Free of Saddam, Iraq's Kurds build a new home
Christian Science Monitor
by Scott Peterson
April 18, 2002
SULAYMANIYAH AND DAHUK, NORTHERN IRAQ -At the University of
Suleimani's Internet cafe, standing-room-only crowds of
news-hungry students and teachers surf around the world 12 hours
At a sprawling supermarket in Dahuk, a city about 180 miles
away, up to 2,000 shoppers a day snap up items ranging from
ultra-high-tech plasma TV screens to American peanut butter and
jelly – and check out at registers that read bar codes.
Can this be Kurdistan?
The snapshots of modernity and consumerism seem unlikely in a
part of Iraq best known for being remote, embattled, and
Surrounded by wary neighbors with their own restive Kurdish
populations, the ethnic Kurds in this landlocked region of
northern Iraq have been subject to periodic attacks by Baghdad
for decades. Conflicts between Kurdish factions in the mid-1990s
added to the violence.
But an inter-Kurdish peace agreement – and a tiny share of cash
from Iraq's oil-for-food deal with the UN that softened economic
sanctions against Iraq – are buoying recovery. Overhead, US air
patrols, begun after Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein's brutal
suppression of a 1991 Kurdish uprising, continue to guard this
so-called "safe haven."
"People are feeling good, feeling stable," says a Western ex-UN
official with long experience in northern Iraq. "Three years
ago, they couldn't say that. People are feeling freer, and
In their exuberance, Kurds are juxtaposing old and new:
Traditional singing and shoulder-to-shoulder dancing at the
Nowruz spring festival this year were punctuated with the
ringing of mobile phones, for example.
Kurdistan's surprising transformation is taking place within
artillery range of Iraqi forces loyal to Baghdad. While many
note that Kurds have never before enjoyed such liberty or
extensive self-rule – and therefore might be reluctant to risk
helping American forces in any future effort to topple Saddam
Hussein – Kurds say that they are willing to play a key role.
"We are in a paradox," explains Hoshyar Zabari, a senior leader
of the Kurdistan Democratic Party, one of two main rival Kurdish
factions. "We are happy with what we have, and we don't want to
lose it. On the other hand, it is insecure, and the only way to
create a secure future is to remove the mortal threat of this
Few turnarounds have been as dramatic as that in northern Iraq.
In 1991, more than 1.5 million Kurds – nearly half the
population – fled across the border to Turkey and Iran. Fleeing
Hussein's forces, Kurds left with only the clothing on their
backs, and many perished in snow- and sleet-blasted refugee
camps. Others died later during fighting among Kurds themselves.
Today, says the former UN official, the rivalry between the
Kurdish factions – the KDP, which rules in the western half of
the safe zone and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), which
rules the east – is close to resolution.
Kurds on both sides of the party divide voice high hopes for the
"That's where they are building the McDonald's," says a PUK
guide in Sulaymaniyah, pointing out a half-finished building. In
the KDP-controlled city of Arbil, an advertisement for
McDonald's has been painted on a new stadium, though no
franchise yet exists.
The sense of moving forward – despite the possibility of a
US-led war against Baghdad later this year, or in early 2003 –
also inspires young Kurdish visitors from Europe and may help
reverse the extensive emigration out of northern Iraq.
"I feel like I am being born again here," says Murat Mert, an
aeronautical engineer living in Stockholm, and a Kurd of Turkish
extraction who is considering a move to northern Iraq to help
rebuild. "This is the only place where one can live like a
That means self-sufficiency for many Kurds – and not relying on
help from wary neighbors like Turkey, Syria, and Iran, which
have checkered histories in dealing with their own Kurdish
The bridges to independence include such projects as a small oil
refinery launched in 1996 by the PUK, and made of cannibalized
parts of abandoned factories. The operating motto, says Rashid
Khoshnaw, technical director of the 3,000 barrels-per-day
operation, is: "Where there is a well, there is a way."
"Before, there was nothing here. All you see here was once
scrap," Mr. Khoshnaw says during a tour among the tangles of oil
pipes. "That distillation tower was a pipe brought by the
Iranians years ago for a road-works project. The steel plates on
the boiler are from an old cement factory."
Kurds say they hope their progress will serve as an example of
change to their fellow Iraqis – one that can be applied
everywhere in the country to change the current repressive
Despite multiple setbacks, Kurdish leaders say they have matured
in critical ways. "We have a clean government," says Sami
Abdurahman, the septuagenarian deputy prime minister of the
KDP's portion of northern Iraq, and a former guerrilla fighter
who began "working for the cause" in the late 1950s.
"Those who lead have spent their lives as partisans. They know
how strenuously our people have suffered. We've all seen a
friend fall beside us," Mr. Abdurahman says. "Some 200,000
people sacrificed their lives for this day."