Iraqi Kurds enjoy a de facto state

Iraq's Kurds now have their own government, currency, and most prosperous era in 20 years.

On the map it still says Iraq, but that's where the similarity ends.

The school children in the tiny village of Dal da Ghan stand up every morning and sing a Kurdish national song, then sit down to study textbooks printed by the Kurdish government in the Kurdish language. They've heard of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein from their parents, but in their short lives they've never known his rule.

"We're not afraid of anybody here - because our land is under our hands," says Saida Bassi, a young mother, who fled here from Iraqi government territory two years ago. Her husband is out tending sheep in the green pastures that carpet the landscape.

For almost a decade, three provinces in northern Iraq have been the de facto state of Kurdistan. They use their own currency, patrol their own borders. Paradoxically, the United Nations embargo that has helped devastate the economy of Iraq has provided Kurdistan with its greatest economic boom in 20 years, and its highest-ever level of personal freedom.

"Ten years ago when Kurdistan was controlled by Saddam I was a child," says Hajar Arif , an English major at Suliamaniya University. "Now I appreciate this freedom and it's like food to me - saying, writing whatever you think."

The Kurds who farm here in Dal da Ghan, which means "refuge of chieftains," deserted the village in 1987 - like thousands in the region - during the height of the Iraqi government's campaign to "Arabize" Kurdistan.

Now, with funding from the UN, hundreds of villages are rebuilding. Meanwhile, about 40 Kurdish families each week arrive from the Iraqi government territory - some forcibly evicted and others looking for freedom.

There are some 22 million Kurds in the Middle East, perhaps the world's largest ethnic group without a country. The Iraqi Kurds, who still officially live under the Iraqi government, today enjoy more autonomy than the Kurdish populations in Turkey, Iran, and Syria.

And along with autonomy has come prosperity. Ironically, the same UN sanctions which hit the Iraqi economy hard, have helped the Kurds' region.

"For the first time we're getting a share of our petroleum. It's used for rebuilding what was destroyed by the Iraqi dictatorship," says Jalal Talabani, the leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), one of two Kurdish factions in Northern Iraq.

The US State Department and the Kurds both claim that this prosperity proves that the oil-for-food program, when administered by the UN as it is in the north, is adequate for the people to survive and even thrive. The health problems in the south, they say, are evidence that the Iraqi government is manipulating food and medicine in order to turn world opinion against the sanctions. They point to a UNICEF report released last summer showed that while infant mortality in the center and south has doubled in the last 10 years, the rate has fallen slightly in the Kurdish zone.

But UN officials administering the program have a different explanation for the prosperity.

"There is a higher per capita of money and a cash component in the north to employ local people or buy local goods like cement or vegetables. There is simply more cash floating around," says George Somerwill, spokesman for the UN office for humanitarian coordination in Iraq.

The three Kurdish provinces contain 13 percent of Iraq's population and therefore get 13 percent of the supplies under the UN oil-for-food program. But the rest of the Iraq's population gets only 53 percent form the oil sales, since the UN deducts money for war reparations and its own operational expenses.

The autonomy is also having an impact on other aspects of Kurd society. They have now taken control of their own airwaves.

"It is a great time for the Kurdish people because the world is open to them," says Ali Abdullah, a journalist at Erbil's KTV Television. "I have three children. When I watch the TV with them and they see a Kurdish film or cartoon, they are very happy - sometimes dancing. "

There are at least eight independent TV stations now broadcasting in Iraqi Kurdistan and many more radio stations. While access to the media is absolutely controlled in the Iraqi government areas, here the Kurds watch satellite television from Europe. Many of the stations capture American films and programs from satellite feeds and then dub or subtitle them in Kurdish.

"I had nothing like this," says Mr. Abdullah, "most of the TV programming was in Arabic. (The regime) broadcasted their ideas and it affected our culture - especially for the children."

Oil is another source of the region's prosperity and also the main source of strife between the Kurdish factions. The porous borders with Turkey and Iran bustle with trade as Iraqi oil is smuggled out and consumer goods come in.

"We have been solving a lot of daily problems," says Sami Abdul Rehman, head of the Kurdish Democratic Party. politburo, "and we hope it will continue. Three years with no fighting - this is an achievement."

Kurds are also pondering what the future holds for them. "Since the UN is here I'm not afraid, but when they go Saddam is coming back and they will destroy us again," says Ms. Bassi.

Others disagree: "Saddam is stronger than us. But this is the age of globalization and everyone hopes to live in peace and let other nationalities live in peace," says Arif.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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