Outside Baghdad, Oases of Calm

Times Staff Writer

There are no nightly power blackouts, bursts of automatic-weapons fire, rumbling tanks or ominous helicopter fly-bys.

Residents stroll the shops, munch a burger at MaDonal or sip a beer in an outdoor cafe by the canal.

No one frets about beating curfew or getting stuck at a checkpoint. Cars and trucks flow smoothly down the streets, aided by smartly outfitted traffic cops. U.S. troops can be seen without helmets or flak vests, sometimes posing for photos with appreciative residents.


“This must have been what Paris felt like when the Americans came after World War II,” said Sgt. Steven Roach, fresh in from Baghdad. “You don’t sense that everyone wants to take a shot at you.”

The news from Iraq of late has seemed to focus on an unbroken volley of attacks on coalition forces laced with continuous anti-U.S. invective. But not here.

Iraq’s three northern provinces, collectively known as Kurdistan, were spared most of the fighting and bombing, and have dodged Baghdad’s ugly postwar fallout. This is in almost every sense a different country from the rest of Iraq, with its own language, its own flag, its own culture and even its own currency -- an old-model dinar absent the image of Saddam Hussein. “Coming back from Baghdad, you really don’t feel safe until you cross the line into Kurdistan,” said Dana Hussein Qadir, a Kurd who has traveled south to set up a Baghdad branch of Kurdistan Save the Children. “It feels like quite a relief.”

Much of Iraqi Kurdistan has been under the protection of a U.S.-British “no-fly” zone since the end of the 1991 Persian Gulf War, and thus not under Hussein’s thumb. Though limited by its remoteness and its blurred status, the region has flourished, to a point, evolving into what many U.S. planners see as a kind of model for what a future, unified Iraq might be.

The mood in Baghdad today is sullen, exhausted -- the inevitable consequence, perhaps, of decades of misrule, warfare and embargo, capped by the fall of the Hussein government and its chaotic aftermath. In Iraqi Kurdistan, by contrast, one senses an almost giddy eagerness -- tinged with some trepidation -- for a future that remains vague at best. There is a palpable sense of an ancient culture not recoiling from modernity and change, but embracing it.

“I sympathize with the people in Baghdad who are suffering,” said Kosrat Rasoul Ali, a leading figure in the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, or PUK, which rules the eastern part of the north. “But the most important thing is that Saddam is gone. The tyrant is gone. Everything else can be fixed.”


For U.S. soldiers and visitors, the difference is striking.

A banner posted atop the archway leading to the old town welcomes “U.S. and U.K. liberators of Iraq From Saddam’s Terror.” In central Iraq, particularly in places such as Fallouja and Tikrit where anti-U.S. resentment runs high, merely acknowledging American citizenship may unleash diatribes of abuse, if not worse.

“Please, God, don’t send me out of here,” said one GI in Kurdistan.

Sgt. Roach, up from Baghdad with his unit to work on civil affairs projects, said he was taken aback when he arrived. It was hard to shed the preoccupation with being a target.

“Here you feel that instead of wanting to shoot you, people want to help you,” Roach said. “And people are actually happy to let you help them.”

The distinction is particularly evident in Sulaymaniyah, a city of about half a million on the road to Iran. Rising in a high valley and surrounded on three sides by mountains, this provincial center even presents a stark physical contrast to the much larger Baghdad. The heat is scorching in summer, but temperatures do not quite reach the 120-degree-plus delirium of the capital. Winters are cool, and snow dots the outlying peaks.

It is a kind of open city, its bustling markets featuring electronic and consumer goods from all over the world, much of it imported through the Turkish, Syrian and Iranian borders that form the frontier of Iraqi Kurdistan. Smuggling has long been a mainstay. Late-night mini-supermarkets feature Scotch from Britain and cologne from France.

Daily life proceeds apace in places like the People’s Tea Shop, a smoky hangout that features a bookshop, ceiling fans, steaming samovars and walls decorated with prints of the giants of Kurdish poetry and literature.

