Kurds Build Island of Calm in Iraq's Inferno

SULAIMANIYA, Northern Iraq - The Iraqi Civil Defense Corps commander for one of the quarters of Erbil made one simple request at the start of our conversation. "Don't call me a 'security officer.' The word 'security' is enough to make peoples' skins crawl around here. It reminds them of Saddam Hussein's days in power: torture cellars and arrests. I am serving the public by protecting them, and that's the way I wish to be described."

Unlike many other Iraqi cities, Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, has seen very few terrorist attacks since civil war broke out following the U.S. invasion in 2003 and the subsequent execution of Saddam, Iraq's former dictator. The Kurdish area, located in the north, relies on its defense forces to keep it that way.

In Kurdistan, people still walk through the streets and go to shops with little fear of the lethal car bombings that afflict the rest of the country. Foreigners are not an uncommon sight. The Kurdish city of Sulaimaniya, for example, is quite calm despite its proximity to the inferno in Mosul. Nor is it far away from Kirkuk, whose streets are regularly ripped apart by explosions.

From Sulaimaniya, families go on holidays to nearby Azmar Mountain. There, they barbecue meat, make salads, have beers and enjoy the sun. Each family pulls over by the road to admire the view. The atmosphere is quite calm; no nervous honks disturb the still of the Friday afternoon. The revelers stay late, untouched by the sectarian flames that are engulfing the rest of their country.

I arranged to interview a senior official in the Kurdistan Regional Government, who wished to remain anonymous. "We have problems with the Arabs," he explained his request for anonymity. "Egypt, Jordan and the Palestinians are allowed to speak to the Israelis, but not us: They immediately accuse us of treason. 'The other Israel,' that's how they call us."

When I asked how the government managed to disassociate the region from the violence and establish an island of peace there, the official replied that it is all about people. "The people themselves are our security, and I don't mean just the security forces, but the whole Kurdish people. We all act as scouts, informers, inspectors and watchmen, because we realize that our lives depend on it."

Later, I toured Erbil with Heiman, an official from the Foreign Relations Department. Before we visited Erbil's Jewish quarter, Heiman warned me about taking pictures. "There are lots of undercover policemen around, and we don't want them asking questions. Also, be careful not to take pictures of women," he instructed me.

A veteran Kurdistani intelligence official told me how the regional government protects Erbil from suicide bombers. It is a simple solution, almost medieval, but it seems to be working. "Erbil is flat, and has access roads leading to it from all directions. So we went ahead with a simple solution: We dug a moat around the city, 91 kilometers in diameter. We made it three meters wide and three meters deep, so no car can get into the city unless it takes the regulated roads."

The intelligence operative compared the Kurdish solution for Erbil to Israel's barrier for stopping suicide bombers. "You guys built a protective wall that everybody can see and make a fuss about. We dug our moat in two months; it's not as conspicuous and it's much more effective."

And what about the land owners? Legal battles? Compensation issues? "The people who owned the land we needed to expropriate for the moat volunteered their plots. They know it's needed for their security."

But the moat is not the only security measure barring the way of potential terrorists. All non-Kurds who wish to enter Kurdistan need a Kurd to vouch for them. Otherwise, they are refused entrance. Those who vouch for visitors must call the security forces in advance and inform them of the purpose of the visit and the visitor's identity. Even then, visitors are subject to strict inspection.

The intelligence official told of cases in which wives informed security about their husbands, or parents told the police they suspected their children of terrorist activity. "We're like that when it comes to security. It's something that runs through our veins, like with you Israelis," he explained.

Security, however, comes at a price. Defense guzzles up a significant portion of Kurdistan's budget, which is comprised of 17 percent of the Iraqi government's revenues. Moreover, the separation from the rest of the Iraqi population, a move dictated by security requirements, has in many respects effectively severed Kurdistan from Iraq. Washington is probably the only place in the world where Iraq is referred to as a single entity.