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Posted by on Sep 3, 2007 in At TMV | 11 comments

Kurdistan – Paradise

Thomas Friedman writes for the New York Times:

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.

After that he goes on to describe the situation in Kurdistan, he does so in quite a brilliant manner:

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.

According to Friedman, Kurdistan is not fully Democratic yet, but it most certainly on the right path. For now, there is too much corruption and the politics in the region are too much like those in the “Sopranos” than in “West Wing,” but “it is democratizing, gradually nurturing the civil society and middle class needed for a real democracy.” In other words, Kurdistan might become what the Bush administration hoped Iraq would be like.

More, not only is Kurdistan a big success, it is also a success “in the best way: we created the opening and the Kurds did the rest.”

It seems that the Kurds living in Northern Iraq never truly tried to develop their region because they were afraid of Saddam Hussein. Once Saddam was removed from power, however, Kurds understood that they were safe and they started to invest bigtime in businesses, cards, hotels, etc. Even those with little to no money decided that the time for financial action had come.

Friedman wonders why it is that the Bush administration has kept the success of Kurdistan a secret, or at least why it does not proclaim Kurdistan’s success from the roof of the White House. He gives the answer to these questions as well: “the Bush team is afraid the Kurds will break away.”

Quite an understandable fear but, according to Friedman, unfounded nonetheless. According to the NYT columnist, “the Kurds have no interest in splitting from Iraq now. Iraq’s borders protect them from Turkey, Iran and Syria.”

Although Friedman might be right about this – I have never visited Kurdistan, nor do I have any contact with Kurds living in Northern Iraq – I also understand why Bush et al are not so sure about this as Friedman is. The PKK has found a safe haven in Iraq, and it is no secret that the goal of the PKK is to create an independent Kurdish state. More, Barzani – the leader of the Kurds – has basically said in the recent past that the Kurds might indeed pursue independence and that they are ready for it. Whether he said this things just to satisfy the PKK or whether he actually believes in it, the result is that Turkey and America are both a bit suspicious, to say the least.

All of this does not mean, however, that the US cannot exploit Kurdistan’s success. The lives of Kurds have greatly improved since the US went to war against Iraq; Kurdistan has progressed tremendously; this is a major accomplishment and, although many things have gone wrong in this war, this part of the war has gone mostly right.

There is, however, one ‘but’ not mentioned by Friedman: the PKK might jeopardize the peace and progress made in Kurdistan. Because of the PKK, Turkey and Iran are more than willing to invade Kurdistan, or at least to bomb some villages. In the end, Kurdistan can only truly prosper when the PKK decides to lay down its arms.

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  • anonymous jim

    That is a mighty big “but” you have.

  • I’m open to persuasion but I’m skeptical. I don’t consider Mr. Friedman a solid source. Does he speak the language? Here are some of the reasons for my skepticism:

    – the heads of the two largest “political parties” in Iraqi Kurdistan are, coincidentally, the traditional tribal leaders of the two largest Kurdish tribes

    – the Iraqi Kurdish blogosphere has been silent for more than a year. The last posts were complaints about infringements on freedom of speech and the press in Iraqi Kurdistan

    – the atrocities against Yezidis in northwestern Iraq a few weeks ago

    – the recent cholera outbreaks

    – Iraqi Kurdistan can only continue to prosper in the context of a federal Iraq. An independent Kurdistan will be a target for both the Turks and the Iranians.

    The above doesn’t sound to me like a prosperous, burgeoning democracy. But, as I say, I’m open to persuasion. Convince me.

  • jdledell

    There is another huge BUT… It is the Kirkuk referendum on assimilation into Kurdistan that is suppossed to take place before the end of 2007. The Kurds are doing everything possible for the Kirkuk vote to go their way. If it does, look for the Sunni’s to bring their battle to the city. Even Turkey will go bats##t over this vote and look to Turkey to smuggle arms to both the arab sunni as well as the Turkmen in Kirkuk and vicinity.

    Don’t be surprised if suddenly car bombs start going off in Irbil and Sulaimaniya then see what happens to the economy and development.

