The Kurdish Miracle

As Iraq falls apart, Kurdistan is flourishing, construction is booming and government services are free.

ERBIL, NORTHERN IRAQ - All the important people in Iraqi Kurdistan can be found in the Charwa Chra hotel restaurant, in the center of Erbil. The director-general of the new airport; the communications minister, there with his family; senior officials from the Kurdish government; and some rich Iraqis who have found temporary refuge in the hotel, until they decide whether to invest in Kurdistan or continue on to some European country. Rawand Darwesh, a senior Kurdish official, and Hamin Hassan, who was partner to the civilian social revolution in Kurdistan, are among the guests.

Darwesh was a member of the first group of outstanding students who received a Fulbright scholarship to study for a year in the United States. When he returned home, he quickly became involved in government activity. Hamin Hassan helped found the institute for human and civil rights in Kurdistan, in 2002, and later went to specialize in election supervision, in Jordan.

"Here the parliament has passed a law that stipulates that any murder is a murder," Hassan says. "There is no longer leniency for murdering women in the pretext of preserving family honor. This is not Iraq, where people who murder over family honor enjoy special privileges under the law. Moreover, our prime minister has called for setting up a hotline at police stations for abused women."

The police academy has begun accepting female cadets to assist women and victims of domestic violence. "They have an address here," Hassan says. But when he says "here," he is referring to the region of Kurdistan, which so far has only three sub-districts - Erbil, Duhok and Sulaimaniya. Residents hope that by next November, if and when a referendum is held, another three sub-districts will join the district. "This is not the Iraqi government," says Hassan. "I am referring only to the Kurdish law."

This is the heart of Iraq's anomaly. The Kurdish region is run as if it were a completely independent state. The Kurdish flag flies over the huge parliament building, not the Iraqi flag. At night, lights in the shape of the Kurdish flag light the streets of Erbil. The Iraqi flag cannot be seen here, and people even decline to use Arabic, the official language of the state.

A friend of Darwesh's explains that the Iraqis, particularly the Shi'ites, still consider the Kurds to be Israeli allies, even though Israel turned them a cold shoulder more than three decades ago. "One day, while traveling north from Baghdad, we were stopped at a Shi'ite roadblock," his friend says. "Three of the passengers said they were headed for Mosul. The fourth said, by mistake, that he was going to Erbil. The Shi'ite guard shouted out to his commander: 'Three of them are okay. One is going to Israel.' As you can understand, they consider Erbil Israel, because it is the capital of the Kurdish district."

At the table, laden with Kurdish delicacies, the conversation returns to women and human rights. "We still have a long way to go in this respect," Hassan says. "We have to educate an entire nation to new principles - particularly those outlying villages, which have fewer western influences."

Hassan, who was a Peshmerga fighter and an announcer on the underground Kurdish television network, admits that even he sometimes finds it difficult to live by all those new values he preaches. "If my sister wants to marry someone of a lower standing, less worthy of her, I'll try to persuade her, perhaps pressure her, to accept my values. Our women received freedom too quickly, as if in an explosion," he says.

Two days later, Abdel Salaam Barwary explains the problem. Barwary is one of Iraq's most influential analysts, the former bureau head for Kurdish Regional Government President Massoud Barzani, and currently the director of the Kurdish center for advancing democracy and human rights. "People want to know whether democracy means we will lose all our old values, if it means we will lose control of our wives and daughters, if democracy means sexual freedom," he says. "We still have a great deal of work to do in this field, particularly given that some of our ministers do not exactly understand what we are doing and are not exactly convinced that this is the best thing for the Kurdish state."

In my prior trips to Kurdistan between 1995 and 2004, there were no conversations of this type. The excitement generated by the war and the victory over Saddam Hussein, the relative quiet, the still-"reasonable" number of dead for a war, and especially the uncertain future all led to questions and conversations about physical survival and livelihood. This kicked off the gradual process of commemoration and remembering. People felt the fight was over, victory was assured and the Kurds were on their way to a state of their own - or at least to taking a healthy bite out of the Iraqi regime that tried to destroy them.

