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.
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.
Proposals to totally withdraw are "a child's game of closing your eyes and pretending, 'If I don't see you, then you don't see me,'" said Schute. He concedes the surge "is something that should have happened four years ago," but said "simply pulling out is not a solution. After everything we have invested here, especially the blood of our soldiers, we have to make it worth it."
Iraqis know better than anyone not to expect a magic formula or an easy solution to the current level of violence. Vivian Zadik keeps on her cell phone a video of the bombing outside her Baghdad apartment that sent her and her family to the north earlier this year.
The explosion sent a wall of glass into her living room. It split the steel supports of her Baghdad apartment building: The video shows their jagged beams hanging over a sofa, and debris covering the floor. The video also shows her mother bleeding from the right side of her face, her nephew entering the room with his foot gashed and bleeding, and hazmat trucks and rescue vehicles arriving.
Zadik does not believe anyone was killed in the explosion but said many pedestrians were injured, some very badly. She could not hear anything at first-even though the explosion was three floors down and across the street-and her mother has scars from her face wounds. Today, all 11 members of Zadik's extended family (ages 4 to 64) live in a two-bedroom apartment near Erbil with concrete floors and crude plumbing. It's in Ain Kawa, a historically Christian suburb of Erbil that has doubled in size in the last 18 months.
Zadik and her family are Armenian, with long roots in Baghdad, but they now attend an evangelical church in Erbil started by Berta Baba, himself a displaced pastor from Baghdad. The church has 10 displaced families with more coming each week. They include not only Assyrians like Baba but Armenians like Zadik, Chaldean Catholics, and at least one family who converted from Islam. They meet in Baba's home. His daughter plays a borrowed electric keyboard and a pastor forced to leave Basra plays the guitar.
Baba and his family emigrated north a year ago "because terrorists are destroying our neighborhood." His oldest daughter was in school when a car bomb went off outside her classroom. Glass landed in her lap but did not injure her. Soon after, as Baba drove his wife and two daughters home through the city, they were the first to reach an intersection where fighting broke out between insurgents wearing black masks and the military.
"We could not go anywhere and we just prayed," said Baba. A stray bullet hit the driver behind them and killed him. Baba decided he had to get out of the area and sped through the intersection and the fighting to a nearby checkpoint. He said his wife could not hear for three days after the incident, and the couple decided then to leave.
In the north they can walk streets freely, stay out late, send their teenage daughters out to see friends, and shop in new stores stocked with clothing and appliances from Turkey. They and other religious minorities have the freedom to meet and worship, they say.
But the living is not easy. The demand for housing has led to high prices. Apartment rentals of any size in Erbil start at $400 per month. Infrastructure is in better shape in the north than most of the rest of the country, yet four years of war have hurt: In summer electric power is consistently on for only 6-8 hours a night. Everyone is connected also to generator systems run by cooperatives, which rotate power during the day, but air conditioning won't run off the generators, and total burnouts are normal.
Sewer systems also are beyond capacity. Green-blue sewage runs in a steady stream down the streets of Erbil and other cities, even where new construction and luxury homes for Baghdad's wealthy transplants are spreading. Drinking water and refrigeration problems due to power shortages pose serious health risks. Two weeks ago an outbreak of cholera in Sulaymania, a city southeast of Erbil, resulted in more than 3,000 cases within three days.
Kurds also know that a stable security situation can change. They have watched Kirkuk, formerly a largely Kurdish city but outside the current Kurdish administration, dissolve in violence. A captured assassin in Kirkuk last month confessed that he was one of 44 killers trained in Istanbul to carry out attacks in the north. And an August attack on a Yezedi village in the north killed 500-the largest single bombing incident in Iraq this year.
"We know the terrorism element is in place already. Its sympathizers are here. We have the potential for interference from neighboring countries, and as in past struggles the Kurds can be caught in a power struggle, particularly given their alignment with the United States," said Schute.
One trigger for militants is a referendum to extend Kurdish regional autonomy that is supposed to be held by the end of this year. Officials say the vote may not happen on schedule but they believe it will happen. Some fear that with a fragmented central government a credible vote cannot take place. But more than 80 percent of the country supported the referendum proviso in the constitution, and if it passes it will extend Kurdish regional government (known as the KRG) to Kirkuk and Mosul.
Currently the KRG is led by Kurds but is made up of 10 parties, including Islamic parties and an Assyrian Christian party. Clearly the lead Kurdish parties are in control, headed by entrenched regional prime minister Massoud Barzani and Jalal Talabani, Iraq's president. Leading tribal families control development and business in the region with what could be described as a pre-capitalistic economy that is more controlled than transparent.
But the region is becoming a model for political and religious freedom, according to Nimrude Youkhana, the region's minister of tourism and a member of the Assyrian Patriotic Party. Further, he said, "the Kurds are now the main player, the balance point in Iraq between Sunnis and Shiites and between order and chaos."
By day everyone here knows that balance is precarious, but by night there remains the prospect of ice cream under the moonlight.