ERBIL, Iraq -- Unlike Baghdad, 200 miles away, the air here does not echo with the sound of gunfire, car bombs and helicopters. Residents of this city of a million people picnic by day in pristine new parks and sip tea with friends and relatives at night. American forces are not "occupiers" or the "enemy," but "liberators." Mentioning President Bush evokes smiles -- and not of derision.
American forces were "most welcome" when stationed here at the start of the invasion of Iraq, says Massoud Barzani, the president of Kurdistan in the north. Not a single U.S. soldier was killed in his region, he adds proudly, "not even in a traffic accident." Would U.S. forces be welcome back now? "Most certainly," he declared this week in an interview in his newly minted marble (and heavily chandeliered) palace. The more American soldiers the better, a top aide confirms.
The secret of Kurdistan's relative success so far -- and of America's enduring popularity here -- is the officially unacknowledged fact that the three provinces of the Kurdish north are already quasi-independent. On Oct. 11, Iraq's parliament approved a law that would allow the Sunni and Shiite provinces also to form semi-autonomous regions with the same powers that the constitution has confirmed in Kurdistan. And while Kurdish leaders pay lip-service to President Bush's stubborn insistence on the need for a unified Iraq with a strong centralized government, Kurdistan is staunchly resisting efforts to concentrate economic control in Baghdad.
The U.S., Mr. Barzani believes, should leave it to the Iraqis to decide if they want "one or two or three regions." Then, he adds: "But it already exists. The division is there as a practical matter. People are being killed on the basis of identity." As for Baghdad, "it should have a special status as the federal capital. But the rest should be regions that run their own affairs. Or they should be separate. Only a voluntary union can work. Either you have federalism with Baghdad as a federal capital with a special status, or you have separation. Those are the facts."
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Even the most fleeting visitor cannot but notice that Kurdistan is almost a full-fledged state. The Kurds have been running their own affairs -- badly at times -- ever since Washington created a safe area after Saddam Hussein crushed their U.S.-encouraged uprising after the 1991 Gulf war, sending much of the traumatized population into the rugged mountains separating Kurdish Iraq from Turkey. After CNN filmed Kurds dying of cold and starvation, President George H.W. Bush declared a "no fly" zone north of the 36th parallel from which Saddam's planes were barred, enabling the Kurds, at long last, to begin governing themselves. And so they have, with a determination born of historic vengeance.
Kurds no longer speak Arabic, but various dialects of Kurdish, in offices and schools throughout the 74,000 square miles that comprise their provinces. They fly their own flag, provide their own services, raise their own army -- the legendarily disciplined Pesh Merga, or "Those Who Face Death" -- and have gradually consolidated their de facto state. Divided between two parties -- Mr. Barzani's Kurdistan Democratic Party, his clan's power base in north Kurdistan, and the southern-based Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, headed by Jalal Talabani, now president of Iraq (or "President of the Green Zone" as Kurds here call the post) -- Kurdistan is booming with construction, new businesses and ambitious dreams of self-rule.
Washington's refusal to accept this self-evident political reality does not trouble Mr. Barzani. On the contrary, he insists Kurdistan will remain part of Iraq -- as long as Iraq remains federal, secular and democratic, and officially blesses the autonomy the Kurds managed to enshrine in the new Iraqi constitution. Besides, the fig-leaf of Iraq is useful: Declaring independence would risk provoking Turkey, for whom an independent Kurdish state is anathema given its own 18-million strong Kurdish population and the continued existence of the terrorist Kurdistan Workers Party -- the PKK -- on the Iraqi-Kurdish side of the border. Yet Mr. Barzani adamantly denies that his fidelity to Iraq is born of fear. "Having an independent state is the natural legitimate right of our people," he insisted. "We are not ready to say that because we fear displeasing our neighbors or because we are frightened that they may attack. That's not the case," he said. "We say that because at this stage, the parliament of Kurdistan has decided to remain within a federal, democratic Iraq."
