Photos by the author. The shop owner said that the guitar is crappy, “but it is the only one with an American flag.”
Teetering on the edge of seceding from Iraq, Iraqi Kurdistan still loves America. No, not the idea of chasing the American dream. The Kurdish population truly has the US patriotism of a Fourth of July barbecue.
While the rest of Iraq was torn apart during the US occupation and rebel insurgency that highlighted the shortcomings of Bush-era foreign policy, Kurdistan remained relatively peaceful, with only sporadic violence. The three provinces that make up the north of Iraq were favorably treated in a US-brokered post-Saddam constitution that granted the Kurds relative autonomy.
Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan was safeguarded by US no-fly zones protecting it from fighting throughout the war. The area prospered throughout much of the fighting, and an influx of investment from German and Turkish firms allowed Erbil to rapidly expand over the past ten years, hoisting the flag of Kurdistan along with it.
Kurds benefited from the Iraq war, and for that they are grateful to America. US military personnel are regarded in the region as a hybrid of Team America: World Police and pop stars. The sight of an American prompts everything from military salutes to free meals. America is viewed by many as everything the Kurds want to become. On one occasion a man told me he went to California on vacation for two weeks—“the best two weeks in my whole life.”
In Erbil’s bazaar
Iraq encountered a disastrous political crisis in the beginning of 2014. Shia Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s unwillingness to compromise with Iraqi Sunnis and Kurds resulted in murmurs of secession from both of Iraq’s principal religious minorities.
The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (formerly ISIS), operating as a rebel group in eastern Iraq and Syria, attached to this sentiment, converting Sunni tribesmen to jihadist rebels in a campaign that scooped up nearly half of Iraq in what the now Islamic State declared a "caliphate."
US currency is commonly accepted this man exchanges currency outside of shops. He was quick to hold up $10,000 in new $100 bills.
Mosul, the largest city in the worlds new extremist nation is only about 60 miles from Erbil. Thick black smoke, a signal of ISIL’s presence marks Erbil’s horizon multiple times per week.
Checkpoints have kept the region relatively safe and the Kurds' military—the Peshmerga (Kurdish for those who confront death) are some of the baddest motherfuckers in the region.
The fighting in eastern Iraq and Syria has displaced millions. Many Sunnis, Shias, and Kurds alike have turned to Erbil for safety. Cheap hotels have become overburdened as internally displaced persons crowd in. Motels have been hiking up prices and fitting multiple families into closets.
An olive seller keeps the rays off his face in style.
Two such displaced persons are Shirzad and his father, Awar—both Syrian Kurds who came to Iraqi Kurdistan to flee the Syrian civil war. They now sell toy guns in Erbil’s bazaar.
Shirzad saluted me, an American, when he saw my sunburnt face. Awar clasped his hands together as Shirzad translated for him: “Kurds and America, good friends. One big friend and one little friend.”
When asked who would win in a hypothetical, Deadliest Warrior–style fight between the Peshmerga and the US Army, Shirzad said, “The Peshmerga, they’re unstoppable!” as he clutched a toy AK-47.
Shirzad holds a toy AK-47 and wears a shirt with US Army decals
The Kurds' love for America is evident everywhere. All things US, from hamburgers to "Made in America" zippo lighters are cherished. Men and boys wear T-shirts screen-printed with red, white, and blue. A majestic bald eagle pattern frequently spans the seats in cabs. A portrait of George W. Bush can still be found hanging in the back of some shops.
The shirt was $10, and one of the shop's best sellers.
Teenagers go to school to learn English. One student in Erbil looked up from his copy of Stephen King’s The Body to tell me that “at school they teach us British english, but I always preferred the American accent.”
Seat covers worthy of your aunt's station wagon are seen in many cars.
But as ISIL brings a new face to extremism in the region, many Kurds are asking if the US will return—with bombs or soldiers—to its old friend Iraq. Obama has pledged a handful of military personnel and tossed around the idea of a renewed bombing campaign.
One ex-Peshmerga fighter, sitting on a park bench in Erbil, told me that he thinks ISIL will continue its expansion until a US bombing campaign commences, saying that the central Iraqi government is “useless and dirty.”
Many Kurds see the ongoing political crisis and the encroachment of ISIL as an opportunity to push forward with Kurdish independence. A move sure to piss-off not only central Iraq but also neighboring Syria, Turkey, and Iran, who have significant Kurdish populations that might join the secession movement.
Most shops sell something with Old Glory on it.
The US has been mum on the idea of an independent Iraqi Kurdistan, but after spilling gold and blood in two wars it’s unlikely that the US would support anything that fragments the ostensible democracy it worked so hard to implement.
While Kurds on the street still see their relationship with the US as peaches-and-cream, diplomatic rows and economic grappling have emerged. The US, scared of seeing their own oil prices increase, remains vehemently opposed to the recent exporting of Kurdish oil to Turkey and Israel.
On June 11, the Peshmerga seized the long-disputed town of Kirkuk and with it one of the largest oil fields in Iraq. The field provides a huge opportunity for Kurdish economic independence, but US officials are sweating. The Kurds are far more likely to take the quick cash that comes from pumping oil regionally instead of shipping it stateside, something the central Iraqi government is willing to do.
Thick black smoke either from an attack or an oil burn-off is regularly seen on Erbil’s horizon.
Diplomatic tensions between the US and Iraqi Kurdistan have also flared. In February, President of Iraqi Kurdistan Masoud Barzani refused to meet with President Obama on the basis that the Kurds' two largest political parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), remain on the US’s terror blacklist. The parties earned their blacklist distinction after accepting Iranian guns and money, using them in violent in-fighting against the now exiled Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).
You can buy regular screwdrivers, or you can buy red, white, and blue screwdrivers.
An independent Kurdistan would give Shiite Iran near complete political control over Iraq, fanning the growing sectarian rift in the region, something the US wants to prevent. Still, the US remains fairly taciturn. They don’t want another conflict in the region. They once pushed for democracy in Iraq once, but now they’re willing to settle for stability. Supporting an Independent Kurdistan is likely to cause another ten years of war attributable to the US.
Everything American, even cultural constructs like Santa Claus, are taught to children at English-language schools.
As secession approaches and US support remains absent, it might be time for Iraqi Kurds to pack away their bald-eagle T-shirts and roll up their American flags, but for now, Iraqi Kurds still love America.
Follow Sam Koebrich on Twitter.