Erbil, Iraq — More than two months after elections, Iraq’s parliamentarians have yet to cobble together a new government. Is this just the messiness that has to be expected in a fledgling democracy? Or, to paraphrase Benjamin Franklin, have the Iraqis been given a republic that they will be unable to keep?
Here in northern Iraq, Kurdish leaders do not claim to know the answer. Barham Salih, Kurdistan’s prime minister, calls the situation “confused” and marked by “political intrigue.” It also could be more consequential than most people — including most American policymakers — seem to appreciate. “The fate of Islam and democracy may be decided in Iraq,” Salih tells me and other members of a delegation of journalists and think-tank analysts led by the Foreign Policy Initiative, a D.C.-based non-profit.
Kurdistan is part of Iraq, yet distinct. Salih recalls trying to explain that to Pres. George W. Bush a few years ago. “We are Iraqis and we are not,” he said. Bush replied: “You sound like Texans.”
Not quite. The Kurds are an ancient nation but one that has never had its own state. Kurds are neither Arabs nor Turks, but in Iraq they inhabit a territory sandwiched between the two. Millions of Kurds also live in Turkey, Syria, Iran, and other corners of the Middle East. A Kurdish diaspora can be found from Seattle to England to Central Asia.
But Kurds enjoy self-rule only now and only here within what is officially called the Kurdistan Regional Government, part of an Iraqi federation that was constitutionally established after the fall of Saddam Hussein. Kurds are determined to defend their newfound autonomy. “We are not going to squander the gains we have made here in Kurdistan,” Salih says. Another prominent Kurd tells me: “I’m willing to be an Iraqi, if I can be a first-class Iraqi. I’m not willing to be a second-class Iraqi.”
Kurds constitute about 20 percent of Iraq’s 30 million people. That gives them significant but not decisive leverage in the attempts at coalition building now taking place in Baghdad. For the moment, Kurdish leaders seem less than enthusiastic about their potential coalition partners, which include Arab nationalists (inevitably hostile toward minorities), Baathists (heirs of Saddam Hussein who ruthlessly persecuted the Kurds), and both Shia and Sunni Islamists (most Kurds favor strict separation of mosque and state and see nothing in Iran they’d want to emulate).
Since February, when the election campaign began, terrorists have murdered an estimated 400 Iraqis. But it’s been several years since a spectacular act of terrorism has been carried out on Kurdish soil. How has this been achieved? For one, along Kurdistan’s de facto border with the rest of Iraq are checkpoints where serious scrutiny is given to anyone heading north. Second, few Kurds would turn a blind eye to strangers who might have come here to murder their children. Third, the Kurds have their own well-respected intelligence service, the Asayesh. Fourth, Kurdistan has its own fighting force, the fabled Peshmerga — which translates as “those who face death.”
Kurdistan is a developing nation. One says that about every Third World country, but usually it’s a white lie, a way to avoid telling people that the policies their governments are implementing will only deepen poverty in years to come. Here, by contrast, foreign investors are welcomed, the private sector is encouraged, and progress is obvious. Oil is being pumped, there are two new international airports, and new buildings are sprouting just about everywhere. There are new car dealerships — everything from Skoda to Cadillac — and stores overflow with local and imported goods, including even liquor and Western-style bridal gowns. The Kurdish government will spend $100 million a year to send promising students to universities abroad — an investment in the future, and just one component of the most ambitious education-reform effort anywhere in the Middle East.
Kurdistan is not without flaw or blemish. Corruption is a serious concern. On May 4, Zardasht Osman, a young Kurdish journalist investigating corruption, was abducted here in Erbil. Two days later, his body was found 50 miles away in Mosul. “We have condemned this abhorrent crime,” says Salih. “But condemning it is irrelevant unless there is a thorough investigation with a concrete outcome, unless we get to the bottom of it.”
Finally, this should not go unmentioned: No Muslims in the world are warmer and more hospitable toward Americans than are Kurds. They can’t repeat often enough how grateful they are for the sacrifices Americans made to liberate them from a dictator whose goal was their extermination — and who did slaughter tens of thousands of them. Poison gas was among the weapons Saddam used against innocent Kurdish men, women, and children.
Even those most critical of the U.S. intervention in Iraq ought to consider: If that’s how Saddam treated fellow Iraqis and fellow Muslims, what might he have done to Americans had he been given the chance?
– Clifford D. May, a former New York Times foreign correspondent, is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on terrorism and Islamism.