Friday, May 26, 2006

Back from Iraqi Kurdistan

By Abu Khawla (*)

The Spring Festival took place in Erbil, the capital city of Iraqi Kurdistan, on April 22-30. The event was organized by Almada, Presided by Fahkhri Karim, a long time opponent to the regime of Saddam Hussein, and offered a great opportunity for Arab participants to witness the progress the autonomous province has made since the early 1990's.

As soon as we started landing to Erbil international airport, one could witness how the city expanded during the last 15 years under the protection of the "no fly zone". Indeed, as early as 1992, the newly established authority spent about 200 dollars per capita on infrastructure and other basic services (primarily education and health). A public administration was created and a Parliament was elected. Media also witnessed a remarkable boost. No less than a dozen newspapers are now available, in addition to a wide variety of TV channels, broadcasting in Kurdish, Arabic, and one in Turkmen.

The fall of Saddam offered a new opportunity for further developing the province. A new All-Kurdistan Parliament was elected where women occupied 25 % of the seats. Last January, an agreement was reached by the two Kurdish leaders Jalal Talibani And Messaoud Barazani to unify the administration, and a new unified government was sworn in last week in which 11 out of a total of 27 ministerial posts were allocated to small groups.

Oil revenues from the federal budget helped create
better infrastructure. In Erbil, two universities were created and a new industrial city and an offshore media city are planned. And the city of Sulaimaniya is striving to achieve similar progress. Recently, an American pharmaceuticals company announced an investment in the amount of $ 900 million to satisfy demand in the province and the rest of Iraq.

A Reuter's dispatch dated 29 April, 2006 stated "not only Kurdish expatriates are moving in. The Sulaimaniya Palace has been overtaken by a Lebanese company; a Norwegian outfit is looking for oil; Turkish, British, Iranian, Chinese and other multinational firms are looking for bases here". These companies are voting with their feet for Iraqi Kurdistan to seize the immense opportunities the province offers. Fertile land and abundant water could turn the region in a granary for Iraq and beyond. Similarly, there is huge potential for Agro-industries and meet production and processing, mountain tourism attractions and others... Further oil exploration is also a real possibility. K. Petrolium company from Canada just signed an agreement with the Kurdish authority for oil exploration, and others are expected to follow suit.

For an Arab like me it was heartening to witness first hand how Kurds are welcoming our visit after long decades of isolation and oppression. And the opening of Erbil international airport in 2005 is making it possible for them to reach out to the outside world. Direct flights are now organized from Amman, Istanbul and Stockholm. Other destinations will soon be available.

Two points were stressed in our meetings with Presidents Messaoud Barazani and Jalal Talibani: (1) Kurdish autonomy in a Federal Iraq and (2) outreach to the Arab world. On the former, the Kurdish leadership is well aware of the impossibility of total independence, and that being part of a unified and federal Iraq may offer better protection against neighboring Iran and Turkey. As regards outreach to the Arab world, this enhances their relation with the Arab majority inside Iraq, and offers them good prospects in terms of investment and trade.

The Festival was also an opportunity for us to meet Iraqis coming from Baghdad and other regions. Differences in opinion remain about the role of the foreign military presence, but there was unanimity about the condemnation of the rebellion and a cautious optimism about the ability of the new government to defeat terror.

(*) The author is former President of the Tunisian section of Amnesty International. E-mail: Abuk1010@hotmail.com

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