in their autonomous zone.

I asked KDP Minister Falah Bakir what "Our Jerusalem" was all about. Is Kirkuk some kind of cultural capital? Is there a historic significance to the city that Westerners aren't aware of?

"No," he replied. "Kirkuk is part of Kurdistan. But it isn't 'Jerusalem.' Kirkuk is Kirkuk, just as Erbil is Erbil and Mosul is Mosul." It's just another Kurdish city, in other words. It was dubbed "Our Jerusalem" by Jalal Talabani as part of a P.R. campaign.

The Peshmerga could take Kirkuk militarily any time the order is given. But they're holding back. The Kurdistan Regional Government says it wants to take the city peacefully and with honor.

Trouble is, first they want to kick out the Arabs moved there by Saddam. Not all the Arabs. Those who lived there before the Arabization campaign, those who are actually from there, are welcome to stay. The Kurds swear they have no interest in creating an ethnic-identity state. They merely want, they insist, to make the city as safe and secure as Erbil, Suleimaniya, and Dohok.

South of the Peshmerga line, some towns with Sunni Arab majorities are forcibly evicting Shia Arabs at gunpoint, with rocket launchers, and without compensation. The Kurdistan Regional Government, by contrast, says it will financially compensate everyone asked to leave. Even so, reversing one population transfer with another isn't right. The Kurds seem to understand this, given that they're offering to pay damages to the evicted. They might not even care about the city's ethnic composition if Kirkuk weren't wracked with violence. But the city is a dangerous place, and the aftershocks of Saddam's divide-and-rule strategy are still explosive.

I didn't get to visit Kirkuk, but Guardian reporter Michael Howard knows the city well. "Many of the Arabs I've spoken to in Kirkuk are aware that they are in someone else's territory," he told me. The overwhelming majority of Kirkuk's residents eschew violence no matter what their politics might be. But there are just enough people who don't to turn the city into a looming mini-Yugoslavia.

Waiting to Jump

It's hard to say what will come next. The Kurds seem to know what they want, but even they have no idea what their next move is. If they declare independence today, Turkey very well may invade; the Turks dread nothing more than Turkish Kurdistan attaching itself to Iraqi Kurdistan. Or open war could break out between Kurdistan and what's left of Iraq. No one wants to lose the black gold mine in the earth beneath Kirkuk. Even the U.S. might not recognize an independent Kurdish state for the trouble it may cause if Ankara and Baghdad aren't persuaded to go along first.

The Kurds are patiently biding their time. But make no mistake: They aren't waiting to decide if they want to remain part of Iraq. They're waiting for just the right moment to jump.

Racial profiling may or may not outlast the war. Iraqi Kurds want to be protected from predominantly Arab terrorists. More than anything, though, they want self-determination for Kurds. How they treat their own ethnic minorities if they ever achieve independence will be a crucial first test. Are they really the kind of people they think they are?

On February 1, I had lunch in a restaurant in Dohok with my driver and translator. A music video played silently on a TV in the corner: a beautiful woman with flowing black hair singing what seemed to be a slow, quiet song.

"Is she a Kurdish singer?" I asked my translator.

"Look," he said. "She is at the oil fields of Kirkuk."

He was right. A flame shot out the top of a well.

"What's she singing about?" I asked.

I expected a heavy dose of Kurdish nationalism, but he surprised me. "A long time ago," he said, "before the Kurds knew Islam or science, when we still worshipped fire, Kirkuk was a mystical place. We did not know then what oil was. Flames came out of the earth."

On screen, the singer swayed slowly and sadly. "People used to go there and pray when they hoped to give birth to a son," my translator said. "She is there now asking for peace."