Future Still Uncertain for Kurdish Iraq

A soft, steady rain pockmarks the mud brick foundation of the Citadel—according to some estimates the longest continually inhabited spot on earth, and the dominating feature of metropolitan Erbil in northern Iraq. The view from atop this massive mud mound is impressive: radiating out in all directions from the Citadel, modern-day Erbil spreads into the gloomy mist as far as the eye can see. But more remarkable still are the myriad cranes crowding out ancient minarets as the defining features of the Erbil skyline, and the buzz of jackhammers and other construction tools that even up high in the Citadel drown out the light patter of raindrops landing in puddles
at your feet.

This is the heart of the “other” Iraq, according to local enthusiasts, a Western-friendly enclave marked by peace, security, and the industrious pursuit of prosperity. Throughout the country’s Kurdish-dominated autonomous zone, all the hallmarks of successful state-building are seemingly on display to guests from abroad. From the laying of modern roads to the building of new schools and state-of-the-art skyscrapers, as well as the almost obsessive attentions of ubiquitous security forces, the north of Iraq stands in stark contrast to the chaos and uncertainty plaguing the county’s south. Yet while the gains in the north are impressive, at least on their face, I found while there that the region must still contend with a number of challenges that render its future far from certain. 

I had entered Iraq overland a week earlier through the border town of Zahko which hugs the Turkish frontier, where I hired Mohammed, a chain-smoking taxi driver, to bring me to the country’s northernmost city of prominence, Dohuk. The journey there begins with a chaotic tangle of dusty, dilapidated roads snaking through mountains and farmland drained of their color by the sun and drought. Any feelings of passing through the bleached landscape of an old photograph soon subside, however, on the approach to Dohuk. Here, the countryside gives way to the most extraordinarily emerald pastures—electric greens familiar to northernmost Syria—framed by the gentle slopes of a purple-tinted mountain range to the east. As he tore through at breakneck speed what seemed to be endless waves of lumbering lorries on their way to and from Turkey, Mohammed waved a cigarette out the window, smiling. “Iraq,” he said, clearly
pleased. “Beautiful.”

Dohuk itself offers a glimpse into the Iraq of neo-con wet dreams. The city boasts a rapidly developing infrastructure, street graffiti celebrating Eminem, an American style mega-mall, bustling markets, and the reputation as a safe weekend getaway for vacationing American GIs. Indeed, the groups of troops I saw there were treated like celebrities, unfailingly followed by a paparazzi of young men and women asking for photographs and contact info. Alarmingly, the downtown hotel I checked into featured a large portrait of George W. Bush in its foyer, and the hotel manager—an Adidas tracksuit-wearing, Raul Julia carbon-copy—feigned disappointment to learn I was not a distant relative of the former president.

Similar displays of explicitly pro-American sympathies are not as easily found south of Dohuk, but the trappings of a nascent prosperity have taken hold in urban areas throughout the Kurdish controlled north. The imperial splendor of the main road alone that leads into the regional capital Erbil—miles of magnificently massive, arching light posts hanging over the four-lane highway—its state of the art international airport, and the formidable bomb-blast walls surrounding the fancy, VIP-only Sheraton hotel, unquestionably announce the city’s ambitious pretensions to twenty-first century regional dominance.  

More impressive still, perhaps, the southeastern city of Sulimaniyah—long considered a free-spirited hotbed of liberalism and resistance to outside influence, not to mention a persistent thorn in the side of Saddam Hussein’s regime—has been tamed by the twin influences of Iranian investment and an American University. All over the city, construction teams frame high-rise office buildings, money-lenders hawk impossibly tall piles of Iranian rials, and young people practice their English in cafes advertising wifi, Red Bull, and “Kan Tucky Fried Chiken.”

Yet evidence supporting the arguments that Kurdish Iraq offers a model for the rest of the country to follow in order to achieve peace and stability are largely confined to urban centers, and belied by a number of sobering realities. Chief among them is the violent anarchy destroying any hope for a normal life in the northern cities of Mosul and Kirkuk. Both cities—the most ethnically and religiously diverse spots in the country—feature highly combustible mixtures of Sunni and Shia Arabs, Kurds and Turkomen, and a slew of other religious minorities including Assyrian Christian and Yazidi groups. As it happens, both cities also sit astride massive oil deposits, and therefore, not surprisingly, have served as playgrounds for the sometimes violent power struggles between regional Kurdish authorities and the central government in Baghdad. These contests for control have left power vacuums filled by unbridled sectarian violence and mark the cities as virtual no-go zones for outsiders.

When I told the hotel manager in Dohuk that I planned on traveling to Erbil, he cautioned me that under no circumstances was I to leave the Kurdish-controlled roads as the route between the two cities passes through the Mosul suburbs. “You’ll be killed,” he said with a frightening matter-of-factness. And with reason: a full-blown ethnic cleansing continues apace throughout Mosul, where Assyrian Christian communities have been the most recent victims of death squad violence that some observers suggest may involve Kurdish security forces and police. A Human Rights Watch report from late 2009 warns that firm evidence pointing the finger of responsibility at any particular party is lacking, though the authors outline possible motivations for Kurdish complicity.