Kurdish aspirations for autonomy, however, clearly require Turkish and Iranian acquiescence, or a persuasive reason for Turkey not to attack. Hence the desire for the redeployment of some American forces to Kurdistan. "The presence of American forces here would be a deterrent to intervention by the neighboring countries," Mr. Barzani says, with characteristic bluntness.
That is unlikely any time soon, say officials in Washington. How would the presence of American forces in what one official called a "land-locked aircraft carrier" help prevent the emergence of an Islamist entity in Iraq's Sunni-dominated center or deter Iranian control of the Shiite south? Moreover, as President Bush noted last week, dismissing proposals to carve Iraq into three virtually autonomous regions as destabilizing, such a division of Iraq would exacerbate Sunni-on-Sunni and Sunni-on-Shiite tensions. "The Kurds will then create problems for Turkey and Syria," President Bush said.
On the contrary, Mr. Barzani insists, Kurdistan seeks good relations "with all its neighbors." Indeed, Turkish-Kurdish and Kurdish-Iranian talks have been ongoing, diplomats say. As for Baghdad, Mr. Barzani adds, no one has tried harder to keep Iraq from splitting apart than the Kurds. "We worked hard with the Sunni community to bring them into the process," he says, "and also to establish Iraq's governing council, the interim and transitional government, and the drafting of the constitution. We played a leading role in the success of the process." But he was clearly annoyed by a slight: The fact that the congressionally created Iraq Study Group, headed by former Republican Secretary of State James Baker and Democratic co-chair Lee Hamilton, which is weighing policy alternatives for Iraq, has not traveled to Kurdistan -- the only successful region of postwar Iraq -- to consult with him. "It's a huge failing in their deliberations," he says. "We remain willing and ready to help whenever our assistance is needed."
Mr. Barzani is not shy about offering advice to Washington. The U.S. needs to revise its policies because "the existing strategy is not effective," he says. American forces could be reduced -- perhaps by half -- he said, but only when Iraqi forces are ready to restore order. But that will not happen, he warns, until the U.S. permits the Iraqi government to rid itself of the "terrorists, chauvinists and extremists" in its ranks who condone and "openly incite the violence on TV" that is destroying what remains of the capital and the country. He refuses to name names. But other Kurds point to such figures as Salah Mutlaq, an extremist Sunni leader, and aides to Moqtada al-Sadr, who heads a radical Shia militia.
"You have a different culture; you're a different people," Mr. Barzani said. "With America's mentality and approach and regulations, we cannot win like this. There must be decisive action so the government can enforce the law and restore its prestige." This Barzani, confident and candid, is different from the reticent figure I first interviewed 15 years ago in his mountain fastness of Barzan. Although plainspoken, "Kak Massoud" -- a respectful but affectionate "Mister" in Kurdish -- was reluctant then to offer an American journalist a frank assessment of his frustrations and aspirations. Not so the man who has evolved into "President Barzani" of Kurdistan, who, based on an informal power-sharing agreement with his rival, President Talibani of Iraq, is determined to seize this historic opportunity to advance his people's interests.
Just as "Kak" has become "president," the Kurds have gone from resistance to nation-building, with all the challenges such a transformation implies. Mr. Barzani has complained that while he and his Pesh Merga knew how to fight, it was "easier to destroy two dams than to build one power plant." Kurdistan is changing, in substance as well as style. The capital is no longer called Erbil (the Arabic), but "Howler," its Kurdish name. While Mr. Barzani, age 60, still wears the pantaloon, cummerbund, tight jacket and twirled turban favored by traditional Kurds, Western-style business suits -- expensive labels, at that -- are favored by Nechervan Barzani, his nephew and the energetic 40-year-old prime minister of the Kurdistan Regional Government.
