August 8, 2005

Iraqi Kurdistan makes a point of being different

By Luke Baker

ARBIL, Iraq (Reuters) - It may not be an independent state
and is unlikely to gain that status any time soon. But land at
the airport of its "capital" and you could be forgiven for
thinking that Kurdistan was a country.

Arbil, the capital of the autonomous Kurdish region that
occupies a large portion of northern Iraq, is just 45 minutes
flying time from Baghdad.

But there are no Iraqi flags at the "international" airport
-- a single glass building stuck at the end of a short runway.
Instead the Kurdish flag flutters everywhere, red, white and
green with a golden sun at its center.

Passports, even Iraqi ones, are minutely checked by Kurdish
immigration staff.

Most signs are only in Kurdish, the mobile phone network is
a distinct Kurdish one that doesn't connect to Baghdad, and
locals warn the newly arrived not to utter a word of Arabic.

The situation has been more or less the same since the
Kurds carved three semi-independent provinces out of northern
Iraq after the 1991 Gulf War, sealing it off from the rest of
the country under cover of a no-fly zone enforced on Saddam
Hussein's air force by U.S. and British warplanes.

For 14 years, that separateness allowed them greater
opportunities for growth and investment, while keeping the rest
of Iraq and its problems at arm's length.

But as Iraq prepares a draft of a new constitution, which
must encompass all Iraqis -- Kurds, Sunni and Shi'ite Arabs,
Christians and Turkmen -- many Kurds fear giving up hard-won
ground and settling for something less than they have.

"I am Kurdish. My life is Kurdish. I love Kurdistan. We
must remain separate from what is going on in Iraq," says Abdul
Kadar Mustafa, 40, the owner of a dry cleaning shop in Arbil.

"I feel sorry for what is going on in Iraq -- we don't want
the same problems here. But I don't trust our government to
keep us apart," he said, referring to the Kurdish regional
government, which operates independently of Baghdad.


The president of the Kurdish region, Masoud Barzani, who
also heads the Kurdistan Democratic Party, one of two major
Kurdish parties and the one that is dominant around Arbil, was
on his way to Baghdad on Monday for talks on the constitution.

Barzani, a former guerrilla leader known for his
traditional Kurdish head dress, makes little secret of his
disdain for Baghdad and his longing for an independent Kurdish

While independence may not be possible, he at least wants a
Kurdish region that is strongly autonomous within federal Iraqi
state, with its own budget, oil revenues, army, education
system and demarcated borders.

Yet the constitution, which he is under intense pressure to
sign up to, and a draft of which must be presented to
parliament by Aug. 15, is expected to describe a much more
general form of federalism, one that doesn't mesh with Kurdish

If it falls short, filling the gap could prove problematic.

"It's real federalism we want, Kurdish-style federalism,
not something weak," says Hiwa Kassim, 25, an engineering
student sipping tea in an Arbil cafe.

"If we don't get that, then we will have to be another
country without Iraq. And if that is not possible, then war."

War is hardly a serious possibility at this stage, with
U.S. troops enforcing a peace of sorts across Iraq and memories
still painful of fighting with Saddam and then years of civil
war among the Kurds themselves during the 1990s.

But there is no question the Kurdish sense of separateness
runs deep, particularly in Arbil, and that if Kurdish leaders
appear to settle for too little in the constitution, it will
cause profound ructions.

Tensions with their Arab neighbors are particularly great
over the fate of the oil city of Kirkuk, just south of Kurdish
territory, which Kurds hope one day to annex as their capital.

At the same time, Arbil is pushing ahead with its subtle,
and at times not-so-subtle, campaign to look and feel
completely apart from the chaotic, violent regions to the

Business and investment abounds, with money flooding in
from Lebanon and Turkey, untroubled by problems elsewhere in

And in the Sheraton Arbil, a swanky, mirrored-glass hotel
completely renovated in the past two years, the clocks at
reception give guests the time in New York, London, Istanbul
and Arbil -- just not in Baghdad.