Iraqi Kurds dance to a different tune
by Roshan Muhammed Salih
6 April 2004 /IRBIL
Unlike Arab compatriots, most Kurds welcome the occupation
Kurdistan comes straight out of a US government press release. It is a place
where people look you straight in the eye and, without a hint of irony, call
foreign occupation forces "liberators"
Unlike most other parts of Iraq - where people are actively hostile towards, or
barely tolerate, the foreign invaders - Kurds do not feel the strains of
While Shia and Sunni Muslims have been fighting Americans in and around Baghdad
in the past few days, Kurds on the streets of Arbil condemn anti-US attacks as
A recent poll by foreign broadcasters that suggested most Iraqis were happier
since the US-led invasion a year ago was heavily influenced by Kurdish
The survey found only one in three Arabs believed their country was liberated -
compared to four out of five Kurds.
And if Kurdistan were Iraq writ large, then you might just believe the US had
won the battle for Iraqi hearts and minds.
The road from Baghdad to Kurdistan is littered with so many checkpoints you
eventually lose count. After recent bombings in several Kurdish cities that have
left scores dead, the Kurds clearly do not want troublemakers on their soil.
An oil-rich region in northern Iraq, Kurdistan has four million people (around
20% of Iraq's population) and has been virtually self-ruled since 1991 under US
Its pro-Western leaders Jalal Talabani and Masud Barzani were both instrumental
in helping the Americans topple Saddam Hussein last year.
The region itself has a different feel from the rest of Iraq. It is verdant and
mountainous, the people speak a different language, dress differently and fly
their own national flag. It is a metaphor, perhaps, for the different state of
mind you encounter when entering Kurdish territory.
There are no gun-toting foreign soldiers seen elsewhere in Iraq, nor helicopters
Dr Sherzad Amin al-Najjar, of Arbil's Salah al-Din University, told
Aljazeera.net life in Kurdistan had improved considerably in the past year.
"The threat of Saddam invading Kurdish areas has been hanging over our heads for
years," he said. "Like the Shia in the south, we have suffered greatly at his
hands but we are now free from the fear of Saddam and we still have our
Al-Najjar said ordinary Kurds had particularly noticed the economic benefits of
"People's standards of living have gone up in the last year. The Coalition
Provisional Authority has put a lot of money into this area as have UN agencies.
There has especially been a lot of construction of roads, schools and water
"As a result of this political stability, there have been many social and
psychological benefits. The only negative thing is there is more terrorism here
now, which didn't exist before."
And al-Najjar is quick to thank the Americans for these changes. "The Americans
have played a big part in improving our lives. So there isn't the hostility
towards the US soldiers here that there is in other parts of Iraq.
"People in Kurdistan welcomed the American action last year and they are happy
for the Americans to stay for a while until the country is secure. Personally, I
think the Americans will stay for a long time."
But al-Najjar is circumspect when questioned about what many Iraqis fear that
the goal of the oil-rich Kurds is to eventually break away from the rest of the
"There is a difference between what people want and what they will get," he
"Outside powers would not accept Kurdish independence because this could
threaten the territorial integrity of many countries. So we are realistic and we
are content with a certain autonomy within a federal Iraq."
He added: "Democracy means that no one party can get 100% of what it wants
Iraqis have to learn this.
"But I think democracy is a problem in Iraq because normally it is preceded by
economic, political and social foundations. We don't have that here in Iraq."
These sentiments are repeated in the streets of Arbil as if all Kurds speak in
Both young and old seem to agree the American invasion brought the Kurds
liberation, but are content to remain an autonomous part of a federal Iraq.
Muhsin Majid, a cafeteria owner, told Aljazeera.net there was more work and
better salaries in Kurdistan since the Americans had come.
Dalshad Hasan Rasul, a sweet shop owner, said the American intervention has
brought Iraqis closer together because of the absence of Saddam.
And Balin Zain Ali, a waiter, called anti-US resistance fighters "terrorists" or
Words of dissent are definitely in the minority, and mostly uttered by
My Arab Sunni driver and Arab Shia researcher, both from Baghdad, say they feel
like foreigners in their own country. They predict in 10 years the Kurds will
break away from the rest of Iraq and take the region's oil with them.
And an Arbil-based Kurdish journalist warns that people in the streets are only
parroting the words of their pro-Western leaders and are not thinking long-term.
"It is true that in the short term people in Kurdistan have benefited to a
greater extent than anywhere else in Iraq," he said. "But what they are doing
now is supping with the devil."
"History teaches us that every American intervention in the Middle East has been
a disaster. We have got rid of Saddam but now we have sold the country down the
river to the Americans."