February 16, 2005


A Place Apart in Iraq: Kurdistan offers jobs in a nation hungry for them. For migrants from the Arab south, the prosperous region is like a different country. (Jeffrey Fleishman, February 16, 2005, LA Times)

Like thousands of Arabs from troubled southern and central Iraq, [Sahib Ali ] Abbas, who left Baqubah several months ago, has found a more prosperous life in the democratic, free-market Kurdish region. Protected from Saddam Hussein's armies for 12 years by a "no-fly" zone patrolled by U.S. and British planes, the ethnic Kurds in effect raised a nation within a nation. Their clattering cities represent what many want for the rest of Iraq.

"There's a big difference between the south and here," Abbas said, stepping over metal rods and a pile of rocks on an apartment building construction site. "The Kurds are rich and educated. We're tired of poverty in the south. I look around at all this construction and see many, many Arabs just like me."

Authorities say 2,000 to 6,000 Sunni and Shiite Muslim Arabs have migrated to the Sulaymaniya region since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq two years ago. They are laborers, doctors, waiters, professors. There is even a civil aviation engineer hired from Baghdad because the Kurds lacked the experts to build an airport. Reliable statistics are scarce, but estimates suggest that the number of Arab migrants is steadily rising and may total more than 20,000 across northern Iraq, which is home to 3.5 million to 4 million Kurds.

Recent Kurdish history is a lesson in reversal of fortune. Regimes based in Baghdad brutalized the north for generations. Sunni Arabs, who were dominant under Hussein, were taught that Kurds, who are not Arabs, were beneath them; the Kurds' political voice was muted, and hundreds of thousands of them were killed.

Then the no-fly zone, established after the 1991 Persian Gulf War, transformed the region. Kurdish mountain guerrillas traded their baggy pants and bandoliers for the suits of politicians and businessmen, negotiating multimillion-dollar deals in oil, technology and retailing with Iran, Turkey and Dubai.

Over time, the Kurds fashioned a sprawling mountain bazaar. They couldn't get McDonald's, so they created MaDonal. They had cellphones before Baghdad. Internet cafes became hangouts for the young, and satellite TV dishes sprang up in the poorest villages. Not all is laissez faire — the main Kurdish political parties control much development. Patronage and corruption fuel many endeavors, diplomats and Kurdish officials say, and poverty in rural areas is high.

Kurds make up about 18% of the country's population. But thanks to high turnout, a unified Kurdish party appears to have won a quarter of the vote in last month's national election, which would give the north a large role in the new government.

"The Kurds are prosperous," said Naif Sabhan Khalaf, a Sunni Arab councilman in the oil city of Kirkuk. "They have smart political leaders who have taken advantage of things. Other provinces should follow this example. Western businesses tell me they are going to the north because there's security there, unlike places such as Tikrit, which are still ablaze."

So will successful states in the Middle East build pressure on the dysfunctional ones and create the desired domino effect.

Posted by Orrin Judd at February 16, 2005 6:29 AM

The Kurds were subject to the same sanctions as the rest of Iraq, and to "Oil-for-food", but administered the region relatively cleanly and didn't spend the money buying palaces, weapons and westerners. There is a certain amount of clarity to be found in those facts.

Posted by: David Cohen at February 16, 2005 9:18 AM

This sort of thing puts the lie to the complaint that the Kurds are an unthinking voter bloc that just voted for the Kurdish slate because they are Kurds. It sounds to me like the Kurds are the ones everyone should want running the country.

Posted by: Timothy at February 16, 2005 12:46 PM