IRBIL, Iraq — Every three months, Munawer Fayeq Rashid goes to the Asayech, an intelligence security agency in Irbil, and hands over his identification. The Shiite Muslim Arab never goes alone. He has to bring a Kurdish sponsor to vouch for him.
Although Irbil is part of Iraq, Iraqi Arabs who move here or elsewhere in Iraqi Kurdistan have learned that they're not considered fellow Iraqis.
"They treat us like foreigners," Rashid said.
When he moved to Irbil from Baghdad, worried about the safety of his Kurdish wife and his children, Rashid had to find a Kurd who'd swear that he was a good man. Then Kurdish authorities questioned him intensely before issuing him a residency permit that's good for only three months. He must carry it with him everywhere.
"They asked every detail about me," Rashid said. "'Where do you live? Who are your relatives? Who were your neighbors in Baghdad?' But the most nerve-wracking question was: 'Are you Sunni or Shiite?'"
Officials of the Kurdistan Regional Government say they have no choice but to vet people who want to move to the country's northern provinces, where violence has been far less common than it is in other parts of Iraq. If the government weren't so strict, it would run the risk of letting violent militants into the region, said Esmat Argoshi, the head of security in Irbil.
"We have to know who they are," he said. "Kurdistan is part of Iraq, but at the same time we need someone from here to sponsor them, to say, 'I know this person and I'm going to be responsible.' ...It's to keep the security situation very strong and stop terrorists from coming to Kurdistan."
More than 50,000 Iraqis from outside Kurdistan now live in Irbil, and each has registered with the Asayech, Argoshi said, including Kurds who were born and raised in mostly Arab provinces.
After a battery of questions and the testimony of a Kurd to vouch for them, would-be residents are issued special ID cards that allow them to live in the city. The card must be renewed every three months. If a person wants to visit another city in the Kurdish region, he or she must have a Kurdish sponsor in that city, too.
The rules have created tension between Kurds and Arabs, both of whom are citizens of Iraq but who speak different languages and have different histories. Most Kurds are Muslims, but they shudder at the thought of traveling to the dangers of Baghdad.
On a recent drive from Irbil to Sulaimaniyah, soldiers pulled cars off the roads and checked IDs. When a soldier saw a Kurdish man and an American woman, he was painfully polite, but an Arab man was questioned aggressively.
"Do you have permission to go to Sulaimaniyah? Show me your ID!" the Arab was ordered. He meekly pulled out his documents as the Kurd and the American were sent on their way.
Sisters Hannah and Asraa Waleed moved to Irbil nearly two years ago. They've slowly gotten used to life in Kurdistan and are thankful for the refuge.
Hannah Waleed's husband worked as a merchant in the Baghdad market of Shorja, but the bombings became too frequent. A Kurdish friend offered to sponsor the family and they came to Irbil.
The two sisters spend their time at Naza Mall, an Arab hangout, where they can shop for clothes, cell phones and home appliances, or sit outside and enjoy some coffee surrounded by people speaking Arabic.
They can't imagine moving back to Baghdad, but they know they don't belong in Irbil.
"You walk outside and you can't speak your own language," Hannah Waleed said in the Naza Mall cafeteria.
Her sister pulled out her passport and her residency ID card. "We have to carry this everywhere we go," she said.
Hannah Waleed's family once tried to visit Dohuk, a Kurdish town famous for its waterfalls and forests. But without a sponsor, they weren't allowed to enter the city.
Others complain that the restrictions give the Kurdish areas the air of a police state. Asaad al Ismail, a Kurd who was born and raised in Baghdad, said he doesn't mind having to register with the Asayech. But his friend quickly butted in when the conversation turned to politics.
"There is freedom here," the friend said, "but not when it comes to talking about politics."
Another Arab woman from Baghdad was so fearful that she wouldn't give her name and would only whisper her concerns. She said she was worried that people would overhear her and that her residency permit might not be renewed.
It may be safer here, but life is still difficult, she said. Her relatives can't visit without a sponsor, and it hurts her pride to have to ask Kurds to go with her and her family to the Asayech.
She steered clear of criticizing the local government.
"It's like Saddam's time," she said, referring to the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein.
McClatchy Newspapers 2008