Three Suggestions For How To Improve Matters in Iraqi Kurdistan

March 2, 2007

Map of Kurdistan

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.

We welcome your comments on this article.  Please email Carnegie Ethics Online editor Devin Stewart

Editor's note. This article first appeared on Iraqslogger.com on March 1, 2007. It is published here with permission from the author.

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