  • Entropy


    Is it really so surprising the heads of the “political” parties in Kurdistan are tribal leaders? That is pretty common in the ME, actually. Look at Afghanistan, look at many of the other “political” leaders in Iraq. I think one mistakes most westerners make is to think that “politics” in other cultures is equivalent to “politics” here. Even secular leaders like Saddam put their tribal affiliations first and foremost. Anyone with “al Tikriti” in their name was likely to do well in Saddam’s Iraq.

    The spectacular car-bomb attack against Yezidis what perpetrated by AQI-associated salafist militants, if not AQI itself, not the Kurds.

    I think you forget that “kurdistan” has been de facto independent for over a decade and even though there are still problems there (Cholera, freedom of speech, etc.) the average Kurd is much better off than at virtually any time since the 1920’s.

    The PKK is certainly a problem, but I think it has been conflated. Many Kurds get angry when they go off and do something stupid that invites attack. Most Kurds would rather live relatively peaceably in their proto-state than invite attack by supporting the PKK. Although it will likely take many years, I think the Kurds will eventually solve the PKK problem.

    The above doesn’t sound to me like a prosperous, burgeoning democracy. But, as I say, I’m open to persuasion.

    I guess that depends on your comparative definition. Compared to Europe or the US, Kurdistan certainly has a long way to go. Compared to other areas of the ME and especially Iraq, it looks pretty darn good. Consider how far the Kurds have come since Saddam’s Anfal campaign and the post-Desert Storm repression when many were freezing and dying in the mountains – only a little over a decade ago.

  • I am forced to question anything Thomas Friedman says. He has been wrong over and over again. He told everyone for 3 years that we just needed six more months in Iraq – the Friedman unit. He is also one of those multi-millionares who talks about the wonders of “free trade” as millions of Americans lose their jobs to Asian sweat shops. Friedman is an idiot.

  • RevDave

    Isn’t Kirkuk (with all the recent bombings and violence) in Kurdistan? Wasn’t the village that was flattened by a bomb and killed over 500 people in Kurdistan? I may be wrong on this point, but I believe Friedman has been wrong on almost all points related to Iraq.

  • Entropy

    I guess with no apparent ability to attack the message, some are instead attacking the messenger. If Friedman was the only person saying such things about Kurdistan, it might be different, but he’s not.

  • RevDave

    Entropy – so if Friedman is not the only one saying these things about Kurdistan, does that make him right? As I recall he has said a lot of things about Iraq that were wrong and many times blatantly false, yet because others were just as equally full of it, we should still listen to him?

  • Entropy


    Your argument is a fallacy: X person was wrong on Y issue, so X person must be wrong on Z issue. Considering everyone is wrong at some point or another, I guess the lesson is that we should listen to no one.

    I prefer to debate on the facts and merits of arguments themselves, which admittedly takes more time and thought than simple dismissal because one does not like the source. In short, what’s your evidence that Friedman is wrong on the current status of “Kurdistan?”

  • RevDave

    My argument is Friedman was wrong on Iraq and my argument is Friedman is just as wrong on Kurdistan. There is still rampant violence in Kurdistan (take the time to look up the facts), there is rampant corruption, and Kurdistan IS breaking away from Iraq, only the US is holding them back. I have looked at the facts, and the facts show Friedman is wrong again.

  • Entropy

    Better recheck your “facts” then. Civilian casualty studies have shown that 2% or less have occurred in Kurdish-controlled areas despite having about 15-20% of the country’s total population. The facts clearly show that the Kurdish-controlled areas have had far, far less violence than anywhere else in Iraq with the possible exception of the some of the largely empty southern desert provinces.

    Kurdistan has been “breaking away” from Iraq for a long time. The central government in Iraq has had no authority there since 1994 and before that only imposed authority at the point of a gun. Ironic that you claim “only the US is holding them back” when it was the US who has made this de facto proto-state possible in the first place.

    Corruption is rampant everywhere in the middle east. One could, in fact, argue that corruption is the norm worldwide. Since you’ve researched the “facts” perhaps you could enlighten us as to what makes Kurdish corruption special.

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