The birth of Kurdistan?

The north of Iraq is everything the rest of the country is not: safe, prosperous and tolerant—and it could be independent within a decade
July 18, 2013

Erbil, Kurdistan’s capital—“a brash, sprawling metropolis that aspires to be a ‘second Dubai’” © Jane Sweeney

On the eve of Newroz, the Kurdish New Year, in March, a fireworks display crackled over the city of Sulaimaniya in northern Iraq. Tens of thousands of Kurds had packed into Salim Street, the city’s broad central boulevard, to celebrate the festival. Kurdish musicians performed on stages. Men wearing traditional baggy-trousered Kurdish costumes, and women in sequinned dresses, danced and promenaded. Parents bought kebabs, spiced broad beans and roasted sunflower seeds for themselves, and ice cream or candy floss for their offspring. The mood was carefree, exuberant.

I had been to Iraq many times before, but usually to Baghdad or Anbar province to report on the brutal sectarian conflict that erupted after the US invasion of 2003. I always went with flak jacket and helmet, and relied on armed bodyguards or the US military for protection. I came to associate Iraq with mutilated bodies floating in the Tigris, the aftermath of suicide bombings, and days of apprehension followed by relief as my plane took off for Amman at the end of each assignment. The only “festival” I had seen was the sombre one of Ashura in the city of Karbala where Shia Muslims flagellate themselves to commemorate the martyrdom of Husayn ibn Ali, the prophet Muhammad’s grandson, in 680 AD.

Never before in Iraq had I witnessed joyful scenes like those in Sulaimaniya. Never before had I, a westerner, been able to walk safely through a vast throng of Iraqis, or experienced such tolerance, friendliness and absence of fear or religious stricture. Women with uncovered heads wore make-up and golden jewellery. Teenagers discreetly flirted. A few obviously gay men, and the odd drunk, wandered uncensured through the crowds.

That night was just the start of the celebrations. The next morning seemingly the entire population piled into cars, vans and minibuses and decamped into the green valleys carpeted with spring flowers that surround the city. For two days they played and picnicked in the sun. Families ate roasted lamb and chicken, on mounds of rice, onions and tomatoes, and piles of flat Iraqi bread. They performed shuffling, rhythmic line dances to music from their car radios. They hung hammocks from trees, and ropes for their children to swing on. They played football and flew kites, and when the sinking sun gilded the snow-flecked peaks of distant mountains they drove contentedly home.

In Kurdish folklore Newroz celebrates the toppling of Zahak, a child-killing tyrant, by a humble blacksmith. The day after Zahak’s death, spring reached his benighted kingdom for the first time. The parallels are obvious. In a metaphorical sense spring never reached Iraqi Kurdistan while Saddam Hussein ruled Iraq, but it has most certainly arrived since he was toppled, rendering the celebration of Newroz doubly sweet.

Saddam banned the festival, along with all other manifestations of Kurdish culture, and Iraq’s 5m Kurds feared to observe it even in the privacy of their homes. The “Butcher of Baghdad” waged a genocidal war against them, and condemned them to decades of suffering, poverty and isolation. But today, as the rest of Iraq lurches back towards anarchy and civil war, the Kurdish-populated north is the most secure, prosperous and cosmopolitan part of that country. And if this year’s Newroz celebrations had an additional undercurrent of excitement, it was because many Kurds sense that their age-old dream of a sovereign, independent “Republic of Kurdistan,” based on those northern provinces of Iraq which they now run, is no longer unthinkable.

Analysts warn of the corruption and shallowness of the present Kurdish government. They note that the turmoil of the region, while offering the chance of new alliances (such as with previously-hostile Turkey), and new chances for economic independence, may throw up obstacles to this project. But as Michael Rubin, a former Pentagon official and resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington DC wrote recently: “Not since the second decade of the 20th century has the Kurdish dream of independence appeared so attainable.”


The dream represents the greatest challenge yet to the borders that Britain and France imposed on the Arab provinces of the defeated Ottoman Empire after the First World War, an exercise in expediency that bolted non-Arab Kurdistan to Iraq. As well as the Kurds living in Iraq, there are 20-25m others in neighbouring parts of Turkey, Syria and Iran.

The transformation of the Kurds’ fortunes in Iraq began in 1991 when the United States, Britain and France imposed a no-fly zone, which was intended to prevent Saddam massacring the Kurds after they rose against him following his invasion of Kuwait. It accelerated after Saddam’s downfall in 2003, with the lifting of international sanctions and the formalisation of Kurdistan as a semi-autonomous region within a federal state.

