Iraq today is a land of contrasts — mostly black and blacker. Traveling around the central Baghdad area the past few days, I saw little that really gave me hope that the different Iraqi sects can forge a social contract to live together. The only sliver of optimism I find here is in the one region where Iraqis don’t live together: Kurdistan.
Imagine for a moment if one outcome of the U.S. invasion of Iraq had been the creation of an American University of Iraq. Imagine if we had triggered a flood of new investment into Iraq that had gone into new hotels, a big new convention center, office buildings, Internet cafes, two new international airports and Iraqi malls. Imagine if we had paved the way for an explosion of newspapers, even a local Human Rights Watch chapter, and new schools. Imagine if we had created an island of decency in Iraq, with public parks, where women could walk unveiled and not a single American soldier was ever killed — where Americans in fact were popular — and where Islam was practiced in its most tolerant and open manner. Imagine ...
Well, stop imagining. It’s all happening in Kurdistan, the northern Iraqi region, home to four million Kurds. I saw all of the above in Kurdistan’s two biggest towns, Erbil and Sulaimaniya. The Bush team just never told anybody.
No, Kurdistan is not a democracy. It has real Parliamentary elections, but the region’s executive branch is still more “Sopranos” than “West Wing,” more Singapore than Switzerland — dominated by two rival clans, the Talibanis and the Barzanis. It has a vibrant free press, as long as you don’t insult the leadership, and way too much crony-corruption. But it is democratizing, gradually nurturing the civil society and middle class needed for a real democracy.
On Oct. 17, the new American University of Iraq will open classes in Sulaimaniya. “The board wanted three campuses, one in Kurdistan, one in Baghdad and one in Basra, but this is the only part of the country where an American University can open and function safely,” said Owen Cargol, the school’s chancellor.
Iraq is a disaster in so many ways, but at least America’s invasion midwifed something really impressive in Kurdistan. And in the best way: we created the opening and the Kurds did the rest. But while the Kurds liberated their region from Saddam’s army in the 1990s — with U.S. air cover — their current renaissance was only possible, they say, thanks to the overthrow of Saddam, their mortal enemy.
“Saddam’s eyes were always on this region,” said Nechirvan Barzani, prime minister of the Kurdistan regional government. Once he was toppled, “it gave us psychological hope for the future. Those who had even a limited amount of money started to invest, start small businesses or buy a car, because they thought they could see the future. The uncertainty was removed. ... We have to thank the American people and government. But we are a lover from only one side. We love America, but nothing in response. They don’t want to give the perception that they are helping us.”
Added Hoshyar Omar, a 23-year-old student-translator: “My father was buried alive [by Saddam’s men] when I was 3. I want to thank Mr. George Bush personally. ... He may have made some bad decisions, but freeing Iraq was the best decision he has ever made. ... We had nothing and we built this Kurdistan that you see.”
Why is Kurdistan America’s best-kept secret success? Because the Bush team is afraid the Kurds will break away. But the Kurds have no interest in splitting from Iraq now. Iraq’s borders protect them from Turkey, Iran and Syria.
The Kurdish autonomous zone should be our model for Iraq. Does George Bush or Condi Rice have a better idea? Do they have any idea? Right now, we’re surging aimlessly. Iraq’s only hope is radical federalism — with Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds each running their own affairs, and Baghdad serving as an A.T.M., dispensing cash for all three. Let’s get that on the table — now.
Months after Saddam’s capture, a story made the rounds that he was asked, “If you were set free, could you stabilize Iraq again?” He supposedly said it would take him only “one hour and 10 minutes — one hour to go home and shower and 10 minutes to reunify Iraq.” Maybe an iron-fisted dictator could do that. America can’t.
“No one here accepts to be ruled ever again by the other,” Kosrat Ali, Kurdistan’s vice president, told me. “If you get all the American forces to occupy all of the towns and the cities of Iraq, you might be able to centralize Iraq again. That is the only way.” Otherwise, “centralized rule is finished in Iraq.”