July 2013

On the eve of Nowruz, the Kurdish New Year, in March a spectacular fireworks display fizzed and crackled over the city of Sulaimaniya in northern Iraq.

Tens of thousands of Kurds had packed into Salim Street, the city's broad central boulevard, to celebrate the festival.Kurdish musicians performed on stages. Men wearing traditional baggy-trousered Kurdish costumes, and women in shimmering sequinned dresses, danced and promenaded. Parents bought kebabs, spiced broad beans and roasted sunflower seeds for themselves, and ice cream or candy floss for their offspring. The mood was carefree, exuberant.

I had been to Iraq many times before, but usually to Baghdad or Anbar province to report on the brutal sectarian conflict that erupted after the US invasion of 2003. I always went with flak jacket and helmet, and relied on armed bodyguards or the US military for protection. I came to associate Iraq with mutilated bodies floating down the Tigris, the gruesome aftermath of suicide bombings, and days of nagging apprehension followed by immense relief as my plane took off for Amman at the end of each assignment. The only 'festival' I had seen was the sombre one of Ashura in the city of Karbala where Shia Muslims flail and flagellate themselves to commemorate the martyrdom of Husayn ibn Ali, the prophet Muhammad's grandson, in 680 AD.

Never before in Iraq had I witnessed joyful scenes like those in Sulaimaniya. Never before had I, a westerner, been able to walk safely through a vast throng of Iraqis, or experienced such tolerance, friendliness and absence of fear or religious stricture. Women with uncovered heads wore make-up and golden jewellery. Teenagers discreetly flirted. A few obviously gay men, and the odd drunk, wandered uncensured through the crowds.

That night was just the start of the celebrations. The next morning seemingly the entire population piled into cars, vans and minibuses and decamped into the green valleys carpeted with spring flowers that surround the city. For two days they played and picnicked in the sun. Extended families feasted on roasted lamb and chicken, on mounds of rice, onions and tomatoes, and piles of flat Iraqi bread. They performed shuffling, rhythmic line dances to music from their car radios. They hung hammocks from trees, and ropes for their children to swing on. They played football and flew kites, and when the sinking sun gilded the snow-flecked peaks of distant mountains they drove contentedly home.

In Kurdish folklore Nowruz celebrates the toppling of Zuhak, a child-killing tyrant, by a humble blacksmith. The day after Zuhak's death, spring reached his benighted kingdom for the first time. The parallels are obvious. In a metaphorical sense spring never reached Iraqi Kurdistan while Saddam Hussein ruled Iraq, but it has most certainly arrived since he was toppled, rendering the celebration of Nowruz doubly sweet. 

Saddam banned the festival, along with all other manifestations of Kurdish culture, and Iraq's five million Kurds feared to observe it even in the privacy of their homes. The 'Butcher of Baghdad' waged a genocidal war against them, and condemned them to decades of suffering, poverty and isolation. But today - as the rest of Iraq lurches back towards anarchy and civil war – Kurdistan is by far the most secure, prosperous and cosmopolitan region of the country.

That stunning transformation began in 1991 when the US, Britain and France imposed a no-fly zone to prevent Saddam massacring the Kurds after they rose against him following his aborted invasion of Kuwait. It accelerated dramatically after Saddam's downfall in 2003, the lifting of international sanctions and the formalisation of Kurdistan's semi-autonomous status within a federal state. But if this year's Nowruz celebrations had added spice, an additional undercurrent of excitement, it was because many Kurds sense that their age-old dream of a sovereign, independent 'Republic of Kurdistan' is no longer so unthinkable.

The Middle East is in turmoil. Deepening hostilities between Sunnis and Shias threaten to tear Iraq and the region apart. Neighbouring Syria is fragmenting. Iraqi Kurdistan is forging an alliance with previously-hostile Turkey, and its single-minded development of its huge oil and gas reserves in defiance of Baghdad is winning it international attention and a flood of foreign investment.

After World War One Britain and France imposed new borders on the Arab provinces of the defeated Ottoman Empire – an exercise in expediency that bolted non-Arab Kurdistan to Iraq. Those borders are now being tested as never before. As Michael Rubin, a Middle East scholar with the American Enterprise Institute, wrote recently: “Not since the second decade of the twentieth century has the Kurdish dream of independence appeared so attainable.”

The purpose of my spring trip to Kurdistan was to write a travel article for The Times, and it is a measure of how much Iraq's three most northerly provinces have progressed that western tour operators now offer trips there. 

