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In Kurdistan, Iraq Seems a Million Miles Away

The autonomous region is an oasis of safety in comparison to other, violence-stricken areas.

September 04, 2006|Borzou Daragahi | Times Staff Writer

SULAYMANIYA, Iraq — The night is young. The women are pretty. Danyar Farok, wearing a sparkly gray shirt and skin-tight acid-washed jeans, and a buddy are strutting along this Kurdish city's main drag.

Maybe they will wind up at one of the outdoor bars in the riverside Sarchinar district. Or maybe they will sit at a teahouse shooting the breeze.

Farok, a 25-year-old high school computer teacher, complains that he and his girlfriend, Medea, can't put together enough money to live together. His artist pal Shakwan Siddik, a 23-year-old with black hair down to his shoulders and sunglasses dangling from an open-collar shirt, is searching for a sunny studio to do his oil paintings.

As for the kidnappings, car bombings, drive-by killings and economic misery unfolding in the rest of Iraq, Farok is blunt.

"I don't care," he says. "The Arabs never cried for us when we were suffering. I'm going to a teahouse with my friend to have some fun."

Although much of Iraq is engulfed in insurgent, sectarian, political and tribal violence, the Switzerland-sized Kurdish autonomous region in the north of the country, established after the 1991 Persian Gulf War, is an oasis of safety and tranquillity where young and old concern themselves with mundane matters of life such as work, dating and home furnishings.

The growing sense that the Kurdish region is turning away from the rest of the nation was driven home over the weekend, when Kurdistan regional President Massoud Barzani banned the Iraqi flag from being flown atop official buildings. To many in Kurdistan, the banner symbolizes years of oppression and slaughter under Saddam Hussein.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki criticized the decision Sunday. "Until this moment we still have the current Iraqi flag and it should be raised over every point in Iraq," he said during an interview with an Arab satellite television program.

"Not only the Kurds were slaughtered under this flag, but many Iraqis were slain under this flag. Iraq was slain under this flag," he said.

Whichever flag prevails will fly in a prosperous area. The Kurdish region has thrived even as Iraqis elsewhere have taken their money and skills with them, fleeing cities such as Baghdad, Basra and Mosul.

A real estate boom has transformed cities such as Sulaymaniya and Irbil into noisy construction zones. The once-desolate road around Sulaymaniya is being filled from scratch with apartment towers and commercial buildings on a scale seen in oil-rich Persian Gulf kingdoms.

Towns and villages in the mountainous Kurdish countryside are seeing modest housing booms as Kurdish expatriates and Iraqi Arabs fleeing the violence flood into the region.

In Sulaymaniya, an opera house is being built. New hotels abound. New international airports in Sulaymaniya and Irbil offer direct flights to cities such as Dubai, United Arab Emirates; Istanbul, Turkey; Amman, Jordan; and Tehran. Visitors to Kurdistan can now bypass Baghdad altogether.

At Sulaymaniya's airport, wireless Internet access lets travelers check their e-mail. U.S. service members, accustomed to glares and roadside bombs in the rest of Iraq, wander in amazement through the terminal almost unnoticed, ordering snacks at the cafeteria as if they were on a layover in Cleveland.

"We've tried for 15 years to have some sense of normalcy here," said Diari Tarek, a 37-year-old architect shopping for windows and doors for a house he is building for his family. "After 15 years, we finally found it."

Kurds, the world's largest ethnic group without a nation, have a language and culture distinct from Iraq's 80% Arab majority. Successive Sunni Arab governments in Baghdad brutally repressed the Kurds, whose region is home to much of Iraq's water and energy resources.

Hussein's forces destroyed hundreds of Kurdish villages and allegedly used chemical weapons during the 1988 Anfal campaign, now the subject of a genocide trial in Baghdad.

Since Hussein's ouster in 2003, the Kurdish region has not been immune to violence. Several times, insurgents have slipped past soldiers guarding the internal frontier along the three Kurdish provinces and attacked government buildings. An undercurrent of fear persists.

"The same explosions and bombings might come up north tomorrow, blow me up with my business," says Issa Hamad Abdul Rahman, who said he grosses $1,500 a month selling imported chewing gum to passersby in Sulaymaniya's main market. "Terrorism spares no one."

Some Kurds, especially those with ties to the rest of Iraq -- perhaps from having studied in Baghdad or owning property elsewhere -- worry about the violence.

Tarek, the architect, and his schoolteacher wife, Nasiq, own property in eastern Baghdad.

"It's very sad what is happening in the rest of Iraq," she said. "I see the rest of Iraqis as our children, brothers and sisters."

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