Iraqi Kurdistan capital’s prosperity, tolerance threatened by Islamic State
By SETH ROBSON | STARS AND STRIPES Published: September 7, 2014
IRBIL, Iraq — Neon lights up the night. Young people of both genders mingle freely in bars. Shoppers stroll by smart shops offering gleaming new cars and appliances.
The relative normalcy of Irbil, the capital of the thriving Middle Eastern oil hub of Iraqi Kurdistan, seems strange given the proximity of Islamic State militants whose reign of terror has included mass murder, torture and rape in the city of Mosul, less than 50 miles to the northwest.
Unlike other parts of Iraq plagued by Sunni-Shiite violence since the U.S. invasion in 2003, self-ruled Kurdistan has gone from strength to strength as oil money has flowed into the economy. Kurds have developed infrastructure to support the thriving service, agriculture and tourism sectors.
All this wealth and the tolerance the Kurds are known for are at risk from the Islamic State, which threatens Kurdistan as well as the rest of Iraq.
The advance of the Islamic State to within a 20-minute drive of the city limits last month was a shock to many living here. As the militants approached, foreign workers headed for the airport, leaving heavy trucks, cranes, pipes, drill heads and other oil industry equipment piled up along the sides of a dusty street on the outskirts of town.
“I drove our foreign staff to the airport myself,” said San Kaka, 30, a Kurdish coordinator for an oil service firm who is one of the few employees still working in the industrial zone.
There was fear in the eyes of workers from the United States, New Zealand, Canada and Britain as they headed for planes out of the country, but nobody panicked and local nationals weren’t evacuated, Kaka said.
“They (the terrorists) were so close, though — just 20 minutes’ drive away — but I never believed they would be here,” he said. “That’s why I never left.”
In recent weeks, Kurdish fighters known as peshmerga, helped by U.S. airstrikes, have pushed the Islamic State further from the city.
The U.S. military support is low key, and it’s not clear how many personnel are in Irbil, where the U.S. has a consulate. Locals report that a U.S. flag that flew above a military facility in Irbil was recently taken down. Military flights are often scheduled at night and go unnoticed by most people.
At the U.S. consulate compound — which covers several city blocks and is surrounded by concrete “T-walls” and protected by Iraqi troops — streets and buildings were empty last month because many staff members had evacuated.
Kaka said some foreign oil workers are still in Kurdistan, and that some drill operations never shut down. Other foreign workers were planning to return, but that was delayed after a car bomb went off in Irbil on Aug. 23, he said.
In the meantime, he and the other local employees are keeping an eye on the equipment until things get back to normal. For the Kurds, who are already selling oil independently of the Iraqi government in Baghdad, that can’t happen soon enough.
The prosperity of oil
In the south of the region, hulking new irrigation machines water once-barren fields where tongues of orange fire flare from drill sites on the horizon. That Kurdistan has oceans of oil beneath its fertile farmland is evident from a map in the air-conditioned shed where Kaka works.
The map includes drill sites run by Hunt Oil Co., of Dallas; ExxonMobil Corp., of Irving, Texas; Chevron Corp., of San Ramon, Calif.; Total SA, of France; Repsol YPF SA, of Madrid; Gazprom, of Moscow; and Tawazun Precision Industries, of Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. The sites have security teams, and oil workers often travel in armored cars protected by hired guns. But the relative peace and stability in Kurdistan mean vehicle accidents are the biggest risk, according to local security contractors.
The prosperity that oil brings is on display during a drive into town from Irbil’s gleaming new airport. Roads that were little more than dirt tracks a decade ago are being turned into four-lane highways filled with new American cars, especially Dodge Chargers — the well-to-do Kurd’s ride of choice. Neighborhoods of adobe huts have been replaced by high-rise condos, shopping malls and luxury hotels.
In Irbil’s Ankawa district, store windows display beer, cigarettes, cellphones and mannequins sporting the ripped jeans and form-fitting T-shirts popular with Kurdish youngsters.
It’s easy to spot the displaced people who have crowded into vacant buildings and schools in the neighborhood as they comb through donated clothing and food in front of churches. One displaced child had scored a T-shirt depicting Darius Rucker, lead singer of Hootie and the Blowfish, though he had never heard of the band.
The influx of tens of thousands of Christians and Yazidis, driven north by the Islamic State militants, has led to communal tensions.
