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In Kurdistan, Iraq Seems a Million Miles Away

Times Staff Writer

The night is young. The women are pretty. Danyar Farok, wearing a sparkly gray shirt and skin-tight acid-washed jeans, and a buddy are strutting along this Kurdish city’s main drag.

Maybe they will wind up at one of the outdoor bars in the riverside Sarchinar district. Or maybe they will sit at a teahouse shooting the breeze.

Farok, a 25-year-old high school computer teacher, complains that he and his girlfriend, Medea, can’t put together enough money to live together. His artist pal Shakwan Siddik, a 23-year-old with black hair down to his shoulders and sunglasses dangling from an open-collar shirt, is searching for a sunny studio to do his oil paintings.

As for the kidnappings, car bombings, drive-by killings and economic misery unfolding in the rest of Iraq, Farok is blunt.

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“I don’t care,” he says. “The Arabs never cried for us when we were suffering. I’m going to a teahouse with my friend to have some fun.”

Although much of Iraq is engulfed in insurgent, sectarian, political and tribal violence, the Switzerland-sized Kurdish autonomous region in the north of the country, established after the 1991 Persian Gulf War, is an oasis of safety and tranquillity where young and old concern themselves with mundane matters of life such as work, dating and home furnishings.

The growing sense that the Kurdish region is turning away from the rest of the nation was driven home over the weekend, when Kurdistan regional President Massoud Barzani banned the Iraqi flag from being flown atop official buildings. To many in Kurdistan, the banner symbolizes years of oppression and slaughter under Saddam Hussein.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki criticized the decision Sunday. “Until this moment we still have the current Iraqi flag and it should be raised over every point in Iraq,” he said during an interview with an Arab satellite television program.

“Not only the Kurds were slaughtered under this flag, but many Iraqis were slain under this flag. Iraq was slain under this flag,” he said.

Whichever flag prevails will fly in a prosperous area. The Kurdish region has thrived even as Iraqis elsewhere have taken their money and skills with them, fleeing cities such as Baghdad, Basra and Mosul.

A real estate boom has transformed cities such as Sulaymaniya and Irbil into noisy construction zones. The once-desolate road around Sulaymaniya is being filled from scratch with apartment towers and commercial buildings on a scale seen in oil-rich Persian Gulf kingdoms.

Towns and villages in the mountainous Kurdish countryside are seeing modest housing booms as Kurdish expatriates and Iraqi Arabs fleeing the violence flood into the region.

In Sulaymaniya, an opera house is being built. New hotels abound. New international airports in Sulaymaniya and Irbil offer direct flights to cities such as Dubai, United Arab Emirates; Istanbul, Turkey; Amman, Jordan; and Tehran. Visitors to Kurdistan can now bypass Baghdad altogether.

At Sulaymaniya’s airport, wireless Internet access lets travelers check their e-mail. U.S. service members, accustomed to glares and roadside bombs in the rest of Iraq, wander in amazement through the terminal almost unnoticed, ordering snacks at the cafeteria as if they were on a layover in Cleveland.

“We’ve tried for 15 years to have some sense of normalcy here,” said Diari Tarek, a 37-year-old architect shopping for windows and doors for a house he is building for his family. “After 15 years, we finally found it.”

Kurds, the world’s largest ethnic group without a nation, have a language and culture distinct from Iraq’s 80% Arab majority. Successive Sunni Arab governments in Baghdad brutally repressed the Kurds, whose region is home to much of Iraq’s water and energy resources.

Hussein’s forces destroyed hundreds of Kurdish villages and allegedly used chemical weapons during the 1988 Anfal campaign, now the subject of a genocide trial in Baghdad.

Since Hussein’s ouster in 2003, the Kurdish region has not been immune to violence. Several times, insurgents have slipped past soldiers guarding the internal frontier along the three Kurdish provinces and attacked government buildings. An undercurrent of fear persists.

“The same explosions and bombings might come up north tomorrow, blow me up with my business,” says Issa Hamad Abdul Rahman, who said he grosses $1,500 a month selling imported chewing gum to passersby in Sulaymaniya’s main market. “Terrorism spares no one.”

Some Kurds, especially those with ties to the rest of Iraq -- perhaps from having studied in Baghdad or owning property elsewhere -- worry about the violence.

Tarek, the architect, and his schoolteacher wife, Nasiq, own property in eastern Baghdad.

“It’s very sad what is happening in the rest of Iraq,” she said. “I see the rest of Iraqis as our children, brothers and sisters.”

By and large, though, Kurdistan feels distinctly different from the rest of the nation. The regional government announced over the weekend that it would no longer fly the red, white and black flag of Iraq, opting for the sun-splashed red, white and green banner that has been a symbol of Kurdish independence for 60 years.

Being here means forgetting the hard-set rules that govern the rest of Iraq.

Westerners can walk out of hotels and catch taxis without fearing for their lives. Restaurants and kebab stands can stay open late. Young men can blast their car stereos. Brightly lighted liquor stores can sell bottles of low-grade whiskey and wine. Young men and women can -- and do -- kiss in parks.

“I change the channel every time there is news about bombing and killing on television,” said Lana Tofiq, an 18-year-old whose skimpy purple T-shirt would draw stares, recriminations and possibly worse in the rest of Iraq. “As long as Sulaymaniya is nice and quiet, why should I worry about other places?”

Her boyfriend, Rebwar Jamal, an 18-year-old working at a bakery, also could not care less what happened in the rest of Iraq.

“We were being killed and repressed for decades by Arabs, and not one of them ever said anything on our behalf,” he said. “Why should I care about Shiites and Sunnis who kill each other?”

Jamal said his biggest worry in life was being so busy that he would not be able to see his girlfriend enough.

“When I get a chance, I go out with her to the park,” he said, his hair glistening with gel. “But I cannot see her every day. I spend hours calling her on the cellphone and sending her text messages. I send her about 20 text messages a day.”

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daragahi@latimes.com

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Times special correspondent Ayub Nuri in Sulaymaniya and staff writer Solomon Moore in Baghdad contributed to this report.


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