Gone are the refugee tents -- except for the thousands of Sunni Arab refugees from Baghdad, who, along with some 7,000 Christian families, have migrated here for safety. Temporary structures are being replaced by new brick and cement houses and apartment buildings -- among them many lavish "castles," as the Kurds call these houses nestled in the hills surrounding Erbil. Expensive glass office buildings are springing up throughout the region. Apartments are priced at between $100,000 and $200,000 -- prohibitively expensive; and yet several of these are sold out.
"Kurds have money," Prime Minister Nechervan Barzani told me. "But until recently, they lacked the confidence to invest." If the junior Mr. Barzani is correct, Kurdistan is literally exploding with confidence and new projects befitting its ambitions: Almost $2 billion in Turkish trade and investment -- the result, partly, of his outreach to Ankara -- is financing the construction the Middle East's largest new conference center, a new international airport, hotels, parks, bridges, tunnels, overpasses, a refinery and an electrical plant. The Kurdistan Development Council is even advertising Kurdistan as a tourist destination. There are over 70 direct flights a week to the region's two airports from the Middle East and Europe. But Kurdistan's infrastructure is still woefully antiquated, a legacy of Saddam's privation and the ruinous civil war between the clans of Mr. Barzani and Mr. Talabani from 1994 to 1998. Most cities still provide only two-to-three hours of electricity a day. The rest comes from private generators, which the poor can ill afford.
Last spring, public resentment at the lack of services erupted among the frustrated residents of half a dozen Kurdish towns. Consider Halabja, which became instantly infamous in 1988 when Saddam's forces dropped nerve gas there, killing 5,000. In March, its residents trashed the expensive monument erected to commemorate their annihilation, setting the structure on fire and stripping the black marble slabs on which the names of gas attack victims had been etched in gold. On my visit last week, two Pesh Merga were playing "dama," a Kurdish version of chess, with pieces of the marble that had been torn off the wall.
Kurds are now restless after so many years of deprivation, and their expectations are high, Mr. Barzani agreed: "My main objective is to build constitutional institutions in this country, to see a Kurdistan 10 years from now in which each person is safe and free to have his own ideas." He and other government officials were determined to "put the Kurdish house in order," which means continuing to encourage the effort by Nechervan Barzani to join supporters from his and Mr. Talibani's group into one efficient administration. Although grumbling about corruption and nepotism disturbs him, security and political solidarity at home must come first.
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There is, of course, the explosive question of oil. While Mr. Barzani is willing to share revenues with Baghdad, the principle of control is vital to Kurdistan if it is to have an independent revenue stream. This issue, and a referendum next year on who should control the oil-rich city of Kirkuk -- which the Kurds claim as their historic capital and whose residents approved a list of Kurdish candidates for Iraq's parliament last year -- are red lines for the Kurdish government. Mr. Barzani is confident that these questions can be resolved through negotiations with Baghdad. But if they cannot, or if the fighting that has gripped much of Iraq escalates beyond the control of American and Iraqi forces, at least the Kurds will not be blamed for the dissolution or partition of Iraq. "Other people will be responsible, not us," he says. "We will never become the cause of the partition of Iraq."
As Mr. Barzani carefully stresses his devotion to Iraqiness -- all the while promoting a political and economic agenda that would reinforce Kurdish exceptionalism -- Americans struggle for an elusive solution to the violence and ethnic strife that abounds. Mr. Barzani wishes the U.S. success, he says, because so much depends on George Bush's determination not to "cut and run." His "courageous decision to liberate Iraq will not be undermined by the mistakes made after that liberation," Mr. Barzani says, although he does resort to an American cliché: "If there are people who think the solution lies in leaving this unfinished, just like Vietnam, that would be a major disaster."
But having been both saved and betrayed by previous American governments, he knows the risks of tying Kurdish fortunes too closely to an administration facing public disenchantment with its Iraq policies. "In building our new federal democratic country, our interests have not contradicted each other," he says cautiously. "They are aligned. But before I trust the United States or other people, I trust my own people."