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'In the belly of a shark'

While the White House makes its case against Saddam Hussein's Iraq, the country's northern provinces, already acquainted with democratic transformation, ponder what the war on terrorism will mean for them

IRBIL, Iraq—Every morning at Syria's northern border a convoy sets off from Kameshli, a frontier town with dusty streets and fleabag hotels. Trucks built to carry cabbages instead take luggage while minivans bear Iraqi refugees eager to return to their home villages in northern Iraq.

They make their way across the region's alluvial plains, green with spring. At the Tigris River the refugees board outboard-powered boats in twos and fours, with luggage, and cross into Iraq. It is a fast passage, with a hostile Turkish border in view upstream and Saddam Hussein's troops only a few miles downstream. On the Iraqi riverbank a sign reads "Welcome to Kurdistan." A reception center is under construction at this isolated border crossing for the returnees-who numbered as many as 400 a day last month.

The Kurdish homeland is divided among Turkey, Iran, and Iraq. Two hundred years ago there were twice as many Kurds as Egyptians; today the Egyptians outnumber Kurds two to one. War and persecution repeatedly slashed population for the Kurds, the largest ethnic group without a nation in the Middle East. Despite the losses, ethnic Kurds make up 15 percent of Middle Eastern people.

When Iraq's president, Saddam Hussein, targeted Kurds for annihilation, thousands died from chemical weapons attacks on this region in the late 1980s. Over 100,000 disappeared under Anfal, a planned campaign to destroy Kurdish villages. U.S. and British forces stepped in to protect the region with a no-fly zone after the Gulf War.

Under that protection, administrative governments run by the Kurds are creating economic opportunity and freedom. For that, Kurdish leaders would like to be consulted about Bush administration plots to remove President Saddam Hussein and hasten a post-Saddam Iraq.

The journey home is a sentimental odyssey for those who have settled outside Iraq, an extended homecoming usually to see family before returning to Finland, Germany, Holland, or the United States. Some return because they finally have earned enough money in the West to afford a trip home. Some make the trip because they hear a clock ticking toward war. They want to see changes in Kurdish northern Iraq before the next phase of the U.S. war on terrorism-should it come to their homeland-changes everything again. In some cases, surprisingly, they are coming back for good.

Fawzi Hariri is one who has come home to stay. For over 20 years he lived in London, working part-time with the exiled Iraqi National Congress (an umbrella group of factions opposed to Mr. Hussein) and full-time as an executive with British Airways. He returned last July following his father's assassination in the city of Irbil.

Franso Hariri was a popular leader in the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP), a resistance fighter, author, and soccer champion. He survived repeated clashes with Mr. Hussein's regime (and two other attempts on his life) to become governor of the Irbil province after the Gulf War. Four Islamic militants armed with heavy machine guns ambushed him outside his home on the way to work on Feb. 18, 2001. Today his son, at 43, leaves each morning under heavy guard from the same house for his new job with the KDP, as deputy head of international relations. "You may say I picked the worst time to come, but I decided to continue the family line," he told WORLD.

The KDP and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) have controlled most of Iraq's three northern provinces-Irbil, Dohuk, and Sulaymaniyah-since Mr. Hussein withdrew his military forces and government personnel from the area after the 1991 Kurdish uprising. The KDP and the PUK fought one another from 1994 through 1997. In 1998 they agreed to a ceasefire and to unified government. The cease-fire has held, but reunification measures have not. The two parties govern carefully separated regions but allow travel and commerce between them.

Like his father, Mr. Hariri took up his new post as a minority among the minority, an Assyrian Christian working alongside predominantly Muslim Kurds. "We were an endangered species," he says in reference to Kurdish Christians. "But the last 10 years have reinvigorated our existence." Under the KDP churches are being rebuilt, some with government aid, and Christian holidays are once again celebrated-something forbidden in the rest of the country under Baghdad's control.

The region has over 20 licensed political parties; five have representatives in the KDP government. They include minorities from the Assyrian, Turkmen, and Yazidi communities.

Westerners, including Americans, also have been welcomed into the administrative mix in Kurd-controlled areas. Security concerns dictate that they work in small numbers and not advertise their identity. What few Americans are here find it best to work in training capacities, equipping locals to carry on the real work while at the same time keeping their own profiles discreet. A therapist from California has for eight years trained Iraqis to teach the handicapped. Surgical groups from Texas-based Northwest Medical Teams make annual trips to perform cataract operations and other procedures alongside local medical workers.

At the Classical School of the Medes, eight primary-school teachers from the United States are training local faculty members to run a private school built around a classical Christian school curriculum. The project is succeeding, says administrator Jozef Werner, because "it is based on a curriculum that is the best available." Financial support comes from a private Christian school in the United States, the nonprofit group Classical Development Services International, and the local evangelical church. Kurdish officials approved this course of study and two additional classical schools in northern cities under Kurdish control. Mr. Werner says he needs more primary teachers from the United States to lay the groundwork to open those schools.

