Selling Kurdistan

With the rest of Iraq descending into civil war, Kurds hard-sell their state within a state

 Erbil, Iraq—For days leading up to the December 15 federal elections, this northern city hosts what is probably the world's biggest round-the-clock outdoor party.

Kurds in traditional dress—the men in drab trousers and tunics, the women in colorful sequined dresses—join Chaldean Christians, Muslim Arab refugees, and even a small but growing contingent of formerly expatriate Iraqi Jews on Erbil's wide laneless streets. In parks and at the base of the city's 10,000-year-old citadel, there is dancing, pickup soccer matches, and appearances by local celebrities and politicians. Iraqi and foreign journalists move through the crowds with TV cameras and notepads, their interpreters and producers in tow. At night, with the moon illuminating the ancient, towering citadel, phalanxes of young men driving compact cars adorned with Kurdistan's red, white, and green flag honk their horns as they speed past hotels crowded with reporters and election observers.

It's either the shared joy of liberated peoples or some kind of spontaneous popular marketing campaign for the region—or both.

Kurdistan is a strange place, an essentially independent, albeit unofficial, state inside the borders of another country—a country that for decades did everything in its power to displace, kill, and oppress Kurdistan's peoples. Kurdish freedom fighters, the peshmerga, had fought for independence since Iraq's inception in the wake of World War I. But it wasn't until the U.S.-led coalition gutted Saddam Hussein's army in 1991 that the peshmerga managed to permanently hold any territory, the northern quarter of Iraq surrounding the cities of Erbil in the west and Sulaymaniyah in the east. With U.S. and British fighter jets patrolling overhead, the Kurds spent the next decade establishing a democratically elected national assembly, an army and police force, and two rival political parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), based in Erbil, and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, or PUK, based in Sulaymaniyah. In 1994, squabbles over regional finances sparked war between the KDP and PUK. It took the personal intervention of Bill Clinton's secretary of state Madeleine Albright in 1997 to stop the fighting.

When U.S.-led forces invaded Iraq in 2003, the two parties saw an opportunity. In January 2005, they fielded a single slate of candidates for Iraq's constitutional assembly. Despite Kurds' representing just 15 percent of Iraq's population, the coalition managed to win a quarter of the seats, not to mention the presidency for charismatic PUK frontman Jalal Talabani. Now the KDP and PUK function as one (from two comfortably distant headquarters), commanding the loyalty of all but a sliver of Kurdistan's 5 million people and lobbying hard for Kurdish causes. While Sunni Arab central Iraq suffers through its third year of war and Shiite southern Iraq increasingly becomes an adjunct of Islamic Iran, Kurdistan moves from strength to strength. Its streets are made safe by Kurdish soldiers and policemen, its population swells with refugees and returning expatriates, its economy booms with small businesses and two new international airports, and its leverage in Baghdad is increasing.

Kurdistan's unity has paid dividends. But there are splits in the seams. A scramble for investment and resurgent political strife could spell an end to Kurdistan's relative peace and prosperity.

Gnawing at the edges of Kurdistan's prosperity is a dearth of resources. While rich in land and labor, Kurdistan lacks access to Iraq's oil and has never received the kind of investment that might jump-start a service economy.

More immediately foreboding is the prospect of another Kurdish schism like that between the KDP and PUK before 1997. Alongside radical Islamic political parties all over the Middle East, the Islamic League of Kurdistan, or ILK, has been gaining in power and popularity lately, sparking lethal riots in cities across Kurdistan and threatening to upset the carefully modulated multiculturalism that is one of the region's major selling points.

In an effort to thwart the ILK, the KDP and PUK reinvigorated their electoral alliance, forging a slate of candidates that locals call "730." All over KDP- controlled Erbil this month, 730's slogans and posters were, unsurprisingly, the only ones in evidence. Erbil anti-corruption agent Luqman Khedir, despite railing at the KDP's apparent violation of campaigning laws, stressed that the ILK must not gain inroads on election day: "We cannot give the future to Islamists."

But ILK isn't the region's only foe, and even if 730 sweeps the Kurdish vote, as seemed likely late last week, KDP and PUK supporters know they must work quickly to safeguard Kurdistan's progress. To this end, Kurds have become relentless self-promoters, pitching for aid and recognition with characteristic unity.

At the Frankfurt airport awaiting a $1,000, five-hour red-eye flight to Erbil in early December is a bewildering cast of characters: wealthy British-educated Kurdish expats, a sleazy Kurdish American bachelor from Virginia, Kurdish families with three or more screaming kids and hundreds of pounds of plastic-wrapped luggage, a gruff Canadian oil explorer, a liquored-up Dutch human rights activist, and a gaggle of journalists. The non-Kurds are a stoic bunch, but even their long stares can't deter the Kurds from making their usual pitch, the one that begins with "Kurdistan is a beautiful place . . . " and often ends with the question "Why doesn't the U.S. invest more in us?"

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