Coran School, Berlin
The contrast is striking: Mosul, a megapol of 1.7m inhabitants, looks like a huge village, with only a few blocks worthy of a big city. Its filthiness is repulsive. Most of its cars are in a state of dereliction. The facades of its houses are decrepit. The shops are poorly stocked.
Driving through its mean streets it is difficult to believe that this is Iraq's second city, the northern capital of a country with vast oil resources, which should look like Dubai or Kuwait. A few dozen kilometers away, Dohuk, in Kurdish-controlled land, is a showcase of prosperity. The Mazi Supermarket, Iraq's largest with its 7000 sq metres of shelves, attracts customers from all over Iraq, including for the last few months, American soldiers who come to Kurdistan for a few days of relaxation.
Kurdistan is the only place in Iraq where they can walk in the streets like tourists without risking life and limb. Dohok market is full of merchandise and, on the external boulevard, opulent mansions built by "businessmen" who made a fortune in smuggling, testify that business is booming..
A de facto semi-independent State
Twelve years after the creation in April 1991 of a safe haven by the Gulf War Allies, which was supposed to shelter the hundreds of thousands of Kurdish refugees who fled to the borders of Turkey and Iran, the Kurdish region has slowly become a de facto semi-independent state, with its own Parliament with representatives drawn from the KDP and the PUK.
Today, it enjoys an astonishing prosperity. A paradoxical prosperity it owes partly to large scale smuggling operations, but more than anything else to the UN Oil for Food Resolution. Since 1996, between $4bn and $5bn, deducted from Iraq's oil revenues, has been spent under United Nations direct supervision, in cooperation with the Kurdish authorities, to feed the people and rebuild the region. The results are striking. For the first time in the history of Iraq, the Kurdish region is prosperous, quiet and safe. Meanwhile, Iraq's Arab region is miserable, in a state of uncertainty and turmoil.
In spite of countless administrative obstacles raised by the then government in Baghdad and in spite of the UN bureaucracy, "We were able to rehabilitate and rebuild our infrastructure", says Sami Abder Rahman, Deputy Prime Minister of the Erbil government (KDP). "We rebuilt hundreds of schools and hundreds of kilometers of roads, we rehabilitated hospitals and we have also reforested Kurdistan. Up until 1995 there was nothing in Kurdistan. We have proved that the Kurds are not bad rulers".
A precarious situation
But Sami Abder Rahman is the first to acknowledge that the situation remains precarious. For many years the symbol of the Kurdish prosperity, the Swiss dinar will be removed from circulation on 15 January and replaced by the new dinar at an exchange rate imposed by the Americans, (150 new dinars for one Swiss dinar, instead of the current 200 or 250).
And the business people who made fortunes in smuggling are technically now out of business since the borders were opened and the Americans abolished all customs duties. Even Haji Mashoud, the owner of the Mazi Supermarket, acknowledges that the rules of business have changed since the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime, the reunification of Iraq and the opening of the borders. "Anybody can go to Turkey and bring back goods for his small shop; it is not good for big shops like mine". Haji Mashoud, who invested about $5m in his supermarket, reckons he must now invest in new activities in order to keep pace with development. In addition to building a new 3000 sq metre shopping centre, he will also be investigating the potential of tourism, he confirms.
At the other end of Kurdistan, in Suleimania (often called the intellectual capital of Kurdistan) Hiwa Rauf, a Kurdish businessman working in telecommunications, is optimistic: "We Kurds, have for 12 years been the victims of a double embargo", he observes, "the UN embargo and Saddam Hussein's embargo. But throughout this time we worked towards developing a modern and liberal economic system. While Saddam Hussein was investing all the oil money in his palaces and in weapons, the Iraqi people were left with photocopy dinars, banknotes without any value. A few months ago, a worker was paid 40 dinars a day (E 3) in Kurdistan. Now we cannot find one for less than 90 dinars (about E7). The time for real business has come".
Indeed, Faruk Mullah Mustafa, chairman of Asia-Cell Company, is planning to invest $200m in the next months to set up a mobile telephone network in Kirkuk and Suleimania and Mosul governorates, in partnership with a Kuwaiti company.
In his office of Coordinator for Economic Affairs in Prime Minister Berham Saleh's cabinet, Aso Ismael can hardly cope with the speed of events. His desk is littered with reconstruction projects. Visitors jostle in his office and queue in the corridor. And Aso Ismael speaks enthusiastically of a $1bn development plan for the Suleimania region over the next two years (2004-2005). "We are going to build factories, an airport and a railway between here and Kirkuk", says Aso Ismael. This huge amount of money, provided by the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), will allow the Kurds to rebuild infrastructures ruined by decades of neglect.
How long will this prosperity going to last? There is uncertainty. For Sami Aber Rahman, "Nothing is secure. We will continue to prosper if we get our fair share of the oil money in the future. No doubt, the people in Baghdad will try giving us as little as possible. We have had previous bad experiences".
The Key Issue: Federalism
But for the Kurds, the key issue is the political status of the Kurdish region inside Iraq. And they will not accept anything less than federalism. The problem is that while most Iraqi political trends have accepted the idea of federalism, there are presently at least three different doctrines of federalism. Some people advocate a federation of the 18 wilayet (governorates or provinces) constituting the Iraqi republic.
Others put forward a "geographical" federation based on three regions: the South (mainly Shia), the Centre (mainly Sunni), and the North (the Kurdish region, and Mosul). Finally, the Kurds advocate a federation of nations, based on a partnership between an Arab region and a Kurdish region.
The Americans seem to favour the wilayet federation, which has the advantage of being similar to the US system and would preserve the unity of Iraq. The Americans do not admit to it, but this system also has added advantage of diluting the Shia religious and the Kurdish ethnic factors. The Kurds could eventually accept the geographical solution, although the inclusion of Mosul "the heartland of Arab nationalism" in their region, could create many problems. But they reject categorically the wilayet federalism.
"It is a kind of decentralization, it would mean going back to the Baath concept", says Nechirvan Barzani, Prime Minister of the Erbil (KDP) government, adding: "We have a young generation asking us: Why don't we have independence? Why did you join the Interim Governing Council? They do not see themselves as smaller or less important than the people surrounding them. We are a different people, we have a different language, and we have a different music. But the Kurds must share the land of Iraq. The Kurdish question is bigger than the presence of four or five ministers in Baghdad. For us federalism is a voluntary union".
What the Kurds want is very clear. It is a region called "Kurdistan", they insist on the word, and reject the "Northern region" used by US officials. This region should include all the regions inhabited by a majority of Kurds, including Kirkuk, Sinjar and Khanakin, which were Arabised by the Baath and previous regimes. And, they insist, it should have its own political institutions, a government and a parliament.
Ambassador William Eagleton ranks among Paul Bremer's advisers who have the broadest knowledge of the Middle East and of the Kurds. When Hama Haji Mahmud, leader of the Kurdish Socialist Democrat Party, a small Kurdish party based in the Suleimania region, complained that the Americans did not want to reunify Kurdistan by incorporating the regions annexed by the Baath, Ambassador Eagleton quipped: "We will see when the governments of Erbil and Suleimania are reunified". It is an easy way to throw the ball back in the Kurds' court.
But it confirms the suspicions of those, like Chowkat Cheikh Yezdin, Minister of State in Erbil, who "fear the Americans will once again let down the Kurds, as in the 1970s, and that there is something ominous behind their strategy".
The Middle East magazine, January 2004)
Droits de Reproduction strictement reserves © Chris Kutschera 2012