God Save the Kurds
Kurdistan prospers despite enveloping terror
Iraq’s Kurds are surrounded. To the West lie the Great Syrian Desert and the savagery of the Islamic State. North across the mountains an arc of enmity extends from Turkish Anatolia deep into the valleys of ancient Persia. Beyond the oil-rich province of Kirkuk to the south live millions of Iraqi Arabs locked in an epic struggle pitting Sunni and Shia.
Amid the region’s turbulence, Northern Iraq’s three Kurdish provinces—Dahuk, Erbil, and Sulaymaniyah—are the country’s safest and most prosperous. The semiautonomous area has an economy growing 12 percent a year and a per capita GDP that is 50 percent higher than the rest of the country. In a clear sign of its growing importance, the region now hosts 25 consulates and foreign representations, seven universities and two international airports. Some 1,500 Turkish companies already have taken advantage of the stable business environment, along with 50 multinationals including Exxon, Total, Chevron, Hunt Oil, and John Deere.
Kurdistan’s financial capital of Erbil (home to 1.5 million) is developing rapidly despite the ongoing threat from Islamic State radicals in neighboring Ninawa province. The city adds a new five-star hotel nearly every year. Modern shopping malls are full of families who indulge children in game arcades and snack at American fast-food restaurants. These establishments would be targeted as anti-Islamic if they existed in Arab cities to the south.
Passenger traffic at the city’s $550 million airport has increased 37 percent between 2011 and 2012. New arrivals have plenty of choices when it comes to residential housing.
Lebanese contractors are building Dream City, a 1,200-unit development that boasts a New York-style steakhouse. Another Turkish company is selling modern condominiums in an area called Naz City. Three new satellite suburbs contain schools, supermarkets, and police stations. English Village has 400 homes ranging in price from $130,000 to $160,000, all of which sold more than a year before completion. Tree-lined streets meander through Italian Village close to the airport. American Village is an $80 million development where a 3,500-square-foot home sells for $160,000 and $585,000 will buy an 8,600-square-foot palace.
Erbil’s newest neighborhood is The Atlantic Villas & Apartments, a $160 million mixed-use development by the Claremont Group, a New York construction company. It is scheduled for completion this fall, and more than a third of the 1,543 townhouses and apartments have already sold. “Erbil is an excellent place to build because the Kurds really want U.S. investment,” says Stephen Lari, Claremont’s head of overseas relations, who also has approval to build a 196-room Hilton Doubletree Suites costing $35 million. “The Kurds believe that safety follows foreign investment,” Lari adds. “They want Kurdistan to become too big to fail.”
That Iraq even has a Kurdish population is due largely to the efforts of President George H.W. Bush, who launched Operation Provide Comfort in 1991 to halt Saddam Hussein’s genocidal attacks on the Kurds. Saddam’s war of extermination began three years before, when he sent his cousin, Gen. Ali Hassan al-Majid, to destroy the town of Halabja. Ali blanketed the area with deadly Sarin gas, which killed 5,000 Kurds and enfeebled 6,000 others. To make the devastation complete, he then systematically reduced Halabja to rubble and forced survivors to walk north to a barren settlement whose newly bulldozed streets were shaped to resemble Saddam’s initials. The genocidal attack earned him the nickname “Chemical Ali.”
Coming in the wake of Bush’s Desert Storm victory in Kuwait, Operation Provide Comfort prevented the Kurds’ annihilation by supplying humanitarian assistance and establishing a “no fly zone” for Iraqi aircraft. Bush’s intervention, reinforced six years later by President Bill Clinton’s Operation Northern Watch, kept Saddam’s air force out of Kurdistan for 12 years and effectively made the region autonomous from the rest of Iraq.
When Lt. Col. Harry Schute landed in Kurdistan in April 2003 to head a U.S. Army civil affairs battalion, he was greeted with flowers. “I felt like a soldier driving through France at the end of World War II,” he remembers. “Cheering people lined the highway in every village we passed. Restaurants in Erbil refused to let us pay for food.”
The Kurds were so thankful for the assistance received from the George W. Bush administration that they paid for a massive Thank you, America campaign in 2006. The videos from that campaign still are posted on the Internet at youtu.be/NyrStaIoh-w.
Iraq’s Kurds have a rich history. Saladin, the great Islamic commander who dealt the European Crusaders a decisive defeat in 1187, was a Kurd. But under Baath party rule, Kurdish culture was reviled. All books in Kurdish were removed from the libraries of northern Iraq and burned. Arabic became the language of instruction in Kurdish schools. The burial monuments of famous Kurds were plastered over and re-engraved in Arabic script. When Saddam’s Republican Guard retreated from the region in 2003 it poured cement in water wells as it went.
Kurdistan today calls itself The Other Iraq, and in many ways it does resemble a separate country. The Kurdish provinces have their own parliament, investment policy, and customs regime. Passengers arriving on flights from Baghdad must go through a Kurdish passport control despite the fact they’re still in Iraq. Sectarian militias that prowl the rest of the country find no foothold here. Kurdistan has its own army, the Peshmerga, (“those who face death”) that keeps the region intact.
“America makes mistakes, but it’s important for Americans to know that we can do a lot of things right,” says Douglas Layton, a 62-year-old entrepreneur who is writing a book called When America Gets It Right: The Kurdish Miracle. Back in 1991 Layton helped resettle Kurdish refugees in Nashville. Today he operates The Other Iraq Tours, a company that takes adventurous travelers to places like Gaugamela, the site of the 331 BC battle where Alexander the Great defeated Persian emperor Darius III.
“The Kurds are just different,” he says. “They are pro-American and have no antagonism against Israel. I think it’s because the United States protected them for more than a decade. It was an opportunity southern Iraqis didn’t have.”
There was no protection for the Kurds at the end of World War I when Europe carved up the Ottoman Empire and denied them a nation. Today the region’s 35 million Kurds are scattered. Approximately 18 million live in Turkey, with some 2 million in Syria, 8 million in Iran, and 7 million in Iraq.
Because of its stability and growing prosperity, Iraqi Kurdistan now serves as both a homeland for the Kurdish diaspora and a refuge for persecuted Christians. Since 2003, some 18,000 Christian families have been forced to flee Syria and central and southern Iraq.
A quarter-century ago, Iraq’s Kurds faced extermination at the hands of a more heavily armed Iraqi Army. Today, the KRG’s Peshmerga is in another fight for its life against Sunni radicals. Hopefully, U.S. assistance both military and financial will continue.
David DeVoss spent four years in Iraq, where he served as Communications Director for a $192 million provincial economic growth program.