It is a measure of how much Iraq’s three most northerly provinces have progressed that western tour operators now offer trips there. My verdict on Kurdistan’s attractions as a holiday destination is somewhat equivocal. It is roughly the size of Switzerland and undoubtedly beautiful, with its ring of mountains, spectacular waterfalls, gorges, fertile plains and orchards of apricot, walnut and pomegranate. It is easy to see why so many westerners went there to rest during the worst years of the Iraq war. But you would have to be a war junkie really to enjoy a vacation in Kurdistan, for reminders of Saddam’s savagery are everywhere.

According to Human Rights Watch, he killed 100,000 Kurds during his al-Anfal campaign in the late 1980s. His Ba’athist regime razed 4500 towns and villages—since replaced with ugly concrete and breeze block constructions. It cut down forests to deny hiding places to the Kurdish peshmerga fighters. Its old military bases still stand on hilltops, and as we drove along roads once reserved for Saddam’s forces our guide pointed out detention centres into which untold numbers of male Kurds vanished for ever.

Above a tranquil valley hosting the temple of Lalish, the spiritual centre of the obscure Yazidi sect, we found a sign warning of minefields, and a tree festooned with ribbons—each one a prayer for a lost relative. We explored the caves and catacombs of the St Hormizd monastery, which clings to a mountainside above the plains of Nineveh, and on a rocky outcrop found the graves of seven peshmerga killed by Saddam’s forces. Everyone has a tale of suffering or bereavement from the “Kurdish holocaust.”

The infamous “Red House,” Saddam’s intelligence headquarters, still stands in Sulaimaniya, its walls topped by razor wire, punctuated by watchtowers and pockmarked by the bullets of the peshmerga who seized it in 1991. Tanks and artillery rust in its courtyards. Tourists can tour the windowless cell blocks where Saddam’s intelligence agents interrogated, tortured and killed his Kurdish foes. They can see the rape room, last messages scratched on the walls, the bars from which prisoners were hung, the machine that electrocuted them and blood stains on the floor. In nearby parks are memorials to Saddam’s victims, and to four Kurdish officers hanged for attempting to kill him.

Kurdistan’s biggest tourist “attraction”—for that is what it has become—is Halabja, the town which Saddam’s Mirage jets blasted with chemical bombs on 16th March 1988, after using conventional munitions to shatter its windows. Five thousand Kurds—mostly women, children and the elderly—died almost instantly in the world’s worst chemical attack on a civilian population. Countless others were permanently debilitated.

The victims’ names are inscribed on black marble in the memorial building. Photographs show the dead slumped over kitchen tables, tumbling from vehicles or trying to protect babies. Others show blinded survivors with burned faces. The rope that hanged Saddam’s henchman, Ali Hassan al-Majid—“Chemical Ali”—in 2010 is on display, as is his death warrant. Our translator choked with emotion as a guide, who was six at the time, described watching 20 members of his family perish. “God wanted me alive to tell the world the story, and I will do that till I die,” he said.

Not far away is a cemetery with three mass burial sites for the victims and row upon row of identical headstones. “Baaths (sic) members are not allowed to enter,” a sign at the entrance proclaims. To this day, mustard gas—being heavier than air—lingers in the odd cellar, making it inaccessible.

Kurdistan has achieved a miraculous renaissance in the two decades since it escaped Saddam’s grip. Today it enjoys much greater autonomy than, say, Scotland or Catalonia. It enjoys what Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman, Kurdistan’s High Representative in London, calls “devo-max.” It is a state within a state with all the trappings of nationhood. It has a flag—a blazing sun on red, green and white stripes—flown in preference to the Iraqi flag everywhere except government buildings. It has its own anthem, with the refrain, “Let no one say the Kurds are dead... The Kurds are alive and their flag will never fall.” It has its own language, democratically-elected government, laws, judiciary and culture. It issues its own visas. Though foreign affairs are officially Baghdad’s preserve it has a dozen diplomatic missions around the world. Two dozen countries have missions in Erbil, Kurdistan’s capital.

Kurdistan has its own “army” consisting of more than 100,000 peshmerga who operate in place of Iraqi government forces. With the help of checkpoints and a vigilant public they have kept Kurdistan relatively safe and calm. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office has no travel warning for Kurdistan, though it strongly advises against travel to the rest of Iraq. The police enforce speeding and seat belt laws. Jeremy Clarkson declared it safer than Cheltenham after filming Top Gear there in 2010.

