A decade af­ter the in­va­sion of Iraq, the Kurds emerge as sur­prise win­ners

The Kurdish Globe - - EDITORIAL - By Pa­trick Cockburn

The Kurds of Iraq are the big win­ners in the 10 years since the over­throw of Sad­dam Hus­sein. They have also been lucky. Up to a few weeks be­fore the in­va­sion in 2003, the US was in­tend­ing to in­vade north­ern Iraq from Turkey, along with 40,000 Turk­ish troops. The Kurds were hor­ri­fied at this, sus­pect­ing that once the Turks were in north­ern Iraq it would be im­pos­si­ble to get them out. I re­mem­ber the Kur­dish re­lief and ju­bi­la­tion when the Turk­ish par­lia­ment voted against par­tic­i­pat­ing in the US in­va­sion.

Er­bil, the Kur­dish cap­i­tal, was at that time a dis­mal, im­pov­er­ished place at the cen­tre of three Kur­dish prov­inces with de facto in­de­pen­dence from the rest of Iraq since 1991. But self-de­ter­mi­na­tion had come at the price of iso­la­tion and poverty. The moun­tains were bare, stripped of trees and bushes by peo­ple des­per­ate for fire­wood. In the mid­dle of mine­fields, along the Ira­nian bor­der at Pen­jwin, I came across vil­lagers who had a pe­cu­liarly dan­ger­ous oc­cu­pa­tion. They de­fused and dis­man­tled a jump­ing mine called the Val­mara in or­der to sell the ex­plo­sives, and the alu­minium in which they were wrapped, for a few dol­lars. The lo­cal ceme­tery was full of fresh graves and many vil­lagers were miss­ing hands and feet.

All this sounds like tales from a me­dieval past, given the present state of the five mil­lion peo­ple liv­ing un­der the Kur­dis­tan Re­gional Government (KRG). Er­bil to­day has a glossy new in­ter­na­tional air­port and its sky­line is bro­ken by the tow­ers of new five-star ho­tels. In con­trast to the rest of Iraq, life is safe and the elec­tric­ity sup­ply al­most con­tin­u­ous. New hous­ing and shop­ping malls have sprung up ev­ery­where.

Crit­ics ar­gue that there is rather less to this than meets the eye and the main ben­e­fi­ciary of Kur­dis­tan's eco­nomic pros­per­ity is the rul­ing elite. "We have plenty of new ho­tels," re­marked one jaun­diced Kur­dish observer, "but just try to find a de­cent school for your chil­dren or a hospi­tal for a sick rel­a­tive." Government sup­port­ers re­spond that 50 to 60 in­ter­na­tional oil com­pa­nies are look­ing for oil, the ho­tels and new apart­ments are full, and ev­ery week sees the ar­rival of a del­e­ga­tion of busi­ness­men from Turkey, Ger­many or the Gulf. The KRG ben­e­fits from be­ing one of the few places in the world seen as boom­ing at a time of re­ces­sion and stag­na­tion else­where.

A strik­ing change is in the coun­tries sur­round­ing Iraqi Kur­dis­tan. I was very in­ter­ested in th­ese places in early 2003 be­cause I was try­ing to reach Iraq in time for the start of the USled in­va­sion. I was cer­tain the government in Bagh­dad would not give me an en­try visa be­cause they dis­liked a book about Sad­dam Hus­sein I had writ­ten with my brother An­drew. I knew I would be wel­come in the Kur­dish en­clave, but it was dif­fi­cult to get there since it was vir­tu­ally be­sieged by neigh­bour­ing states – Turkey, Iran, Syria and Sad­dam Hus­sein's Iraq.

The prob­lem ap­peared de­press­ingly in­sol­u­ble un­til the Kurds per­suaded the Syr­i­ans that it was in their in­ter­est to al­low some for­eign jour­nal­ists to pass through Syria into Iraqi Kur­dis­tan. The jour­nal­ists would be able to pub­li­cise the Kurds' hos­til­ity to a Turk­ish in­va­sion of north­ern Iraq, some­thing both the Kurds and Syria wanted to avoid. I flew to Da­m­as­cus on a tourist visa, was driven for 10 hours, by a mem­ber of the Kur­dis­tan Demo­cratic Party, to the po­lice head­quar­ters in Qamishli in north­ern Syria. I waited in some trep­i­da­tion as a Syr­ian of­fi­cer leafed slowly through a large hand­writ­ten ledger to see if my name was among those al­lowed to cross the fron­tier. Fi­nally, his fin­ger stopped at an ap- prox­i­ma­tion to my name and I drove im­me­di­ately to the Ti­gris, on the far side of which was a sliver of ter­ri­tory con­trolled by the Kurds. I got into a tin boat with a splut­ter­ing out­board mo­tor, which slowly made its way across the river.