“Kurdish-dominated security forces were in charge of security in the area the attacks took place, [leading some to suggest] that the murder campaign was designed to undermine confidence in the central government’s security forces. From this perspective, the attacks created an opportunity for the [Kurdish authorities] to appear benevolent before the Christian community and the world by subsequently providing shelter, security, and financial assistance to those who fled the attacks into Kurdistan, strengthening the Kurdish hand in any upcoming referendum
or election.”

While Kurdish authorities have predictably denied these allegations and pinned blame on Shiite militias with ties to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, it increasingly appears that whomever lies behind the bloodshed serves as a proxy for interest groups situated in Baghdad. This suspicion was reinforced further when the Islamic State of Iraq, an umbrella organization with direct links to al-Qaeda—and known for its eager pursuit of publicity—denied any responsibility whatsoever for the recent spate of violence in Mosul.

Christians and other minority groups have also been the targets of choice in Kirkuk of late. While the violence there has not exhibited the same characteristics of systematized execution as in Mosul, the results have been no less horrific. Most recently, insurgent groups have carried out attacks on Christian businessmen, and have continued their practice of assassinating municipal security forces, routine violence which has claimed the lives of hundreds of police officers over the past few years. While the social disintegrations in Kirkuk and Mosul has until recently been confined to the city limits—and therefore has not been much of a concern to regional authorities or the American military—the cancerous destruction has recently spread to surrounding areas. Gangland-style takeovers of nearby villages has prompted fears that Kurdish security forces are losing territorial control to increasingly brazen local mafias and terrorist groups which, if true, casts the entire region’s future security in doubt. The seriousness of the this developing threat was underscored while I was there by the announcement of by General Raymond Odierno, commander of all American forces in Iraq, that he was ordering US troops to the area to help Kurdish security personnel reassert coercive authority
in the area. 

Yet beyond the headline-grabbing violence crippling Mosul and Kirkuk, the dispossession and violence allowed along Iraq’s rural borders with Iran and Turkey more immediately undermines confidence in the country’s future. A teacher working in the northern provinces who I meet in Erbil—who I’ll call Dadyar—dismisses the evident progress enjoyed by Dohuk, Erbil, and Sulimaniyah as nothing more than window dressing obscuring the reality of life for Kurds living far from any of the urban power centers. “All the construction, the tall buildings, the expensive shops, this is all for show,” says Dadyar with disgust. [The Kurdish president of Iraq, Jalal] Talabani knows what investors want to see and he gives it to them. You visit the cities, you see one Iraq. But in the small villages, things are very different. It is bad.”

 Dadyar’s alternative perspective on Kurdish stability is endorsed by Michele Naar-Obed, a peace activist and diligent chronicler of deprivation in the Kurdish north. According to Naar-Obed, whom I meet in Sulimaniyah, life is a shambles. Vulnerable populations there have been largely ignored by Baghdad and regional authorities and forgotten by the West. She notes that nearly one million Kurds have been internally displaced since 1990, a situation that has not been adequately addressed, and with no immediate remedy forthcoming from the powers that be.

“As internally displaced people (IDPs),” Naar-Obed recently wrote, “they are not entitled to the same provisions and services from the United Nation High Commissioner for Refugees as refugees [are afforded]. They are more dependent on their government to protect and provide for them,” a government that is more concerned with political bureaucratic infighting in Baghdad than in serving its most vulnerable citizens along the border, not to mention
hopelessly corrupt.

Naar-Obed acknowledges that in the Kurdish-controlled west, regional authorities have “built collective townships for the IDPs.” But “they have not been able to reclaim their lives and their livelihoods. They live in slums and have become dependent on government subsistence. They describe themselves as spiritually dead.” 

Meanwhile, as Turkish and Iranian entrepreneurs invest heavily in Iraq’s northern cities, their sponsoring governments continue quietly prosecuting low-grade sectarian wars against communities of borderland Iraqi Kurds. Recent months have witnessed repeated incursions into Iraqi territory by Turkish troops to the north (supposedly prompted by tips from American intelligence) and shelling by Iranian forces in the east (reportedly supported by Turkish surveillance aircraft).

The fear motivating Iranian, Turkish, and to a lesser extent, Syrian foreign policy towards Kurdish Iraq centers on the belief that Kurdish leaders are feverishly planning independence. To be sure, the inevitability of Kurdish succession from Iraq—and attendant uprisings by Kurdish populations throughout the region—has become conventional wisdom if not an outright article of faith among decision makers in Tehran, Istanbul, Damascus and Washington.

