Americans are still welcome in Kurdistan

Kurdistan bustles while other parts of Iraq languish.
Kurdistan bustles while other parts of Iraq languish. Khampha Bouaphanh / Fort Worth Star-Telegram

SULAIMANIYAH, 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 1996.

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 neighbor.

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 States.

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 market stall.

“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 bounds.

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 groups.

“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 shop’s interior.

“If the Americans back us up, the prosperity will continue to grow,” he said. “Without the Americans, the Kurds can do nothing.”

(Price writes for The News & Observer in Raleigh. McClatchy special correspondent Yaseen Taha contributed to this story.)