A large bible sits on the desk of Ankawa Mayor Jalal Habeeb Aziz.
He and his staff are struggling to deal with water and power shortages brought on by the influx of 40,000 displaced people into a neighborhood that was home to 35,000 Assyrian Christians. Police don’t have time to sort out quarrels among drunken neighbors, he said, explaining his justification for imposing a ban on over-the-counter liquor sales after 8 p.m.
The displaced want to return to their homes in Mosul and on the Nineveh plains, on Kurdistan’s southern border, but they need protection, he said.
The longer the displaced stay in Kurdistan, the more tension builds with locals. There have been lines for cooking gas and rising food prices, and there’s growing animosity toward Sunni Arabs — the Islamic State’s constituency.
Only a small Arab population lives in Kurdistan, but in recent weeks there have been demonstrations by Kurds who want them expelled. Anti-Arab graffiti has appeared on walls around Irbil, and restaurants have put up signs stating that Arabs won’t be admitted, Aziz said. However, that does not apply to Christians, whom the Kurds do not perceive as Arabs.
“People are mad,” Azizi said. “They say, ‘We give you (Arabs) residency and then you bomb us.’ ”
Kurdish President Massoud Barzani has refused to expel the Arabs, and officials have reminded concerned citizens that records are kept of every Arab resident in Kurdistan, Aziz said.
“Some Arabs here support Daash, but everything is under control,” he said, using the local acronym for the Islamic State group. “We aren’t going to kick them out, unless they are here illegally.”
Tourism is Kurdistan’s other big industry after oil. The region is famous throughout the Middle East for snow-capped mountains, waterfalls and picnic spots.
The Irbil Citadel — a World Heritage site in the center of the city — has protected its inhabitants for millennia and, until recently, was billed as the planet’s oldest inhabited structure. Its residents were recently moved out to make way for renovations that appear aimed at creating a tourist site to rival the Acropolis.
A souq, or market, at the base of the citadel buzzes with shoppers, and street musicians entertain tourists in a park filled with fountains.
One of those browsing the merchandise there recently was Zahraa Nadhim, a Shiite who moved to Irbil from Baghdad with her family a few years ago. Dressed in a black singlet and jeans, the office administrator wouldn’t look out of place in a U.S. shopping mall, although there are plenty of more modest female shoppers in Irbil who prefer a headscarf and full-length dress.
A sense of safety
Nadhim said she was a little upset when the Islamic State got close and foreign workers from her company started leaving.
“They didn’t have an evacuation plan for us locals, but I knew it was safe,” she said.
The roads into Irbil from the south appear well-guarded. Driving to the city from the direction of areas controlled by the Islamic State involves passing through numerous checkpoints manned by the peshmerga.
“The media make it a big deal, but we know they (the Islamists) are not going to come here,” Nadhim said. “They were pretty close but they couldn’t get in.”
There’s a half-built camp for displaced people across the road from Babylon FM, a radio station that broadcasts Western pop music out of a two-story building in Ankawa. The building, which is filled with recording equipment, musical instruments and a wall display of expensive-looking video cameras, feels like it could be in any major U.S. city.
Station manager Noor Matti, 30, an Assyrian Christian, spent much of his youth in Detroit before returning to his hometown six years ago to start a business.
“Irbil is safer than Detroit,” he said. “It’s a fact.”
The city’s Christian and Muslim communities are tolerant of their differences, he said.
“People who don’t drink respect my right to drink,” he said. “We don’t have that in other parts of Iraq, where they have become more religious and extremist. Here, people are more open.”
Irbil today is the way all of Iraq was before the U.S. invasion, Matti said.
“There were bars all over the country,” he said. “My mom went on her honeymoon in Basra and wore a miniskirt.”
In his free time, Matti is raising funds from ex-patriot Assyrian Christian communities through a group he founded — the Shlama Foundation — to help the displaced arriving from the area around Mosul, where most of the Yazidis and Assyrians are from. Why not encourage them to stay in Kurdistan?
“These people aren’t rich enough to buy homes here,” Matti said. “They come from towns where the average house costs $25,000, and in Irbil the average is closer to $150,000.”
A better option would be an international force to secure the Nineveh plain, using the Tigris River as a natural barrier against the Sunni extremists, he said. If foreign governments aren’t willing to send peacekeepers, the U.S. should at least arm the peshmerga and provide them with air support to do the job, Matti said.