With much of Iraq mired in sectarian conflict for nigh-on a decade, its semi-autonomous northern region, Kurdistan, seems a beacon of progress in comparison. As opposed to the brutality and dysfunction of post-invasion Iraq, the region’s oil bounty has seen it boom under the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) since 2003. Per capita, GDP for its five million residents has grown tenfold, alongside lucrative trade and foreign investment, and the air in Erbil is thick with the dust of round-the-clock construction.
Despite internal squabbling, Kurdish politicians also wrangled themselves some leverage in Baghdad, with strong constitutional protections, a number of federal MPs and Iraq’s first post-Saddam and non-Arab President, the incumbent Jalal Talabani. As well as all this, the level of everyday stability and security enjoyed by Kurds remains the stuff of fantasy for most Iraqis.
The ubiquity of the Peshmerga guerrillas, now turned Kurdish national army, and the Asaish secret police force is rivalled only by the number of personal civilian firearms (even the local florist has a gun). After a century as the victims of colonialism, geopolitics and genocide, there is a palpable determination that the Kurds will not be screwed over by anyone again, ever.
“Through our whole history, people have tried to control us,” says Asos, a 24-year-old university student and member of the ruling clan of KRG Prime Minister Barzani. “And now we want to be the ones in control.”
Construction in Kurdistan.
The incendiary dispute over who controls who – or, importantly, what – in Iraq has been reignited in recent months in what many are calling the outset of civil war. About a year ago, it appeared that Iraq had achieved an unhappy balance in power-sharing between its three main Shi’a, Sunni and Kurdish communities. With the historic Sunni monopoly diminished since the fall of Saddam, a Shi’a-Kurdish alliance held sway in Baghdad, governing under the evermore centralised grip of Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki and his coterie.
However, the Sunni-majority uprising in Syria has also proved a catalyst for grievances among those in Iraq who see themselves as marginalised by Maliki’s Shi’a-majority rule, prompting them to take to the streets to demonstrate, mostly peacefully. The unabashed government crackdown on those demonstrations, and the ensuing country-wide violence, saw more than 500 Iraqis killed in May alone. A string of Sunni MPs have resigned in protest, alongside the entire Kurdish federal delegation of ministers, accusing Maliki’s government of crimes against humanity.
No smoking, guns or dogs in the Erbil "family mall".
The confrontation between Erbil and Baghdad has centred around the long-disputed territory of Kirkuk, an ethnically-divided city that – surprise, surprise – harbours almost half of Iraq’s oil exports. Amid ongoing bickering over the constitutional terms of Kirkuk oil and debts to its foreign corporate benefactors, Maliki sent troops into the region in December, in turn mobilising the Peshmerga, who remain stationed around the city in what Baghdad alleges is the KRG’s attempt to tighten its grip on resources. The usual sporadic militant attacks on the main Kirkuk-Ceyhan pipeline to Turkey have meanwhile stepped up in recent weeks, halting exports and inspiring righteous finger-pointing from Baghdad, as well as Erbil.
A recent KRG statement on the Kirkuk standoff claimed that, “The mismanagement of oil and gas resources by the federal authority and its lack of respect for the constitution… has cost Iraq not just billions of dollars of potential revenue, but also myriad opportunities for national reconciliation. Iraq really cannot afford to sustain these losses for much longer."
Despite this rhetoric, a continuation of the combative status quo may be the most desirable scenario for a KRG with independence in its sights. As Iraq expert, author and Middle East consultant for the International Institute for Strategic Studies, Toby Dodge, notes, while Maliki’s energies remain consumed by internal calamities, fewer eyes will be on Erbil.
“Maliki is the biggest existential threat to Kurdistan since Saddam,” says Dodge. “So the KRG will be pretty happy if the rest of Iraq descends back into strife, allowing them to do what they please.”
And do what they please is what they have done. In recent months, Erbil has been working on its budding relations with Turkey, whose second biggest export market is Iraq, and who has also been starting to patch things up with its own long-suffering Kurdish population. The Erbil-Ankara courtship recently resulted in a deal between Turkish state-run oil firms, Exxon Mobil Corp and the KRG to develop projects in Northern Iraq – a move that, needless to say, has riled Baghdad.