My verdict on Kurdistan's attractions as a holiday destination was somewhat equivocal. It is roughly the size of Switzerland and undoubtedly beautiful, with its ring of mountains, spectacular waterfalls, gorges, fertile plains and orchards of apricot, walnut and pomegranate. It is easy to see why so many westerners went there to rest during the worst years of the Iraq war. But it seemed to me that you would have to be a war junkie to really enjoy a vacation in Kurdistan, for reminders of Saddam's savagery are everywhere apparent.

He killed 180,000 Kurds during his genocidal al-Anfal campaign in the late 1980s. His Ba'athist regime razed 4,500 towns and villages - since replaced with ugly concrete and breeze block affairs. It cut down forests to deny the Kurds' peshmerga fighters hiding places. Its old military bases still stand on hilltops, and as we drove along roads once reserved exclusively for Saddam's forces our guide pointed out detention centres into which untold numbers of male Kurds vanished for ever.

Above a tranquil valley hosting the temple of Lalish, the spiritual centre of the obscure Yezidi sect, we found a sign warning of minefields ahead, and a tree festooned with ribbons – each one a prayer for a lost relative. We explored the ancient caves and catacombs of the St Hormizd monastery, which clings to a steep mountainside overlooking the plains of Nineveh, and on a rocky outcrop found the once-secret graves of seven peshmerga killed by Saddam's forces. Everyone has a tale of suffering or bereavement from the "Kurdish holocaust".

The infamous 'Red House', Saddam's intelligence headquarters, still stands in Sulaimaniya – its high walls topped by coiled razor ware, punctuated by watchtowers and pockmarked by the bullets of the peshmerga who seized it in 1991. Tanks and artillery rust in its courtyards, and tourists can tour the windowless cell blocks where Saddam's intelligence agents interrogated, tortured and killed his Kurdish foes. They can see the rape room, last messages scratched on the walls, the bars from which prisoners were hung, the machine that electrocuted them and blood stains on the floor. In nearby parks are memorials to Saddam's countless victims, and to four Kurdish officers hanged for attempting to kill him.

Kurdistan's biggest tourist 'attraction' – for that is what it has become - is Halabja, the town on which Saddam's Mirage jets dropped 198 chemical bombs on March 16, 1988, after using conventional munitions to shatter its windows. Five thousand Kurds – mostly women, children and the elderly – died almost instantly in the world's worst chemical attack on a civilian population. Countless others were permanently debilitated.

The victims' names are inscribed on black marble in the memorial building. Photographs show the dead slumped over kitchen tables, tumbling from vehicles or trying to protect babies. Others show blinded survivors with hideously burned faces. The rope that hanged Saddam's henchman, Ali Hassan al-Majid – 'Chemical Ali – in 2010 is on display, as is his death warrant. Our translator chocked with emotion as a guide, who was six at the time, described watching 20 members of his family perish. “God wanted me alive to tell the world the story, and I will do that till I die,” he said.

Not far away is a cemetery with three mass burial sites for the victims and row upon row of identical headstones. “Baaths (sic) members are not allowed to enter,” a sign at the entrance proclaims. To this day mustard gas – being heavier than air – lingers in the odd cellar, occasionally killing a rat.

Kurdistan may still have limits as a tourist destination, but in all other respects it has achieved a miraculous renaissance in the two decades since it escaped Saddam's savage grip. Today it enjoys much greater autonomy than, say, Scotland or Catalonia. It enjoys what Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman, Kurdistan's high representative in London, calls “devo-max”. It is a state within a state with all the trappings of nationhood.

It has its own flag – a blazing sun on red, green and white stripes that is flown in preference to the Iraqi flag everywhere except government buildings. It has its own "national anthem" with the refrain "Let no-one say the Kurds are dead...The Kurds are alive and their flag will never fall". It has its own language, democratically-elected government, laws, judiciary and distinctive culture. It issues its own visas. Though foreign affairs are officially Baghdad's preserve it has a dozen diplomatic missions around the world. Two dozen countries have missions in Erbil, Kurdistan's capital.

Kurdistan even has its own "army" consisting of more than 100,000 armed peshmerga who operate in place of Iraqi government forces. With the help of ubiquitous checkpoints and a vigilant public they have kept Kurdistan bomb-free since 2007. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office has no travel warning for Kurdistan, though it strongly advises against travel to the rest of Iraq. The police have time to enforce speeding and seat belt laws. Jeremy Clarkson declared it to be safer than Cheltenham after filming Top Gear there in 2010.

