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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

Fourteen years later, the Kurdish end of the Habur Bridge has sprouted a crowded passport control office, completewith flag, a “Welcome to Kurdistan” sign and a bureaucracy demanding proof of Iraqi accident insurance coverage. The guards have abandoned their dashing traditional garb in favor of drab camouflage fatigues. Almost everyone carries a cellphone, and the smooth highway, framed by rich wheat fields on either side, runs thick with traffic.

Approaching Hawler, to use the Kurdish name for Irbil, capital of the Kurdish region, the traffic grew heavier, and eventually halted in an impenetrable jam. In the gathering dusk, firelight flickered all along the mountainside, for it was Friday night and the city folk had streamed out of town for family barbecues.

At the time, Kurdish politicians in Baghdad were negotiating the new Iraqi constitution, one that they hope will guarantee them control of Kurdish affairs. Most important, the Kurdish leaders want most of the revenues from any new oil fields struck in their territory, calculating that if they have an independent income, they will truly be free. Until then, they must rely on money from Baghdad to run the Kurdish Regional Government, which is supposed to get about $4 billion a year, 17 percent of Iraq’s national revenues. But Kurdish officials grumble that Baghdad always shortchanges them, passing along a fraction of the amount due. “It’s not a favor they’re doing us by sending money,” a minister complained to me. “We have the right. They should be grateful that we are staying in Iraq.”

Meanwhile, because most of Iraqi Kurdistan has been effectively autonomous since 1991, young people cannot remember ever living under anything but Kurdish authority. To them, the horrors of the past are the stuff of legend.

“What happened to your families when the Baathists were here?” I asked a classroom of teenagers in Sulaimaniyah, Kurdistan’s second-largest city. Afew hands rose. “My father was a nationalist, and he was put in prison,” said a boy named Darya. Two students had visited Kirkuk while it was still controlled by the Baathists and had been harassed and kicked by police. Silwan, sitting at the next desk, has a friend whose family was showered with chemical weapons by the Iraqi air force. “His brothers and sisters died.” Berava, three rows back, had had a brother imprisoned.

“How many of you think Kurdistan should be an independent country?” I asked.

All of the 13 young people raised their hands.

Only three of them know any Arabic, once a required subject in school. Since 1991 a generation of students has graduated speaking only Kurdish. “That is why,” one Kurd remarked to me, “there is no going back.”

Each member of the class had paid $52 for an introductory course in English, as offered in the brightly painted premises of the Power Institute for English Language. The school itself, founded in July 2005 by Raggaz, a young Kurd who had grown up in the London suburb of Ealing, is something of an advertisement for the new Kurdistan. Following the 2003 war, Raggaz returned to Sulaimaniyah, the hometown he barely remembered, and saw that Kurdish youths were eager to learn English. He borrowed $12,500 from an uncle, set up the new school and was turning a profit after just three months.

Despite the billions pledged for the reconstruction of Baghdad, all of the cranes visible on that city’s skyline are rusting memorials of Saddam’s time. The major cities of Kurdistan, by contrast, feature forests of cranes towering over construction sites. Part of this prosperity can be accounted for by money from Baghdad—even the central government’s parsimonious contribution helps some. In addition, Kurdistan’s comparative peace has attracted investors from abroad and from Arab Iraq. Driving out of Sulaimaniyah early one morning, I passed a long line of laborers toiling at road repairs in 100-degree heat. “Arabs, bused in from Mosul,” explained
a businessman. “There’s 100 percent employment in Sulaimaniyah. You have to wait ages for a Kurdish worker, and Arabs are 40 percent cheaper anyway.”

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