Now, things look totally different. The signs of a revolution are evident at the border crossing between Turkey and Iraq. The long lines of trucks, stretching for kilometers, are not waiting to enter Iraq to smuggle out oil. Instead, they bear bags of cement, building iron, food products, textiles, electronics - everything a rehabilitating country needs. These goods will not reach Baghdad or Basra. The trucks will stop at the new stores in the Kurdish district, at Erbil's glittering New City commercial center, or by the cranes building the "Italian colony" or the "English village" - single-family homes slated for rich locals or foreigners.

Traffic at the crossing moves quickly and efficiently - so long as the computer does not break down for an hour (like when we were supposed to get a stamp allowing us to cross into Iraq) or if the clerk does not take another hour-long lunch break. That, after all, is acceptable in Europe, and a country that aspires to be part of Europe must ensure its clerks have a suitable lunch break.

We finally receive our two stamps, and a minute later, we cross into Kurdish Iraq. We hear the same questions we heard last time: "How can we visit Israel? Is there work for us there? Do only Jews get entry visas to Israel?" The transit station director has friends in Israel, immigrants from Duhok. He would very much like to visit them, but does not know how to get a visa. Here, Israel is considered a land of dreams. We later learn that not only Israel, but also the Israelis - at least the Jewish Israelis - are viewed here as superior entities.

Economic boom

The trip from the border crossing to Erbil takes three hours. The temperature outside is above 40 degrees Celsius, but our air conditioning is effective. We sit back, watching the small commercial centers that have sprouted up over the past two years in the town of Zakho , on the way to Duhok. Shomal, a customs employee who drives me along Duhok's main road, explains how prices have risen. Three years ago, a dunam plot in Duhok sold for $1,000-$5,000. Now, 200-meter apartments can sell for $150,000, while private homes cost as much as $300,000.

Rich Iraqis fleeing the war and Kurds from abroad are buying these houses, Shomal says. But there are also local residents who have earned a lot of money in this economic boom, and can afford the houses, too. The growth is evident on the outskirts of Erbil, where new clusters of single-family homes have popped up. "All of the houses were bought before the building began and now people are searching for new plots to build on," says Darwesh, who bought a large apartment in one of the beautiful towers next to the Italian Colony.

The buildings in this neighborhood are not yet finished. There are many building foundations and frames, stylized steel balustrades, and a few touches of finishing. But the purchasers are not worried. The company has promised that the apartments will be ready in a few months. This economic boom becomes even more amazing to behold when one remembers that in Kurdistan, like the rest of Iraq, there is no such thing as a mortgage or a bank loan. Everything here is bought in cash. Iraqi dinars that are worth 1,200 to the dollar - houses, cars, trips, furniture. You cannot pay by check, credit card or bank order.

It is hard to say how prices compare here. A new Land Cruiser sells for a mere $30,000, but the New City supermarket has European-level prices. Ice cream costs $1, but a meal at a middle-class restaurant can cost as much as $25 per person - almost five times more than it did three years ago.

Erbil district governor Nawzad Hadi Maulud says the main problem facing his region is electricity. An electrical engineer by training, the governor finishes work at 9 P.M. Some of the region's electricity comes from Turkey, which sometimes cuts the current on a political whim. Other suppliers include small stations set up by the government, but these are too small, and too far from the city. Most of Erbil's electricity comes from private generators.

People do not pay for the state-supplied electricity. "How can I charge money for a bad service?" the governor says. "After all, I can provide electricity for only a limited number of hours per day. First I have to prove that I can provide excellent service, and only then can I begin collecting money for it. The main problem is that I have to deal with the memories of the Saddam Hussein era. His administration provided very good services for free or cheap. Now, if I provide a service that is not very good, people will compare it with what they had during that period, and conclude there is no good reason to pay for it."

All municipal services - medical services, university education, water, sewage and more - are free. However, in this state where the government provides everything for nothing, there are no welfare services or national insurance. There are also no health maintenance organizations. But most of all, there are no bank fees - because there are no banks. Life is carried out in cash, and businesses use banks in Turkey or Jordan.

"We do not have a real infrastructure for business," says an adviser to Barzani, the regional president. "There is money but there is no strategic thinking. We aspire for a well-balanced and independent economy, and the Kurdish region has adopted an excellent investment law. We have a great deal to offer investors, especially security and tranquility, but meanwhile, everything is being conducted in a tribal fashion, with written notes."

If the building impetus one can see here is the result of written notes, one could imagine how far Kurdistan could get with an organized administration.