Kurdish Area Attracts Arabs — and Trouble

Iraq's Kurds are building English-language universities and holding international trade fairs. The stability and progress has led Arabs to move their families and businesses here from the Baghdad. But there's trouble in the mountainous paradise, from fighting between rival factions to infrastructure woes.

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As sectarian violence escalates in Baghdad and other parts of Iraq, the Kurdish-controlled north continues to enjoy peace and relative stability. The region is attracting thousands of Iraqis fleeing the bloodshed elsewhere.

But as NPR's Ivan Watson reports from Erbil, there are signs of growing internal trouble.

IVAN WATSON: In a brand new classroom at the recently opened University of Kurdistan, students recite a poem by Langston Hughes as part of an exercise to improve their English.

(Soundbite of students)

WATSON: These 12 young Iraqis are part of the first class to enroll in a new five-year program, which is paid for almost entirely by the Kurdistan regional administration. All of the coursework here will be done in English with foreign professors and teachers like Guy Wallbank(ph) from Cockermouth, England.

Mr. GUY WALLBANK: This will get your brain going, your memory going. This is good for general memory skills.

WATSON: The atmosphere is relaxed, intimate and clearly everyone here feels safe, even though Erbil is only an hour's drive from ultra-violent cities like Mosul and Kirkuk. When these students practice conversing in English, it's clear that the nearby conflict is not far from their minds.

Unidentified Student 1: Are you from (unintelligible)?

Unidentified Student 2: No, I'm from (unintelligible)?

Unidentified Student 1: Why did you come to here?

Unidentified Student 2: To study?

Unidentified Student 1: Only?

Unidentified Student 2: Yeah.

Unidentified Student 1: Or to escape from terrorist groups.

(Soundbite of laughter)

WATSON: Since the U.S. invasion, Iraqi Kurdistan has defied the bloody trends in the rest of the country. The semi-autonomous Kurdistan regional government has kept insurgents out while also building high profile projects like shopping malls, ministries, airports and this convention center, which hosted an international trade fair this week.

(Soundbite of crowd)

WATSON: Dr. Sohib al-Nihami(ph) is a Dubai-based businessman who stood outside his stall, which displayed German-made vacuum cleaners and electrical tools.

Mr. SOHIB AL-NIHAVI: We were concentrating at the beginning on Baghdad market, which is much bigger than Kurdistan, but nowadays we are unable to sell anything because there are no shops, no showrooms able to open. I think Kurdistan now is the best in Iraq.

WATSON: In addition to businesses, people are moving to Kurdistan. Salesman Ali al-Mutwali(ph) brought his family here from Baghdad several months ago.

Mr. ALI AL-MUTWALI: I brought my family because my house in Adamir, which is a very hot zone these days.

WATSON: The Iraqi Red Crescent says in just the last two weeks, more than 9,000 Iraqis fled from central Iraq to Erbil. But while many outsiders may view Iraqi Kurdistan as a safe haven, a growing number of native Kurds say they are frustrated with their mountain enclave.

In the northeastern Kurdish town of Halabja, the mud in the unpaved streets of the main market is ankle deep.

Mr. ANWAR ADIF(ph): Yes, but Kurdistan, it isn't good because all is damage. It doesn't have electricity. It doesn't have petrol.

WATSON: Young Kurds here, like 25-year-old Anwar Adif, complain about unemployment, inflation, fuel shortages and the ration of only two hours of electricity a day.

Last week, the arrival of a tanker full of heating kerosene triggered a street brawl between Halabja residents fighting over the fuel. Locals point to fat cats in the ruling Kurdish political parties, who they say drive fancy cars, equip their homes with expensive generators and hand their sons high paying jobs. Angry young Kurds like 19-year-old Osama Jamal level harsh criticism at the same Kurdish leaders who once personified the Kurdish struggle against Saddam Hussein.

Mr. OSAMA JAMAL: There was one Saddam. There was one Saddam before, but now all these leaders have become Saddams.

Mr. OSSOS HARDI: Disappointment, hopeless and anxious.

WATSON: Ossos Hardi is editor in chief of an independent Kurdish newspaper. He says three years after the fall of Baghdad, the ruling Kurdish elite can no longer use Saddam as an excuse for their own failures.

Mr. HARDI: What is the (unintelligible) of still we don't have electricity? Why?

WATSON: Last year, a power struggle erupted within the political party of Iraq's Kurdish president, Jalal Talabani, who has ruled part of Iraqi Kurdistan for more than a decade. A self-styled reformist faction called for more fiscal transparency and a change in Kurdistan's system of patronage. Several armed clashes erupted between reformists and loyalists, resulting in the death of at least one woman bystander.

Eventually, the leader of the reformists quit Talabani's party and left to start up his own Kurdish newspaper and TV station.

Ivan Watson, NPR News, Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan.

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