“I am a Kurd, but it troubles me to see what is happening to the people in Baghdad,” said Ali Kurdistan, a 21-year-old freelance journalist who was doing lessons with his Kurdish-English dictionary. “We have had it very hard in the past, and now they are having very difficult times.”

One of the striking facts of life here is how little people here know about life elsewhere in Iraq. Their insularity is a kind of mirror image of other Iraqis’ widespread isolation from the rest of the world. This region’s semiautonomous status since 1991 has largely shut it off from the rest of the world. Few had passports to travel abroad. And few wanted to venture south and be subject to conscription and Hussein’s security apparatus.

Now, many wonder about the onetime colossus to the south.

“I personally was very curious to see Baghdad,” said Hiwa Hassam, 27, a City Hall worker who was nursing an hourglass-shaped tumbler of chai at the People’s Tea Shop.

So, two months ago, he and a friend drove south. What they saw stunned them.

“Everything was crazy, and everyone was fearful,” Hassam recalled. “When we came back to Kurdistan it felt like Europe.”

Freewheeling Sulaymaniyah even boasts a fledgling cellular telephone network -- something Baghdad, with more than 5 million people, didn’t have before U.S. bombing smashed its land-line telephone system. Today, people in Baghdad often have to resort to expensive and unreliable satellite telephones just to call across town.

That’s not to say things are ideal in Kurdistan. The economy has stagnated, in part because the region’s quasi-independent status has made it difficult to attract investors or plan anything on a systematic basis. By most counts, something like half of the adult men are unemployed or earn insufficient sums to lead a life beyond the edges in a place where many still suffer from the ravages of the Hussein era.

“It’s wonderful that Saddam is gone, but what about my son?” asked Ahmed Hama Sayed, approaching a Westerner with a photograph of his son, Nuradin, 30. The son lost his right leg, and his left eye is covered with a patch -- the result of a mine explosion in one of the world’s most hazardous mine zones. “Who will help me take care of my son? He cannot work.”

One distinct advantage here is that Iraqi Kurdistan has long had a functioning government. It is far from a civic-book model -- the two major Kurdish parties fought an intermittent civil war during the mid-1990s. Both have been unable to come together since Iraq fell, despite U.S. hopes of unity. Chicago-style ward politics, complete with widespread patronage and corruption, seem to be the rule. But, unlike in Baghdad, there is some experience here with the messy phenomenon called democracy.

“We have a governing infrastructure here that we can work with,” said Dick Naab, coordinator for the northern region for the U.S.-led coalition that now runs Iraq. “Sometimes the best thing for us to do is get out of their way.”

A major challenge is persuading people here to embrace being part of Iraq once more. It is not an easy sell. An independent Kurdish state has long been the dream of the scattered and long-repressed ethnic Kurdish population that lives in parts of Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Syria -- not to mention thriving Kurdish diaspora communities in Europe and the United States whose remittances back home help subsidize many here. Turkish fears of that dream led to concerns in March that Turkey would invade from the north -- but such talk has abated since the arrival of the U.S. troops.

The other night, at a town hall-style meeting here, intellectuals argued vehemently for a plebiscite to determine the future of Kurdistan. Many voiced common fears: a loss of hard-won autonomy; a reincarnation of some version of Hussein’s so-called Arabization program, which sought to move Arab settlers into the north to shift the demographic makeup against the Kurds; the emergence of Islamic-style rule that would be at odds with the secular style prevalent here.

“How do we know that what happened to us in the past under the Arabs won’t happen again?” asked Basit Hama Gharib, editor of the weekly Khak, a general-interest magazine.

But, despite a mutual distrust, many other Kurds and Arabs seem eager to have a complete Iraq again. Optimistic Kurds see the possibility of an economic revival, including the rebirth of a tourist industry long down at the heels.

Many Arabs from the south fondly recall outings and visits to the lakes and mountains of Kurdistan before the 1991 Gulf War, and are eager to see their country whole again.

“Maybe someday soon people in Baghdad will feel as secure as the people here feel,” said Hussein Najeer, 35, an Arab writer in town to film a television series focusing on the two communities. “Not having to worry all the time about security and electricity. That is the hope of all of us.”