Americans still welcome in Iraqi Kurdistan
Sulaimaniyah, Kurdistan region 'Iraq', -- In
Kurdistan , an American passport makes you a VIP.
Often it doesn't take even that, just blue eyes and
a Kurdish escort who says you're an American and—
zip!— you're in the ministry door or waved through
one of the seemingly endless security checkpoints
that keep terrorists from the rest of Iraq out and
investors flocking in.
Iraqi Kurds love to see Americans. And no wonder.
The United States got rid of Saddam Hussein , who
killed tens of thousands of Kurds, some of them with
poison gas. Now, with Hussein gone, Kurdistan has
blossomed into a vibrant economic success.
However, America's new Mideast archenemy, Iran ,
also supported the Kurds against Hussein and against
earlier Iraqi governments. Kurds also don't think
Iran has betrayed them the way they think United
States has, urging them to rise up after the 1991
Gulf War but failing to intervene when Saddam
crushed the uprising and again failing to protect
them when he launched an offensive into Kurdistan in
In other parts of Iraq , Iranian influence may be
measured in the number of weapons that Iran supplies
to its Shiite Muslim allies. In the three northern
provinces that make up semi-autonomous Kurdistan ,
though, Iran's influence is measured in goods moving
back and forth across the border— at least it was
until Iran closed the border.
Iran said it was retaliating for American troops'
arrest of an Iranian in Kurdistan for allegedly
helping to ship arms into Iraq to kill Americans. A
U.S. military spokesman said the man, Agai Mahummdi
Firhad, was a member of the Iranian Revolutionary
Guard Corps' elite Quds Force.
Iranian and Kurdish officials have protested
vigorously, saying the man was invited as part of a
trade delegation and is innocent.
The result, however, is that Kurdistan is caught in
the escalating battle between its faraway sometime
friend and its sometimes troublesome next-door
The 220 to 300 trucks that enter Sulaimaniyah from
the Bashmakh border point daily have stopped
completely, and closing the border has put about
30,000 people in Kurdistan out of work, said Hasen
Baqi Abdool , the chairman of the Sulaimaniyah
Chamber of Commerce .
"It is difficult to estimate the volume of damage
that resulted from closing the border points, but
there is no doubt that it falls on both the Kurdish
and Iranian people equally," he said.
Amal Abdullah , the spokesman for the Kurdistan
government, said in a phone interview that the Kurds
are paying the price for the Iranian's arrest, even
though Kurdistan wasn't involved.
"Ordinary and simple citizens are the only losers in
this action," he said, adding that the closing will
lead to higher prices for consumer goods.
The arrest and the fallout from it add to the Kurds'
feeling that they're underappreciated by the United
There was an outcry in the local press last month
when the region's economic success and political
stability went unmentioned in the progress report on
Iraq that Army Gen. David H. Petraeus and U.S.
Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker gave to Congress .
And investment by American companies is too paltry
to suit Herish Muharam Muhamad, the chairman of the
regional government's board of investment.
Muhamad said that he's licensed projects worth more
than $5 billion in the year since his board was
created, but that only a handful of U.S. companies
are coming here. More would be better, Muhamad said,
because U.S. and European investment is a stamp of
approval that draws even more companies.
Businessmen such as Nawroz Jamal Ibrahim Khaffaf,
the head of the Kurdistan contractor's association
and one of the wealthiest men in Iraq , doesn't
understand why only a handful of American companies
have joined in the boom.
"Look at this," said Khaffaf, leaning against his
top-of-the-line Mercedes sedan and pointing at
displays of snacks and soft drinks in a roadside
"Persia," he said, using the historical name for
Iran . "It all came from Persia. Pepsi, Coca-Cola,
why don't they come?
Where are all the American companies? Why should
Persia and Turkey get all the business?"
The Americans' lack of interest is leaving the field
open for not only Iran and Turkey , which is
reportedly responsible for more than half the
foreign investment here, but also for the Chinese,
Koreans and other competitors.
Khaffaf, who owns a diverse group of businesses,
including an amusement park, dozens of rental homes
and office buildings, a chicken processing plant,
farms and a contracting operation, said he likes
Americans and would be happy if more came to counter
Iranian influence, and not just the economic kind.
In one major construction project, an Iranian
company underbid local contractors so deeply that
Khaffaf said he's suspicious that the Iranian
government is subsidizing the job so that it has an
easy route to insert intelligence agents.
"It's just not possible they could do the work for
what they bid," he said.
Nevertheless, Kurds are quick to say that their
region is America's best friend in the Middle East .
The admiration— rocky history, border problems and
disappointing investment aside— seems to know no
The minister in charge of the Peshmerga fighters—
essentially the Iraqi Kurds' army— said he would
love it if the United States built a huge, permanent
military base there. Among other things, a permanent
American presence might discourage the Kurds'
neighbors, especially Iran and Turkey , from
crossing the border to attack Kurdish separatist
"Frankly, I'd be happy if the Americans did come
here and just be our government," said Forazeen
Anwar, an elementary school teacher and taxi driver
in the Kurdish capital of Irbil .
Anwar was taking a break between fares, lounging in
the shade of a giant mall across the street from the
more than 8,000-year-old citadel that forms the
heart of the city.
As he spoke, Anwar was periodically interrupted by
the shriek of a metal saw as workers finished a
"If the Americans back us up, the prosperity will
continue to grow," he said. "Without the Americans,
the Kurds can do nothing."
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