Above all Kurdistan has a surging economy, double-digit growth and the resources to go-it-alone should it ever choose to. It sits on 45 billion barrels of oil, which would be the world's tenth largest reserve were it an independent state. The KurdistanRegional Government (KRG) has signed production contracts with some 50 foreign oil companies including ExxonMobil, Chevron, Gazprom and Total. It has attracted 2,500 foreign firms and tens of billions of dollars in foreign investment.

Exiled Kurds are coming home to exploit business opportunities that have vanished in the struggling West. Chris Bowers, British Consul General in Erbil until last year, likened Kurdistan to a “spring uncoiling. Isolated for more than two long decades, the region is stretching, awakening and growing”. 

The results are obvious. From next to nothing Kurdistan now boasts 20 universities, 60 hospitals and 13,000 schools. Unlike the rest of Iraq, its enjoys uninterrupted electricity and excellent communications. Erbil has become a brash, sprawling metropolis of gleaming tower blocks, sparkling shopping malls and five-star hotels that aspires to be a “second Dubai”. It has Mercedes, Porsche and Land Rovers dealerships, four ring roads and a new $500 million airport with the world's fifth longest runway. That and Kurdistan's other international airport at Sulaimaniya probably receive more flights from Europe and the Middle East than Baghdad. A third is under construction at Dohuk.

Erbil is so awash with money that I found one shop hawking the mildly distinctive mobile telephone number 0750 445 1616 for $65,000, and 0750 445 9999 for $200,000. There is talk of building a ski resort in nearby mountains, even of a Grand Prix circuit and a championship golf course. But at the heart of Erbil stands a reminder of its origins – the 8,000-year-old Citadel. The fortress is currently being restored, not least to replace the modern "Arab" gateway that Saddam erected as a grandiose monument to himself, but a single family has been allowed to remain inside its walls to preserve its claim to be the oldest continuously-inhabited “city” in the world.

In short, Kurdistan is everything the rest of Iraq is not – safe, prosperous, tolerant, welcoming, outward-looking, business friendly. It welcomes, rather than persecutes, Christians and other religious minorities. Young Kurds learn English not Arabic as their second language. Its citizens look more to Istanbul than Baghdad, which is viewed as a dangerous and forbidding place to be avoided at all costs.

En route from Erbil to Sulaimaniya I briefly left Kurdistan and drove through the disputed city of Kirkuk. I was transported back to the Iraq I thought I had left behind – an Iraq of blast walls and coiled razor wire, of heavily fortified bases and armed soldiers, of constant fear of the next al-Qaeda suicide bomb. Kirkuk sits on a huge reservoir of oil and gas, and the flaring chimneys and plumes of black smoke that rise from its antiquated wells merely add to the sense of being in some sort of inferno.

In Kurdistan people do not regard the US invasion of 2003 as a disaster. They refer to it as the “liberation”. They laud George W.Bush and Tony Blair. “This is the best we've had it for a very long time,” says Ms Rahman, the UK High Representative.

All of which begs a question: why does Kurdistan not seize the chance to secede? Why do the Kurds – the largest ethnic grouping in the world without a state of its own - not realise their dream in northern Iraq? Why not sever their links with a country in to which they were unceremoniously dumped by the British in 1921 to provide oil and a buffer against Turkey? That quirk of history has brought them nothing but misery.

There are compelling reasons why not. The most obvious is economic. Kurdistan receives – in theory if not always in practice – 17 per cent of an oil-based national budget of more than $100 billion, which is much more than it presently contributes. “We should overcome the idea that Kurds are chained to Iraq, because to a great extent they benefit from being part of the Iraqi state,” Maria Fantappie, the International Crisis Group's Iraq expert, said.

Kurds fear that if they attempted to secede they would have either to fight for – or abandon – that great arc of disputed territories that lie south of Kurdistan and include Kirkuk. Saddam drove the Kurdish population from those territories in a bloody campaign of ethnic cleansing designed to "Arabise" the region. The Kurds regard them as their stolen birthright.

The US has strongly opposed the break up of a country where it expended so much blood and money. So, at least in the past, have Turkey, Iran and Syria who feared their own sizeable Kurdish minorities would rise up if their Iraqi kinsmen gained independence. “At a bare minimum you would need the support of one regional power and one international superpower” to secede, argues Ms Rahman, who points out that tiny, landlocked Kurdistan is surrounded by traditionally hostile neighbours in one of the world's most dangerous regions. Burned many times, Kurds like to say that they have “no friends but the mountains”.

