Cover Story
FREEDOM TO LIVE: Vivian Zadik (below, left) with her mother.

Cities of refuge

With Kurds playing an increasing role in Iraq's security-and the future of U.S. involvement up for debate-their homeland is morphing into a haven from the insurgency

Issue: "Safe haven," Sept. 15, 2007

NORTHERN IRAQ- The airport was barely a paved strip five years ago. Now it goes by the name Erbil International Airport. And international it is, since a Kurdish-German entrepreneur launched a joint venture airline with regular flights to Frankfurt and Munich. Royal Jordanian and others operate a daily flight schedule into northern Iraq. And, yes, just after landing, the pilots wish passengers a pleasant stay in Iraq.

This is the Iraq you never hear about. In this Iraq, families take picnics in parks after 11 p.m. and dads stop to buy their girls ice cream on the way home-here usually an apricot specialty called mish-mish. With temperatures above 100 degrees most days, the zoo in nearby Dohuk opens at 8 p.m. and doesn't close until 1 a.m. The Ferris wheel turns into the wee hours, too.

Before this war, a joint British-U.S. no-fly zone protected northern Iraq, or Kurdistan. The region enjoyed economic advancement and political freedom unseen by the rest of the country under Saddam Hussein. Since 2004, when the insurgency took hold and life in central Iraq became a daily bargain with its devils, the region has become a sanctuary-home not only to indigenous Kurds but to perhaps an additional 100,000 or more newly displaced Iraqis. At least 30,000, say church leaders, are Christians recently forced out of Baghdad, Mosul, and other cities to the south.

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They flee here because-for Iraq-the region is safe: The last terrorist attack in Erbil, the regional capital, took place four months ago when a car bomb exploded in May outside the Ministry of Interior.

While the president's surge plan has increased the number of troops in the country to over 160,000-and comes under renewed scrutiny as the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, Gen. David H. Petraeus, delivers a report on the mission to Congress this week-the security in the north has been achieved with practically no U.S. military personnel.

U.S. forces in the Kurdish region currently number less than 100, according to Harry Schute, former senior U.S. commander of the north. "In reality we staged a pullout from this part of the country in 2003," said Schute, who now works as a private contractor in the region. "It's ironic because this is probably the one part of the country where people don't want us to leave."

Despite the prolonged war, the largely Muslim Kurds remain pro-American. Most remember that the United States came to their aid with food, medicine, and shelter after the Gulf War when Saddam Hussein chased them into the mountains and neither neighboring Turkey nor Iran would provide sanctuary. Most believe the United States could have done more to secure Iraq, but no Iraqis WORLD spoke to, whether Muslim Kurd, Arab Christian, or other from Baghdad, regretted Saddam's ouster or were eager to see U.S. troops go home.

How have local Iraqi forces brought stability to this region with a skeleton crew of U.S. special forces, a small Army Corps of Engineers unit, and a few Army careerists who serve as liaisons with the local government? Answering that question may be crucial to understanding what might work in other parts of the country.

According to Schute, success in Kurdistan is the result of a partnership: local government willing to invest in a strong security force together with a local public willing to embrace it. Highly organized and disciplined Kurdish forces, called pesh merga, have received little outside training and sometimes endure pay shortages, but they work well alongside Kurdish police.

Checkpoints pop up frequently in and outside Erbil and along the highways. Nighttime ones in the city's already clogged roads are a particular hassle-and it's not unusual to encounter three in an evening, and to see suspicious men hauled away while others move through peacefully and without incident.

Can this be translated to other parts of the country and incorporated into the Petraeus plan? Schute believes it can be. He along with military commanders cite Anbar Province as one example. Civilian and military casualties there have dropped since the United States planted Marines in its trouble spots. They've had success forming relationships with local leaders and routing al-Qaeda-in-Iraq strongholds. Petraeus may recommend a pullback from Anbar as Iraqi forces move in to follow on the Marines' achievement.

In Iraq, where a largely tribal society has made centralized government an uphill struggle, pushing power into the hands of local leaders responsible to their own population is proving more successful. It's a formula that should find traction with Democrats. Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Del.) put forward a plan incorporating that strategy months ago but it has been overshadowed by Democratic calls for a total withdrawal on a fixed timetable.

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