SULAYMANIYAH AND DAHUK, NORTHERN IRAQ — At the University of Suleimani's Internet cafe, standing-room-only crowds of news-hungry students and teachers surf around the world 12 hours a day.
At a sprawling supermarket in Dahuk, a city about 180 miles away, up to 2,000 shoppers a day snap up items ranging from ultra-high-tech plasma TV screens to American peanut butter and jelly and check out at registers that read bar codes.
Can this be Kurdistan?
The snapshots of modernity and consumerism seem unlikely in a part of Iraq best known for being remote, embattled, and impoverished.
Surrounded by wary neighbors with their own restive Kurdish populations, the ethnic Kurds in this landlocked region of northern Iraq have been subject to periodic attacks by Baghdad for decades. Conflicts between Kurdish factions in the mid-1990s added to the violence.
But an inter-Kurdish peace agreement and a tiny share of cash from Iraq's oil-for-food deal with the UN that softened economic sanctions against Iraq are buoying recovery. Overhead, US air patrols, begun after Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein's brutal suppression of a 1991 Kurdish uprising, continue to guard this so-called "safe haven."
"People are feeling good, feeling stable," says a Western ex-UN official with long experience in northern Iraq. "Three years ago, they couldn't say that. People are feeling freer, and laughing."
In their exuberance, Kurds are juxtaposing old and new: Traditional singing and shoulder-to-shoulder dancing at the Nowruz spring festival this year were punctuated with the ringing of mobile phones, for example.
Kurdistan's surprising transformation is taking place within artillery range of Iraqi forces loyal to Baghdad. While many note that Kurds have never before enjoyed such liberty or extensive self-rule and therefore might be reluctant to risk helping American forces in any future effort to topple Saddam Hussein Kurds say that they are willing to play a key role.
"We are in a paradox," explains Hoshyar Zabari, a senior leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party, one of two main rival Kurdish factions. "We are happy with what we have, and we don't want to lose it. On the other hand, it is insecure, and the only way to create a secure future is to remove the mortal threat of this [Baghdad] regime."
Few turnarounds have been as dramatic as that in northern Iraq. In 1991, more than 1.5 million Kurds nearly half the population fled across the border to Turkey and Iran. Fleeing Hussein's forces, Kurds left with only the clothing on their backs, and many perished in snow- and sleet-blasted refugee camps. Others died later during fighting among Kurds themselves.
Today, says the former UN official, the rivalry between the Kurdish factions the KDP, which rules in the western half of the safe zone and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), which rules the east is close to resolution.
Kurds on both sides of the party divide voice high hopes for the future.
"That's where they are building the McDonald's," says a PUK guide in Sulaymaniyah, pointing out a half-finished building. In the KDP-controlled city of Arbil, an advertisement for McDonald's has been painted on a new stadium, though no franchise yet exists.
The sense of moving forward despite the possibility of a US-led war against Baghdad later this year, or in early 2003 also inspires young Kurdish visitors from Europe and may help reverse the extensive emigration out of northern Iraq.
"I feel like I am being born again here," says Murat Mert, an aeronautical engineer living in Stockholm, and a Kurd of Turkish extraction who is considering a move to northern Iraq to help rebuild. "This is the only place where one can live like a Kurd."
That means self-sufficiency for many Kurds and not relying on help from wary neighbors like Turkey, Syria, and Iran, which have checkered histories in dealing with their own Kurdish minorities.
The bridges to independence include such projects as a small oil refinery launched in 1996 by the PUK, and made of cannibalized parts of abandoned factories. The operating motto, says Rashid Khoshnaw, technical director of the 3,000 barrels-per-day operation, is: "Where there is a well, there is a way."
"Before, there was nothing here. All you see here was once scrap," Mr. Khoshnaw says during a tour among the tangles of oil pipes. "That distillation tower was a pipe brought by the Iranians years ago for a road-works project. The steel plates on the boiler are from an old cement factory."
Kurds say they hope their progress will serve as an example of change to their fellow Iraqis one that can be applied everywhere in the country to change the current repressive regime.
Despite multiple setbacks, Kurdish leaders say they have matured in critical ways. "We have a clean government," says Sami Abdurahman, the septuagenarian deputy prime minister of the KDP's portion of northern Iraq, and a former guerrilla fighter who began "working for the cause" in the late 1950s.
"Those who lead have spent their lives as partisans. They know how strenuously our people have suffered. We've all seen a friend fall beside us," Mr. Abdurahman says. "Some 200,000 people sacrificed their lives for this day."