Above all, Kurdistan has a surging economy, double-digit growth and the resources to go it alone. It sits on 45bn barrels of oil, one of the world’s largest reserves, were it an independent state. The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) has signed production contracts with some 50 foreign oil companies, including ExxonMobil, Chevron, Gazprom and Total. It has attracted more than 2,000 foreign firms and billions of dollars in foreign investment. Exiled Kurds are coming home to exploit business opportunities that have vanished in the struggling west. Chris Bowers, British Consul General in Erbil until last year, likened Kurdistan to a “spring uncoiling. Isolated for more than two long decades, the region is stretching, awakening and growing.”

The results are obvious. From next to nothing Kurdistan now boasts 20 universities, 60 hospitals and 13,000 schools. Unlike the rest of Iraq, it enjoys uninterrupted electricity and excellent communications. Erbil has become a brash, sprawling metropolis of gleaming tower blocks, sparkling shopping malls and five-star hotels that aspires to be a “second Dubai.” It has Mercedes, Porsche and Land Rover dealerships and a new $500m airport. That and Kurdistan’s other international airport at Sulaimaniya probably receive more flights from Europe and the Middle East than Baghdad. A third is under construction at Dohuk.

Erbil is so awash with money that I found one shop hawking distinctive mobile phone numbers for up to $200,000. There is talk of building a ski resort in the mountains, a Grand Prix circuit and a championship golf course. But at the heart of Erbil stands a reminder of its origins—the 8,000-year-old Citadel. The fortress is currently being restored, not least to replace the modern “Arab” gateway that Saddam erected as a monument to himself, but a single family has been allowed to remain inside its walls to preserve its claim to be the oldest continuously-inhabited city in the world.

Kurdistan is far from perfect—its coalition government is bloated, often fractious and susceptible to corruption, and displays a tenuous support for democracy. Massud Barzani, Kurdistan’s leader, wants to remain in office for a further term, and the Kurdish Democratic Party, the largest, is proposing to alter the constitution to let him do so. When he postponed presidential elections in June for two years, there were fistfights in parliament. But he will remain in office for at least that period while the changes to the constitution are deliberated, keeping the region in a state of political uncertainty. Michael Rubin is deeply sceptical of the Kurdish leadership, saying that it risks “breaking the unwritten pact between leader and governed.” Analysts and consultants are worried at the strength of Barzani’s grip on power and the weakness of the team around him.

Despite these concerns, Kurdistan is everything the rest of Iraq is not: safe, prosperous, tolerant, welcoming, outward-looking and business friendly. It welcomes, rather than persecutes, Christians and other religious minorities. Young Kurds learn English, not Arabic, as their second language. Its citizens look more to Istanbul than Baghdad, which is viewed as a dangerous and forbidding place to be avoided at all costs.

En route to Sulaimaniya I left Kurdistan to visit the disputed city of Kirkuk. I was transported back to the old Iraq—an Iraq of blast walls and razor wire, of fortified bases and armed soldiers, of fear of the next bomb. Kirkuk sits on a huge reservoir of oil and gas, and the flaring chimneys and plumes of black smoke that rise from its antiquated wells merely add to the sense of being in some sort of inferno. In Kurdistan people do not regard the US invasion of 2003 as a disaster. They refer to it as the “liberation.” They laud George W Bush and Tony Blair. “This is the best we’ve had it for a very long time,” says Rahman, the UK High Representative.

So why does Kurdistan not secede? Why do the Kurds—the largest ethnic grouping in the world without a state—not realise their dream in northern Iraq? Why not sever links with a country in to which they were unceremoniously dumped by the British in 1921 to provide oil and a buffer against Turkey?

There are compelling reasons why not. The most obvious is economic. Kurdistan receives—in theory—17 per cent of an oil-based national budget of $118.6bn, which is much more than it contributes. “We should overcome the idea that Kurds are chained to Iraq, because to a great extent they benefit from being part of the Iraqi state,” says Maria Fantappie, the International Crisis Group’s Iraq expert. Kurds fear that if they seceded they would have either to fight for or abandon the disputed territories that lie south of Kurdistan, including Kirkuk. Saddam ethnically cleansed the Kurds from those territories in a campaign designed to “Arabise” the region. The Kurds regard them as their stolen birthright.

The US has strongly opposed the break up of a country where it expended so much blood and money. So, at least in the past, have Turkey, Iran and Syria who feared their own sizeable Kurdish minorities would rise up if their Iraqi kinsmen gained independence. “At a bare minimum you would need the support of one regional power and one international superpower” to secede, argues Rahman, who points out that tiny, landlocked Kurdistan is surrounded by traditionally hostile neighbours in one of the world’s most dangerous regions. Burned many times, Kurds like to say that they have “no friends but the mountains.”