In short, Kurdistan's more pragmatic leaders argue that their proto-state is stronger and safer inside Iraq than it would be outside, that it is better to enjoy virtual sovereignty within the present federal system than to challenge it. “They want to be like Taiwan – a de facto independent country but never breaking the tie – the best of both worlds,” said one astute Western observer.

And so it may remain, but the centrifugal forces propelling Kurdistan away from Baghdad are steadily gaining strength. “The factors that obstruct or promote Kurdish independence...have changed almost beyond recognition,” Gareth Stansfield, Professor of Middle East Politics at Exeter University, argued in a recent paper for the Royal Institute of International Affairs.

The Kurds are dismayed by the growing authoritarianism and sectarianism of Nouri al-Maliki's Shia-dominated, Iranian-backed government in Baghdad. They deplore its attempts to control Kurdistan's oil reserves. They complain of a protracted failure to resolve the status of the disputed territories that has on several occasions brought Kurdish and Iraqi security forces close to outright conflict. They lament its failure to govern through partnership, its withholding of funds and its use of security forces for sectarian ends. “If Iraq returns to dictatorship we would not be part of it because under the previous Iraqi dictatorship we suffered genocide,” Ms Rahman insisted.

The Kurds also fear that Iraq's Shia and Sunni communities are sliding back to war. At least 700 people were killed by violence in April, and more than 1,000 in May – the worst month since 2008. “If we go on like this we will have civil war and then partition,” Mowaffak al-Rubaie, Iraq's former National Security Adviser, told The Independent recently. “If Iraq splits into all-out civil war we would not be part of that,” Ms Rahman declared.

The loss of Jalal Talabani, the Kurdish president of Iraq who suffered a debilitating stroke last December, was another blow. He was a notable peacemaker who restrained Mr Maliki and believed strongly that Kurdistan should remain part of Iraq.

Longer term, Kurds realise that Kurdistan will become a net contributor to the federal budget as its oil output increases. Production, which only began in 2007, has already reached about 250,000 barrels per day and the goal is a million by 2015. They also know that Iraq's military is receiving US M1 Abrams battle tanks and F-16 fighter jets despite intense Kurdish lobbying of Washington – equipment that will soon make it a far more formidable adversary.

But equally pertinent is the present turmoil in the Middle East which is changing dynamics, alliances and balances of power, and scenarios that result in an independent Kurdistan are not hard to imagine.

Syria's conflict is fragmenting that country, polarising the Arab world and exacerbating Shia-Sunni tensions in neighbouring Iraq. Predominantly Sunni countries including Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey have aligned themselves with the Sunni-led rebels, while the Shia regimes of Iraq and Iran back President Assad's Alawite regime. Iraq's Kurds are moderate Sunnis, but their real interest lies in the roughly two million Kurds of north-eastern Syria. They have effectively broken away from Damascus, and their border with Iraqi Kurdistan has disintegrated.

Kurdistan is meanwhile enjoying dramatically improved relations with Turkey, while Ankara's relations with Baghdad and Tehran have soured. Much of this is driven by commerce. Turkish companies are pouring into Kurdistan, building hotels and developing oil fields, and energy-hungry Turkey badly needs Kurdish oil and gas. In a development of potentially huge significance Kurdistan will soon open a pipeline carrying oil direct to Turkey, negating its need to use a pipeline controlled by Baghdad and giving it the basis for true economic independence.

Recep Tayip Erdogan, the Turkish prime minister, also needs the KRG's support for his efforts to end 29 years of intermittent warfare in south-eastern Turkey with the Kurdish PKK, whose fighters are now withdrawing south across the border.

Turkey is not the only country investing heavily in oil-rich Kurdistan, and not the only one gradually sucking it away from Baghdad's dubious embrace. Any number of Arab and western countries now have economic interests there. Dr Stansfield noted that when Massoud Barzani, Kurdistan's president, attended the World Economic Forum in Davos last January he was courted by international leaders and corporate titans in a manner unthinkable a few years ago.

The US might object to the breaking up of Iraq, but its influence is much diminished since the last of its troops withdrew in 2011. Even in Baghdad there are voices close to the Maliki regime now arguing that Shia domination of Iraq's Sunni minority would be enhanced by Kurdistan's secession.

“The constellation of political forces in the Middle East has traditionally served against the emergence of a Kurdish state, but for the first time that constellation is beginning to work in its favour,” Dr Stansfield argues. Other analysts remain cautious, but he rates the chances of the world's perpetual victims achieving their cherished goal of outright independence within ten years as “very high”.