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?”
It’s a pitch you’re bound to hear if you ever meet an Iraqi Kurd. And if for some reason you ever visit their indeed beautiful land, you’ll hear it every day. It’s hard to fathom at times, but most Kurds are on the same sheet of music when it comes to promoting their country. And what music it is.
“We’re Kurds, but we’re never against anyone,” Kurdish general Anwar Dolani said in Sulaymaniyah in March. “Our goal is every human on earth considering every other human equal.”
Eight months later, in Erbil, Kurdistan director of archaeology Kanan Mufti sings the same tune. “The Kurdish people is the only people in the Middle East with respect for other nations,” he says over tea and cigarettes. “We used to cohabitate in a brotherly fashion with Jews. Now we have the district of Ankawa populated by Christians. Kurds have been oppressed, but they oppress no one.”
Mufti is a brother of PUK bigwig Adnan Mufti, currently speaker of the regional assembly. Kanan Mufti is also an unofficial ambassador of Kurdistan. He receives journalists, academics, and foreign dignitaries in his well-appointed two-story home.
He’s not the only one. In only his first three days in Erbil, this reporter accepts dozens of invitations to share tea, cigarettes, and meals with gregarious Kurds, some of them party officials, others just everyday joes. The ensuing conversations are almost always the same.
Shrzad Farmin Jacob, a Christian who spent 10 years in Abu Ghraib back when it was one of Saddam’s dreaded prisons, and who assisted American forces during the 2003 invasion, asks point-blank why the U.S. doesn’t invest more in local industry suffering from a lack of financing—a problem that sparked the 1994 Kurdish civil war.
Adnan Mufti doesn’t beg. Taking a break from a press conference with local journalists, he expresses similar desires in more diplomatic language. He says the December 15 elections are important because they will mean a new government and new laws that will reinvigorate the U.S.-Iraqi partnership: “To struggle together against terrorists and terrorism and to have a new Iraq federation respecting human rights . . . that’s why our people suffered, to have this one day.”
In this reporter’s experience, “human rights” is Kurdish code for “Kurdish rights.” Adnan Mufti is too clever not to couch his regional patriotism—and his desire for more U.S. involvement in Kurdistan—in federal Iraqi terms.
By contrast, city health official Ali Abdula Maloud, 55, isn’t afraid to be blunt. “It’s obvious that the goal of the American government is to build democracy in the entire Middle East,” he says. “And as Kurds, we consider ourselves strategic allies to the U.S. government.”
But there’s a catch, isn’t there?
Yes, according to 43-year-old teacher Bayan Mohammed Salah. She laments that the Kurds have been oppressed and suggests that the U.S. could right this wrong by pressuring the Iraqi government to extend Kurdistan’s autonomy south past Kirkuk, which commands a quarter of Iraq’s oil reserves.
The Kirkuk problem has long tainted the otherwise congenial U.S.-Kurdish alliance. Kurdish dominion over Kirkuk might solve the financing problem that caused a war and hamstrings regional industry. But it would also cost Baghdad billions annually in oil revenue and likely instigate major fighting between Kirkuk’s evenly divided Sunni Arab, Shiite, and Kurdish communities. According to U.S. Army officers, keeping the Kurdish regional government away from Kirkuk is an American objective.
So is keeping Kurdistan part of Iraq.
Kanan Mufti wonders why Kurds don’t get more respect—and why they don’t have independence, saying, “We are doing better than most peoples with their own states.”
In a sense, Kurdistan is a victim of its own success. It’s the most stable and peaceful region of Iraq. Uncounted thousands of Arabs have fled other Iraqi cities to settle in Erbil and Sulaymaniyah. Without Kurdistan, where would they go?
So far cornered by U.S. refusal to sponsor either independence or a bold move on Kirkuk, the Kurds can only beg, plead, and lobby for investment and recognition.
In downtown Erbil, the pre-election celebrations and joyrides come to an abrupt halt at the stroke of midnight on December 15, when a citywide curfew comes into effect. Widespread fears of terrorist attacks underline the region’s usual paranoia. Police and military patrols replace colorful crowds. No cars are on the streets but those registered to elections workers, the police, the army, or journalists. It’s a rare quiet night.
In the morning, first in trickles, then in droves, many of Erbil’s 1.2 million residents head on foot to their nearest polling places, running gauntlets of uniformed, heavily armed security forces to mark paper ballots, dip their fingers in red ink, and wave at banks of TV cameras on their way out. As polls start to close, with 730 favored to sweep, the jubilation defies even the curfew and the armed men occupying every street corner.
With the ILK’s Islamist advance apparently staved off for an election cycle and another peaceful election broadcast for all the world to see, the Kurds have at least held the line, and maybe had some success selling themselves to the world.
At the base of the ancient citadel, where Kurdish fighters have resisted their enemies for millennia, hundreds of young men dance to loud cheery music that’s a catchy mix of traditional and modern, like the Kurds themselves.