Outside Baghdad, Oases of Calm

The Kurdish north, spared most of the fighting during the war and the fallout since, is evolving into what may be a model for a united Iraq.

July 20, 2003|Patrick J. McDonnell | Times Staff Writer

SULAYMANIYAH, Iraq — There are no nightly power blackouts, bursts of automatic-weapons fire, rumbling tanks or ominous helicopter fly-bys.

Residents stroll the shops, munch a burger at MaDonal or sip a beer in an outdoor cafe by the canal.

No one frets about beating curfew or getting stuck at a checkpoint. Cars and trucks flow smoothly down the streets, aided by smartly outfitted traffic cops. U.S. troops can be seen without helmets or flak vests, sometimes posing for photos with appreciative residents.

"This must have been what Paris felt like when the Americans came after World War II," said Sgt. Steven Roach, fresh in from Baghdad. "You don't sense that everyone wants to take a shot at you."

The news from Iraq of late has seemed to focus on an unbroken volley of attacks on coalition forces laced with continuous anti-U.S. invective. But not here.

Iraq's three northern provinces, collectively known as Kurdistan, were spared most of the fighting and bombing, and have dodged Baghdad's ugly postwar fallout. This is in almost every sense a different country from the rest of Iraq, with its own language, its own flag, its own culture and even its own currency -- an old-model dinar absent the image of Saddam Hussein. "Coming back from Baghdad, you really don't feel safe until you cross the line into Kurdistan," said Dana Hussein Qadir, a Kurd who has traveled south to set up a Baghdad branch of Kurdistan Save the Children. "It feels like quite a relief."

Much of Iraqi Kurdistan has been under the protection of a U.S.-British "no-fly" zone since the end of the 1991 Persian Gulf War, and thus not under Hussein's thumb. Though limited by its remoteness and its blurred status, the region has flourished, to a point, evolving into what many U.S. planners see as a kind of model for what a future, unified Iraq might be.

The mood in Baghdad today is sullen, exhausted -- the inevitable consequence, perhaps, of decades of misrule, warfare and embargo, capped by the fall of the Hussein government and its chaotic aftermath. In Iraqi Kurdistan, by contrast, one senses an almost giddy eagerness -- tinged with some trepidation -- for a future that remains vague at best. There is a palpable sense of an ancient culture not recoiling from modernity and change, but embracing it.

"I sympathize with the people in Baghdad who are suffering," said Kosrat Rasoul Ali, a leading figure in the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, or PUK, which rules the eastern part of the north. "But the most important thing is that Saddam is gone. The tyrant is gone. Everything else can be fixed."

For U.S. soldiers and visitors, the difference is striking.

A banner posted atop the archway leading to the old town welcomes "U.S. and U.K. liberators of Iraq From Saddam's Terror." In central Iraq, particularly in places such as Fallouja and Tikrit where anti-U.S. resentment runs high, merely acknowledging American citizenship may unleash diatribes of abuse, if not worse.

"Please, God, don't send me out of here," said one GI in Kurdistan.

Sgt. Roach, up from Baghdad with his unit to work on civil affairs projects, said he was taken aback when he arrived. It was hard to shed the preoccupation with being a target.

"Here you feel that instead of wanting to shoot you, people want to help you," Roach said. "And people are actually happy to let you help them."

The distinction is particularly evident in Sulaymaniyah, a city of about half a million on the road to Iran. Rising in a high valley and surrounded on three sides by mountains, this provincial center even presents a stark physical contrast to the much larger Baghdad. The heat is scorching in summer, but temperatures do not quite reach the 120-degree-plus delirium of the capital. Winters are cool, and snow dots the outlying peaks.

It is a kind of open city, its bustling markets featuring electronic and consumer goods from all over the world, much of it imported through the Turkish, Syrian and Iranian borders that form the frontier of Iraqi Kurdistan. Smuggling has long been a mainstay. Late-night mini-supermarkets feature Scotch from Britain and cologne from France.

Daily life proceeds apace in places like the People's Tea Shop, a smoky hangout that features a bookshop, ceiling fans, steaming samovars and walls decorated with prints of the giants of Kurdish poetry and literature.

"I am a Kurd, but it troubles me to see what is happening to the people in Baghdad," said Ali Kurdistan, a 21-year-old freelance journalist who was doing lessons with his Kurdish-English dictionary. "We have had it very hard in the past, and now they are having very difficult times."

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