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Iraq's Resilient Minority

Shaped by persecution, tribal strife and an unforgiving landscape, Iraq's Kurds have put their dream of independence on hold-for now

But they’re not welcome everywhere. “We don’t employ any Arabs, as a security measure,” said another returned exile, named Hunar. Ayear after arriving home from Sweden, he is security director for 77G, the most successful manufacturer in Kurdistan. Tucked away on the outskirts of Irbil, the company claims to make every one of the huge free-standing concrete slabs designed to deflect the blast from the heaviest suicide car bomb or rocket. The company’s structures, rising up to 12 feet, have become the symbol of the new Iraq, where any building of consequence is encircled by 77G’s long gray walls—including the American Embassy in Baghdad, according to the company. The bunker monopoly is very profitable. Desperate customers have paid as much as $700 per 12-foot-long section—producing roughly 30 percent profit for an enterprise operated by Kurds.

“When Arabs apply to work here, we can’t do a detailed background check, so we don’t employ them,” Hunar explained offhandedly. “It’s not discrimination; it’s just that we don’t trust them. Why? We have to fight our way through to make deliveries in Baghdad—we are always under attack. Arabs have killed six of our guys—but we killed more!”

Recounting a typically Kurdish life story of upheaval, persecution and exile, Hunar insisted that the Kurds have no future as part of the Iraqi nation. Semi-seriously, he posited the notion of fencing all of Kurdistan with 77G products: “We could do it. We could seal off all our borders.”

Such overconfidence may be dangerous, says David McDowall, a scholar of Kurdish history. “The Kurds should remember that Washington may come and go, but Baghdad is there forever. One day Baghdad will be strong again, and that could lead to a day of reckoning.”

Pending that, the Kurds face persistent problems on their borders. “It’s hard for our people to understand the difficulties we face,” says Falah Mustafa Bakir, minister of state in the Kurdish Regional Government. “None of our neighbors are happy with a strong Kurdistan. When the foreign ministers of Turkey, Iran and Syria, who in reality hate each other, get together, at least they can agree about the ‘problem’ of Kurdistan. For the Turks, the Kurdistan at the other end of the Habur Bridge does not exist, even though they are looking at it. That’s why it’s impossible for Kurdistan Airways to get permission to fly to Istanbul.”

Turkish attitudes toward Kurdistan are molded by perennial distrust of its own 14 million Kurds, who constitute 20 percent of the population. Irked by discrimination, the Turkish Kurds fought a brutal guerrilla war against Turkey in the 1980s and ’90s. Fighting flared up again this year.

A proudly independent Kurdistan just across their border is anathema to the Turks, an attitude most bluntly expressed in the line of fuel tankers stretching back as far as 20 miles into Turkey from the Habur River crossing. They are carrying the gasoline much needed in Kurdistan, which is rich in oil but short on refining capacity. But the Turks feel little inclination to speed the flow. Kurds must wait for their fuel while hapless drivers sleep in their trucks for days or even weeks. “Every now and then the price of gas soars here, because the Turks feel like tightening the screws a little bit by slowing border traffic further,” one businessman told me. “Then you see people lining up for 24 hours to get gas, sleeping in their cars.”

There is little prospect that Kurdish identity will be subsumed by allegiance to any other nation. “There is more of Kurdistan in Iran,” asserted Moussa, whom I encountered in Tawela, a remote mountain village near the Iranian border. About the same number of Kurds—five million—live in Iraq and Iran each. Moussa’s sentiment was firmly endorsed by the crowd gathered in the cobbled street.

“Should all Kurds be together as one country?” I asked.

“Yes,” came the thunderous reply from the group gathered around me. “It has to be.”

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