Wednesday, March 6, 2013

The fountains of Iraq

A Kurdish man sells Muslim prayer beads.

Over a year and a half after heading off to Cairo, I moved back to the U.S. last month to search for a job in journalism here. It's been great seeing family and friends and eating Mexican food.

Before I left the Middle East, I made a quick trip to northern Iraq, home to the semiautonomous region of Kurdistan.

The Kurdish people reside in a landlocked region at the intersection of the border of four countries: Iraq, Turkey, Iran and Syria. Turkey is home to the largest concentration of Kurds, who are ethnically and linguistically distinct from the Arabs, Turks and Persians who hold power in those countries. But three northern provinces in Iraq represent the Kurds' most tangible success to date in achieving their dream of a state of their own.

Iraqi Kurdistan has its own security force, social services and visa process. It also sits on billions of barrels of oil, which has been fueling the region's economic prosperity for the past five or six years. Fancy SUVs cruise past luxury hotels, malls and cookie-cutter developments with names like Italian City and the American Village. I stayed in Italy during my visit, and like parts of Rome, it smelled of sewage thanks to some very slipshod construction.

Since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, Kurdistan has avoided the sectarian violence that has racked the rest of Iraq. No need for a security detail in downtown Erbil, the regional capital; I felt at ease sipping pomegranate juice by the city's beautiful bazaar and outdoor fountains (in Iraq!).

Erbil's city center

Iraqi Kurds generally love Americans and the men who took on and toppled Saddam Hussein: George Bush and his son W. After decades of oppression, including Saddam's genocidal campaign in the late 1980s that used chemical weapons, air raids and other means to destroy thousands of villages and kill up to 180,000 Kurds, they welcomed the 1991 Gulf War and the 2003 invasion.

Occasionally, I came across American flags on display, and they weren't on fire! Like at this authentic burger joint:

Just like home.

While the Iraqi flag often flutters alongside its Kurdish counterpart, animosity toward the Arab-dominated central government in Baghdad runs high. Kurdish leaders say they want to remain part of Iraq, but ask anyone and they'll quickly express a yearning for a Kurdish state in "Greater Kurdistan," encompassing Kurdish-majority areas across the region.

At the heart of the current fight is oil – what's new? – and the Kurds' use of their natural resources in a tension-filled dispute with Baghdad over revenue, contracts and ultimately, additional autonomy. I filed a nice, colorful story (with photos!) for EnergyWire from a gas field called Khor Mor, giving Zaatari, Jordan, a run for its money for my coolest dateline ever.

Iraqi Kurdistan is also struggling to deal with an influx of Syrian Kurdish refugees as Iraqi Kurdish leaders vie for influence across the Syrian border. I wrote about that geopolitical trend for the International Herald Tribune.

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