Kurdistan is a mystery to most of the world. Say that you are going to Kurdistan. Most people may ask if you will be seeing Borat, the over-the-top, fictional character from Kazakhstan. But say that you are going to Northern Iraq, what the nation’s neighbors, Turkey and Iran, call Kurdistan. People will ask "why?" followed by a grim "be safe."
True, the Kurds of Iraq have been cursed by history. With a population of over four million, under Saddam Hussein's brutal regime, thousands were poisoned by gas, millions were driven from their homes, and more than 3,000 of their villages were razed.
Now, in the midst of war, history should pay careful attention to what may happen next. The danger Kurdistan faces is overwhelming. Their peripheral region falls between two hostile capitals, Ankara and Tehran. Below, what is now known as the world’s deadliest capital—Baghdad. In the middle of a political earthquake, what can Kurdistan possibly do to keep from being buried alive?
- Above all, Kurdistan must protect its security. Driving through
checkpoints and military posts, the reminder of what once had happened—and what
could happen again—lingers thick. But instead of mobilizing for their own
protection, they are being told by the U.S. Commanding General in Baghdad to
send their local forces, the peshmergas, known as one of the best fighting forces in the
world, to Baghdad to fight a sectarian war. The Kurdistan Regional Government is
willing to protect American forces, but a smarter solution would be to use the
peshmergas as a Rapid Reaction Force in Northern Iraq. In November 2005, when US
troops were in trouble in Mosul, President Barzani
sent 5,000 peshmergas within one hour to help. Rapid Reaction in Northern
Iraq and along their frontier border towns—including Kirkuk, Mosul and Diyala—is
where they are most effective, not as permanent deployments in Baghdad.
- Second, establish and maintain a political dialogue which will create
benchmarks with Ankara. Right now if you ask the Iraqi Kurds who is their
biggest problem—the Turks or the Arabs—the almost unanimous response is the
Turks. The reason: years of suspicion, distrust, and conflicts over hot button
issues such as oilfields, the status of Kirkuk, the PKK (the
armed political movement of the Kurds that the U.S. Government classifies as a
terrorist organization) and Kurdistan's unknown future independence . Before
these conflicts destroy Kurdistan and Turkey's hope for a cooperative trade
agreement and future, a dialogue leading to agreements on trade, Kirkuk and the
PKK, between the two governments is necessary.
- Lastly, but no less critical, the promotion of foreign direct investment
and trade with the rest of the world. The Kurdistan Regional Government
should invite Heads of Government and U.S. Members of Congress to their capital,
Irbil, to visit. They should encourage and actively recruit business and hotel
leaders to come as well. To generate economic growth, they should consider
making Kurdistan a free economic zone. The zone concept based on low tariffs,
tax holidays, and other investment incentives could be an important component of
their strategy. According to the Kurdistan Regional Government, already over 300
Turkish companies have come to Kurdistan, generating over a billion in foreign
direct investment. More initiatives to bring in further foreign direct
investment are needed.
The world can and will be quietly charmed by Kurdistan. An autonomous region that prides itself on learning—so much so that there is a quill on their flag to symbolize education—Kurdistan's leaders are visionary and reflective. And their people, the Iraqi Kurds, are hard working and proud. The food is fresh, especially the sinfully sweet honeycomb, and the hospitality is unrivaled. If only more people would go and share a meal with them. With daily flights to Irbil from Istanbul, and four flights a week from Amman; Kurdistan is not impossible to get to. And under the "if you build it, they will come," motto, the Iraqi Kurds are actively preparing to welcome foreign visitors. Driving from the airport to the city, you feel like you have discovered Northern Iraq's version of Pudong (the futuristic city outside of Shanghai). New construction, apartments, and freshly planted trees line the drive like dominos.
The road ahead won't be easy. Kurdistan's long term strategy lies upon the Kurdistan Regional Government and the Iraqi Kurds's willingness to focus on the future, rather than the past. Not many people can overcome years of oppression, terror, and war—and head to the negotiating table—but Iraqi Kurds are peshmergas as well as attentive students. What seems like a quagmire to most, can most certainly bear an opportunity to them.
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Editor's note. This article first appeared on Iraqslogger.com on March 1, 2007. It is published here with permission from the author.