MELISSA BLOCK, host:
These days, it seems like there are two Iraqs. There's the Iraq we know, where Baghdad is the capital, and bombings and political infighting are the norm. And then there's a place that tour groups are calling the other Iraq: the semi-autonomous region of Kurdistan. There, the economy is booming, people are using iPhones, and violence is down. NPR's Kelly McEvers reports that this new prosperity comes with a price.
KELLY McEVERS: To know the other Iraq is to start in the city of Erbil. Literally many millennia old, it's modernizing fast.
The latest development is the Erbil International Airport: It's clean, flights are taking off and landing on time, there's cappuccino, there are people from probably a dozen different countries taking off and leaving from here.
Wassim Sh'eir is one of these recent arrivals. He's Lebanese-American.
Mr. WASSIM SH'EIR: I came here through a construction company, and they want to open a franchise here.
McEVERS: Wassim says Erbil was tough to take at first, with its shoddy construction and intermittent electricity. But compared to the rest of Iraq?
Mr. SH'EIR: Heaven, you know, heaven. Erbil is heaven compared to the rest of Iraq.
McEVERS: Even though he eventually wants to invest in the rest of Iraq, Wassim says Erbil is fine for now.
Mr. SH'EIR: They say Erbil is the gateway to the rest of Iraq.
McEVERS: The Kurds of northern Iraq have long struggled with the Arabs of the rest of Iraq, especially during the rule of Saddam Hussein.
After the first Gulf War, the U.S. and its allies provided the Kurds some protection by way of a no-fly zone. When Saddam fell in 2003, the oil-rich region reasserted its autonomy.
Two main Kurdish parties, led by two charismatic men, claim credit for this victory. But many Kurds say these men are now no better than dictators themselves, that much of Kurdistan's newfound wealth is being concentrated in the hands of a few.
(Soundbite of crowd protesting)
McEVERS: In recent protests that were part of a larger wave of demonstrations around Iraq and the region, intellectuals like Farouk Rafiq said the Kurdish success story is a myth.
Mr. FAROUK RAFIQ: This is a myth that there is economical opportunity. Do you know why? Because political parties, they captured the market. They have their own companies for themselves, for politicians, for those who are on the top.
McEVERS: So far, those politicians don't show any signs of relinquishing power. In fact, it's support from the Kurds that helped Iraq's incumbent prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, recently secure a second term.
In exchange for this support, the federal government in Baghdad recently agreed to let Kurdistan proceed with agreements to pump and sell its own oil. Now, says analyst Jutiar Adel, the Kurdish leaders see economic growth as a way to continue asserting their autonomy.
Mr. JUTIAR ADEL: (Through translation) The economical presence, the economical strength is very important, and they want to guarantee that there is an economical power for Kurdistan.
McEVERS: That means in addition to ignoring protesters' demands for a bigger piece of the economic pie, other issues might be on the back burner, issues like who will control the area around the city of Kirkuk, where Kurds were the majority until Saddam sent Arabs to settle there.
Unidentified Man #1: (Speaking foreign language).
McEVERS: At a recent conference, Kurdish President Massoud Barzani told followers it's likely his grandson will still be fighting for Kirkuk.
Reading between the lines, analysts suggested Barzani might be preparing his people to let go of their immediate claims to the region.
But Kurds just outside the Kirkuk city limits don't want to hear that. While many parts of Kurdistan are booming, this village is barely getting by.
Okay, so we're walking through this sort of makeshift, squatter village. I mean, it looks like there's no paved roads, and the sewer water just pours out into the street, and it ends up in this ditch in the center of everything.
Kurdish villagers here were deported by Saddam back in the '80s. When the dictator fell in 2003, they returned. But they're still not legal residents, say Ali Hussein Assaf and his aging father.
Unidentified Man #2: (Speaking foreign language).
Mr. ALI HUSSEIN ASSAF: It has been seven years for us with this conditions, and we don't know what's going to be our fate, but we're not going to give up Kirkuk.
McEVERS: Mahmoud Othman is a Kurdish member of Iraq's Parliament. He says issues like Kirkuk and ending corruption are emotional ones for the Kurds.
Mr. MAHMOUD OTHMAN: You can't get rid of it. It's something which you are a hostage to it, you know. That's why economy is very important, maybe quite important. But it's not - it couldn't be a substitute for that.
McEVERS: Othman says Kirkuk and corruption are problems that are not likely to be solved in the short term, no matter how prosperous the other Iraq becomes.
Kelly McEvers, NPR News.
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