While beset with political hazards, the agreement is expected to help lubricate peace between Ankara and the Turkish Kurds, to whom the KRG would eventually look in any event of a future united Kurdish state. And the gains won by Syrian Kurds now staking claim to towns and villages amid the chaos of civil war over the border has raised spirits among their peers in Iraq. The KRG recently confirmed its plans to train Kurdish fighters in Syria in anticipation of a power vacuum there. And while it has expressly limited its ambitions to counter-terrorism security, it is believed that Erbil will encourage Syrian Kurds to follow its own example of self-government as Syria comes apart at the seams.
These alliances have seen the more robust KRG assuming greater strategic significance in a region overcome with instability, but it will need to hedge any bets on independence from Iraq or broader Kurdish autonomy for the near future.
“Turkey likes to flirt with the KRG, but the relationship has not been consummated,” says Dodge. “It is fun for Ankara to use Erbil to beat Baghdad, and to use the Kurds to weaken Maliki's alignment with Iran, but ultimately this goes against the main geopolitical priority for countries in the region, which is building strong, centralised and independent states.”
Likewise, Dodge suggests that Maliki’s grip on power, as well as US backing for a unified Iraq, means that Kurdistan is likely to stay firmly within Baghdad’s grasp for now.
“The Kurds are a direct threat to Maliki’s plans for Iraq,” he says. “The consolidation of power in Maliki's hands will push the KRG more towards independence, but he cannot let this happen. Barzani – a man with international backing, sitting on a tidal wave of resources – is Maliki's worst nightmare. I don’t think the Kurds are taking politics in Baghdad seriously enough.”
The KRG may be seeding bold geo-strategic ambitions for the region, but on a domestic level, there is less certainty about the path – political, social or cultural – that Kurdistan is headed along. Corruption, nepotism and increasingly authoritarian-style rule have become the modus operandi of governing politics in Kurdistan, where demands for civil and human rights receive only cursory attention at best. Economic freedom, by contrast, is being celebrated thoroughly, and many are concerned about the type of nation that is taking shape under this ruling culture.
“We’ve had two problems with freedom of speech in Kurdistan,” says Astar, a former exiled journalist and activist who has faced imprisonment under both the Ba’athist and KRG governments. “Before, if you said what you thought about politics, Saddam would execute you or throw you in jail. Now, if you say what you think, there is nobody who cares enough to listen.”
Diaspora Kurds, mostly exiles or refugees, have long been at the forefront of Kurdish politics and culture, and millions have returned over the past decade to contribute to the development of the semi-autonomous region. However, repatriation has often carried with it dismay at the new ideologies coming to define present-day Kurdistan.
“I have no idea of where we are going as a society in Kurdistan,” says Muhammad, a Professor of Philosophy and exile who was invited back to Erbil by Barzani to teach at one of the largest government universities. “Today, people are more concerned with their next iPad than questions of Kurdish politics or identity.
“Now the government tells us that we don't need political struggle because we have oil, and we don't need independent thought, culture and freedom of speech because we have Islam. Our standard of living has improved, but our quality of life, in our minds, is very low.”
Traditional Kurdistan is not hard to find, even among Erbil’s imitation-franchise cafes, shopping malls and superhighways. However, if the shiny new automobiles and endless gated communities, like "Family Village" and "Dream Village" that have been taking over the capital, are any indication of the region’s future, it looks something like a Truman Show-esque nightmare. Despite the rich Kurdish tradition of literature, music and arts, under the current leadership the region may be more set to become the Las Vegas than Paris of the Middle East.
Though many young Kurds remain coddled by materialism and social conservatism, they don't seem to have forgotten the battles waged and atrocities endured by their parents and predecessors. However, what form their inherited nationalism will take in coming generations is hard to tell. Many seem to retain blind faith in the region’s current course of independent growth, reiterating the desire to cast off their Iraqi passports and see the Kurdish struggle consummated in full statehood. Others are more cynical, attuned to the complexities of sectarianism that shape their history and present-day reality as citizens of Iraq. Among them, there is some doubt that Kurdistan can ever shake off its violent past, whether in its present national configuration or with full independence in the future.
“There will always be conflict,” says another Asos, a 20-year-old university student of mixed Kurdish and Arab parents. “If we are fighting Sunnis and Shi’as in Kirkuk, or even other Kurds in Diyarbakir, I don’t think the violence will end. Kurds are fighters, it is in our blood, it is who we are.”
For the meantime, Kurdistan’s past may be closer than it looks.
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More stuff about the Kurdish people:
Watch - Female Fighters of Kurdistan