I spent the next three months in Kur­dis­tan in a ho­tel called the Dim Dim in Er­bil, which was low on crea­ture com­forts, but had the great ad­van­tage that I could use my satel­lite phone from my south-fac­ing room in­stead of hav­ing to clam­ber on to the roof. Peo­ple in Er­bil were in an edgy mood, hope­ful that Sad­dam would be over­thrown, but fear­ful that the Turks might in­vade along­side the Amer­i­cans. They were also fear­ful of a poi­son gas at­tack by Sad­dam, hav­ing ex­pe­ri­enced it first hand at Hal­abja in 1988. In the days be­fore the in­va­sion started, the city emp­tied of peo­ple, who took refuge in the coun­try­side. The few who re­mained bought plas­tic sheet­ing to cover win­dows and doors in a touch­ing ef­fort to keep out any gas.

The last weeks of peace and the short war that fol­lowed were filled with in­ci­dents that seemed omi­nous for the fu­ture of Iraq. The first Amer­i­can sol­diers I saw in Iraq were part of a US State De­part­ment se­cu­rity de­tail guard­ing Zal­may Khalilzad, the Afghan-born US diplo­mat, who was over­see­ing a con­fer­ence in­volv­ing the op­po­nents of Sad­dam Hus­sein. The US sol­diers stood in the driv­ing snow, en­forc­ing strin­gent search pro­ce­dures on ven­er­a­ble Shia cler­ics and be­mused Kur­dish mil­i­tary lead­ers, as well as on jour­nal­ists. "Stop film­ing and frig­ging lis­ten to me," shouted an Amer­i­can sol­dier. "This [the body search] is non­nego­tiable and any­one who doesn't like it can leave." At this stage, the Amer­i­cans did not much care what Iraqis thought of them.

All this seems like very an­cient his­tory th­ese days. Amer­i­can in­flu­ence di­min­ished af­ter its last sol­diers left at the end of 2011. In­stead of Turkey be­ing feared as a men­ace to the Iraqi Kurds, it has be­come their rein­sur­ance pol­icy against ac­tion by Bagh­dad. So de­pen­dent is the Kur­dish econ­omy on Turkey that some in Er­bil won­der if their lead­ers might not be mak­ing the same mis­take as in the past when they be­came over­re­liant on the US and Iran, both of which cyn­i­cally be­trayed them when it suited their in­ter­ests. Just at the moment, the Iraqi Kurds prob­a­bly do not have much choice other than look­ing to Turkey for sup­port.

Once the prospect of Turk­ish mil­i­tary in­ter­ven­tion dis­ap­peared in 2003, the Kurds were the only mil­i­tary ally of the US in north­ern Iraq with troops on the ground. They ex­ploited this cun­ningly, plac­ing them­selves un­der US com­mand and promis­ing not to cap­ture Kirkuk. I was not a great be­liever in this prom­ise at the time since I had run into a Kur­dish po­lice gen­eral in a re­splen­dent uni­form who told me that he was the di­rec­tor of traf­fic-des­ig­nate for Kirkuk once it had been taken. Ten years on, Kirkuk is firmly un­der Kur­dish con­trol, with no sign of ac­cep­tance of this by Bagh­dad or com­pro­mise over its fu­ture.

Key to Kur­dis­tan's success is se­cu­rity and there is no sign of this be­ing im­paired. But the coun­tries around the KRG are un­der stress, from civil war in Syria to smoul­der­ing guer­rilla war in south-east Turkey, ris­ing vi­o­lence in the rest of Iraq, and eco­nomic sanc­tions and re­gional set­backs in Iran. Th­ese trou­bles may one day punc­ture the Kur­dish boom and ex­pose it as frag­ile, but that day has not yet come.

Two men walk in­side the Naz City, a mod­ern res­i­den­tial com­pound in Er­bil, the cap­i­tal of Iraqi Kur­dis­tan Re­gion.

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