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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

Founded in 2000, Hardi’s muckraking journal, whose name means citizen, enjoys the largest circulation of any Kurdish paper. It is clearly doing its job; each of Kurdistan’s major political parties has, from time to time, boycotted the paper, each party charging that it is financed by the other’s secret police. Hardi conceded that there have never been any physical threats against him or his staff. Nevertheless, he is critical of Kurdistan’s current rulers.

“Since 2003 they’ve been forced to show unity vis-à-vis Baghdad,” he remarked, “but there’s no real practicable agreement. Although they all talk about democracy, no party accepts being number two for a while.”

To maintain an uneasy peace, the two parties have carved up their territory. So Kurdistan has two prime ministers, two ministers of finance, interior, justice, agriculture and so on down the line. They have two chiefs of peshmerga, two secret police forces—even two cellphone companies. Travelers passing from the land of the KDP to the land of the PUK mark their passage by tugging out their cellphones and changing the memory cards, an irritating but revealing fact of life in the new Kurdistan. Asia Cell, which covers PUK territory, was licensed in 2003 by authorities in Baghdad to serve northern Iraq. This arrangement cut little ice in Irbil, where local officials refused to switch from Korek Telecom, a monopoly that existed before the fall of Saddam.

The dominant Barzani family has blessed other entrepreneurs in its part of Iraq, such as the fast-expanding Ster Group. Motorists entering Iraq at the Habur River crossing are required to buy an accident policy from Ster’s insurance subsidiary—the fee ranges from $5 to $80, depending on who is collecting the money or talking about the practice. Most travelers who make it to Irbil stay in a shiny high-rise hotel owned principally by the Ster Group. Salah Awla, Ster’s fast-talking general manager, gave me a summary of the group’s impressive penetration of local business, starting with the new hotel where we were chatting. “We own 60 percent,” he said, going on to describe his company’s interest in oil wells, shopping centers, gas stations, bottling plants and tourist sites. There seemed no part of the economy immune from Ster’s influence—including the lucrative realm of government contracts. “We lend more than $10 million to each ministry,” Awla explained cheerfully, “for ‘goodwill.’ In this way the minister has to give us projects.” But he left little doubt about a bright economic future for Kurdistan, especially for those with the right contacts.

Meanwhile, in a fold in the mountains, the village of Halawa, destroyed four times since 1963, has been once more rebuilt. It probably does not look that different now, apart from the smart little mosque financed by a Saudi charity and a school built by UNICEF. The Kurdish administration, said locals, had not offered any help, but even so, one villager mused: “It would be better if Kurdistan were independent. Then everything will be under our control.”

On the long drive back to Turkey, I had to make wide detours to avoid cities like Mosul where the Iraq War laps at Kurdish borders. And at the Turkish border, the line of immobile trucks and tankers was as long as ever.

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