The American teachers are there only to train local schoolteachers. Classes include English, Kurdish, and Latin, along with math, science, logic, art, and music. Arabic, mandatory in schools under Baghdad control, is not taught. Students may come from all backgrounds, including Muslim families. In the school's first year, administrators had 250 applicants for 60 slots.

In a region where Christians are a tiny minority and most foreigners employ bodyguards, operating the school is a careful proposition. "Just being open is a miracle," said Mr. Werner.

In the meantime, PUK officials have already donated land for the school's expansion. Classroom window ledges are filling up with artwork and hallways have racks full of coats and knapsacks. The classical school is one of over 400 new schools established since 1997, part of a booming economic landscape that greets Kurdish returnees.

After Saddam Hussein's campaign against the Kurds and the Gulf War, northern Iraq was a sarcophagus. Beginning in February 1988 Iraqi tanks flattened 4,500 villages. Iraqi soldiers loaded men and boys over 12 years old into army trucks. They herded women and children into concentration camps or collectivized towns.

Under the protection of the no-fly zone, rebuilding began in earnest only about five years ago. Until one year ago Sulaymaniyah had electricity only one or two hours a day. Now it has power round the clock, along with digital phone exchanges and a private cell phone system. Internet cafes and one-hour photo processing shops are flourishing. Thousands of homes are going up using private development funds and money from the UN-sponsored Oil for Food program, which bypasses sanctions by allowing the sale of Iraqi oil if the money is used to purchase food, medicine, and other necessities. (Thirteen percent of the funds go to the Kurds.) Infrastructure, given both UN sanctions and restrictions from Baghdad, is harder to erect. But new hotels and road improvements are in every city. Five years ago a trip from Dohuk near the Syrian border to Irbil took seven hours by car. With improved roads and bridges, it takes four hours.

In Dohuk, where one of the classical schools is planned, a Kurdish refugee who built a business empire in Turkey recently opened a two-story supermarket. An upscale if less cavernous version of Wal-Mart, Mazi Supermarket rivals any modern store in the Middle East. An expansive meat counter ends where a bank of televisions and household appliances begins. Pistachios? Whole, shelled, bulk, or prepackaged? Lipstick? At Mazi Supermarket, shoppers have over 40 shades to choose from. Upstairs are racks of inexpensive clothes from Turkey and China. Children can ride in Little Tikes coupes while their parents shop. At the checkout, cashiers in headscarves are seated at bar-code scanners.

The development could lend a false sense of security. Most Kurds, however, are too recently acquainted with suffering to trust it. Tension with Baghdad continues and so do Iraqi swipes at the no-fly zone. Just this spring Iraqi forces challenged the U.S. patrols twice, forcing the jet fighters to bomb surface-to-air missile radar systems after they locked on to aircraft. Those kinds of confrontations could continue-or escalate-as the United States moves closer to full-scale military action in Iraq.

Leaders of Iraq's opposition are watching carefully the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan. They say the Afghan model for change has only some applications to Iraq. The Baghdad regime is not a fundamentalist Islamic movement like the Taliban. And opposition groups in Iraq are not currently fighting Mr. Hussein as the Afghan opposition was fighting the Taliban right up to the U.S. invasion last October. But Mr. Hussein's military strength stands at roughly three-fourths its level at the start of the Gulf War. More importantly, no one is certain of his capabilities for again using weapons of mass destruction, since he ousted UN weapons inspectors in 1998. Kurds fear they again could be his first target in chemical warfare.

They also fear the Bush administration will strategize more on "regime change" than long-term change. "Talk of removing Saddam Hussein interests us a great deal, but it is not sufficient to excite us without government transformation," Mr. Hariri told WORLD. "It worries us a great deal to have people thinking about only a cosmetic change in Baghdad."

Kurdish resistance fighters once sought an independent Kurdistan, but no more. "Our future is connected directly with the rest of Iraq," says deputy prime minister Sami Abdul Rahman, who began as a resistance fighter in the 1960s. "If there is a change, we want to make it a democratic change. The rights of Kurdish people should be recognized within existing borders." The Kurdish movement, he says, has always been a populist movement, "not a coup d'etat in the making."

Mr. Rahman says he sometimes feels he is "in the belly of a shark" with so much attention focused on Iraq and so much uncertainty about its future. PUK leaders agree on this point "The future of Iraq is profoundly important," said Barham Salih, PUK prime minister. "It's the first time in an Islamic-Arab country where you really have a chance to bring about some form of democratic government."

The Bush administration shows growing interest in the Kurds' experience. Recently top officials from the State Department, Pentagon, and CIA met with KDP figurehead Massoud Barzani and PUK leader Jalal Talabani. Scholars this month will host a conference in Washington at American University titled "Iraqi Kurds: A Key to Stability in Iraq."

Locals see these as good reasons to keep rebuilding their cities and towns. They expect the prosperity to continue and, they hope, the U.S. protection that makes it possible.

Mindy Belz

Mindy Belz

Mindy is senior editor of WORLD Magazine and the author of They Say We Are Infidels. Follow Mindy on Twitter @mcbelz.