Kurdistan’s more pragmatic leaders argue that their proto-state is stronger and safer inside Iraq than it would be outside; that it is better to enjoy virtual sovereignty within the present federal system than to challenge it. “They want to be like Taiwan—a de facto independent country but never breaking the tie—the best of both worlds,” said one astute western observer.


And so it may remain, but the centrifugal forces propelling Kurdistan away from Baghdad are gaining strength. “The factors that obstruct or promote Kurdish independence... have changed almost beyond recognition,” Gareth Stansfield, a professor of Middle East politics at Exeter University, argued in a recent paper for Chatham House.

The Kurds are dismayed by the growing authoritarianism and sectarianism of Nouri al-Maliki’s Shia-dominated, Iranian-backed government in Baghdad. They deplore its attempts to control Kurdistan’s oil reserves. They complain of a protracted failure to resolve the status of the disputed territories that has on several occasions brought Kurdish and Iraqi security forces close to outright conflict. They lament its failure to govern through partnership, its withholding of funds and its use of security forces for sectarian ends. “If Iraq returns to dictatorship we would not be part of it because under the previous Iraqi dictatorship we suffered genocide,” Rahman insists.

The Kurds also fear that Iraq’s Shia and Sunni communities are sliding towards war. At least 700 people were killed in April, and more than 1,000 in May—the worst month since 2008. “If we go on like this we will have civil war and then partition,” Mowaffak al-Rubaie, Iraq’s former National Security Adviser, told the Independent recently. The loss of Jalal Talabani, the Kurdish President of Iraq who suffered a stroke last December, was another blow. He was a notable peacemaker who restrained Maliki and believed strongly that Kurdistan should remain part of Iraq.

Longer term, Kurds realise that Kurdistan will become a net contributor to the federal budget as its oil output increases. Production, which began in 2007, has already reached about 250,000 barrels per day and the goal is 1m by 2015. They also know that Iraq’s military is receiving ?US M1 Abrams tanks and F-16 jets, despite intense Kurdish lobbying of Washington—equipment that will soon make it a far more formidable adversary.

But equally pertinent is the present turmoil in the Middle East. Scenarios that result in an independent Kurdistan are not hard to imagine. The Syrian conflict is fragmenting that country, polarising the Arab world and exacerbating Shia-Sunni tensions in neighbouring Iraq. Predominantly Sunni countries including Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey have aligned themselves with the Sunni-led rebels, while the Shia regimes of Iraq and Iran back President Bashar al-Assad’s Alawite regime. Iraq’s Kurds are moderate Sunnis, but their real interest lies in the roughly 2m Kurds of north-eastern Syria. They have effectively broken away from Damascus and their border with Iraqi Kurdistan has disintegrated.

In all this, Kurdistan is enjoying dramatically improved relations with Turkey, while Ankara’s relations with Baghdad and Tehran have soured. Much of this is driven by commerce. Turkish companies are pouring into Kurdistan, building hotels and developing oil fields, while energy-hungry Turkey badly needs Kurdish oil and gas. In a development of potentially huge significance Iraqi Kurdistan plans to open a new pipeline to Turkey this autumn that could carry up to 1m barrels per day and spare it the need to use a pipeline controlled by Baghdad. This could mark the beginning of real economic independence.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish Prime Minister, also needs the Kurdish government’s support for his efforts to end 29 years of intermittent warfare in southeastern Turkey with the Kurdish PKK, whose fighters are now withdrawing south across the border into the mountains of Iraqi Kurdistan. The unspoken quid pro quo would presumably be greater rights for Turkey’s Kurdish minority. But Turkish ambivalence is clear; it would still be a huge leap for Turkey to accept an independent Iraqi Kurdistan that would encourage Turkish Kurds to demand the same.

Many Arab and western countries also have new economic interests in Kurdistan, gradually sucking it away from Baghdad’s embrace. When Barzani attended the World Economic Forum in Davos in January he was courted by international leaders and corporate titans in a manner unthinkable a few years ago.

The US might object to the breaking up of Iraq, but its influence is much diminished since the last of its troops withdrew in 2011. Even in Baghdad there are voices close to the Maliki regime now arguing that Shia domination of Iraq’s Sunni minority would be enhanced by Kurdistan’s secession.

“The constellation of political forces in the Middle East has traditionally served against the emergence of a Kurdish state, but for the first time that constellation is beginning to work in its favour,” Gareth Stansfield argues. Other analysts are cautious, but he rates the chances of the world’s perpetual victims achieving their cherished goal of full independence within 10 years as “very high.”