The haunting specter of an independent Kurdistan triggering not only a redrawing of the Middle Eastern map but also massive bloodshed in the process was provocatively and neatly anatomized by Jeffrey Goldberg in a recent issue of The Atlantic Monthly. Yet while Goldberg is undeniably correct that modern Middle Eastern borders are merely Western fabrications that poorly reflect real lines of political influence, the prospect of a region-wide liberation struggle for a Kurdish state is remote.

“Only fools and liars seriously talk about an independent Kurdistan,” says Hawar Salih as we drive through the gorgeous mountains surrounding the small town of Koyo. A dapper, American-educated scientist—and former bureaucrat in the Ministry of Agriculture during the days of Saddam Hussein—Salih provides me with a brief lesson in the environmental destruction visited upon his country as a consequence of foreign-imposed sanctions on the Hussein regime following the American invasion in 1991. As the scarred and deforested mountain landscape zips by my backseat window, Salih nimbly avoids directly answering my questions about local politics. But when I touch on the subject of succession, he becomes unexpectedly animated.

“If you think about it for even a moment, you can see why it makes no sense. If the Kurds declare the north as their own country, the Turks, Iranians and Syrians would suffocate the economy. Any Kurdistan would be completely landlocked and dependent on [its neighbors] for trade. The way it is now, the Kurds are officially Iraqis and so everyone is happy. And everyone is making money.”

This may be true for the moment, but many people I spoke with fear that any gains made in the north since the American invasion in 2003 could be undone by the rapidly approaching national elections. On March 7, Iraqis will go to the polls to elect local representatives and a new national government. Yet the initial celebration at Iraq’s supposed transition to democracy were quickly muted as the country’s prime minister that over 500 candidates for office nationally would be barred from running for office.

That the vast majority of these candidates are former Sunni Baathists was not lost on local populations, prompting Sunni leaders and informed observers to predict major unrest in the lead-up to election. A State Department official with considerable experience in Iraq spoke to me off the record about his pessimistic assessment of Iraq’s future. “To be honest, I’ve given up on the [Iraqi] Arabs. They haven’t demonstrated the ability or desire to move forward in a meaningful way. The Kurds are a different story. They’re organized and they’re attracting investment. But I don’t see any solutions in sight for the Arabs, and the elections are going to undo the progress that has been made. We’re going to see a lot more violence late in February.” He worried that a new outbreak of sectarian strife would threaten not only the central state, but the northern reaches of Iraq as well. “I’ll tell you one thing: I’m getting the hell out of here. It’s going to be ugly.”

The violence began much sooner than he thought. Two days later, on January 25, a series of coordinated explosions ripped through three hotels in downtown Baghdad. Gunman stormed the Sheraton, Babylon, and Hamra hotels, killing security staff and clearing the way for a second wave of attackers who drove vans packed with explosives into the buildings, leaving nearly forty dead and another seventy people injured. The following afternoon, a car bomb detonated just outside the Interior Ministry’s capital headquarters taking eighteen lives and injuring over eighty Iraqis, most of them neighborhood locals.

Violent episodes continued to mount throughout the first weeks of February. One young woman marked the beginning of a new month by blowing herself up in the middle of a major transportation hub just north of Baghdad, taking the lives of over fifty people, most of them Shi’ite pilgrims on their way to the holy city of Karbala, and leaving another hundred people badly hurt. In an apparent retaliatory attack, a bomb detonated hours later in Baghdad’s mainly Sunni neighborhood of Daura. While the explosion thankfully left behind no dead bodies, it sent over a dozen civilians to the hospital.

Yet despite the steady bursts of violent destruction peppering the Iraqi map, the Kurdish north continues to enjoy relative stability. How long this peaceful status quo remains intact, however, is anyone’s guess. Some Kurds see the election as the most critical moment in Iraq’s history since the 2003 invasion. Numerous people I spoke with—Kurds, Arabs, and Americans alike—expressed fear that the clearly undemocratic nature of the election would give the US government an excuse to abandon their nearly eight year occupation of the country, which might entice unfriendly neighbors at home and abroad to invade and wreak havoc in Kurdish territory. On the flip side, a smooth electoral process may produce similar outcomes if the United States interprets the results as the culminating event in a job well-done shepherding Iraq toward a democratic future. Either way, March brings uncertainty. 

On the next-to-last last day of my time in Iraq, I met with a group of students in the central square of Sulimaniyah’s Grand Bazaar. The students were eager to know about life in the United States, and asked if I had travelled through any of Europe. I told them I had, and asked if any of them had as well. All shook their heads no. As it turned out, none had been beyond the Kurdish line of control within the country. Obtaining foreign visas and permission to leave were near impossible without significant financial means to which none had access. “Here is like a prison,” one student said. “A big, beautiful prison.” The observation initially struck me as a sad admission of the inherent trade-offs for peace in post-Saddam Hussein Iraq. But what he said next made me appreciate the metaphor in a slightly different light. “We are forced to stay in, but the guards keep all the bad
stuff out.” 

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