The Kurds remain the biggest winners of the US-led invasion of Iraq
IRBIL, Iraq — McMansion complexes, fast food restaurants, real estate offices and half-built high-rises line wide highways in Irbil, the seat of the semi-autonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq.
Many members of the political and business elite live in the suburban gated community called American Village, where homes sell for up to $5 million and in the summer, lush gardens use more than a million liters of water a day.
Visible wealth is a far cry from 20 years ago. At the time, Irbil was a dead end provincial capital without an airport.
That changed quickly after the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq that toppled Saddam Hussein. Analysts say Iraq’s Kurds — and the Kurdish political class in particular — are the biggest beneficiaries of a conflict that has had few winners.
Even though the benefits of the new order for ordinary Kurds have been tempered by corruption and power struggles between the two major Kurdish parties and between Irbil and Baghdad, the Iraqi capital.
In the wake of the invasion, much of Iraq fell into chaos as occupying American forces fought an insurgency and multiple political and sectarian communities competed to fill the power vacuum left in Baghdad. But the Kurds, seen as staunch allies of the Americans, strengthened their political position and courted foreign investment.
Irbil quickly grew into an oil-fueled boom town. Two years later, the city opened a new domestic commercial airport built with Turkish money, followed by an international airport a few years later.
Traditionally, “the Kurdish narrative is one of victimhood and grievance,” said Bilal Wahab of the Washington Institute think tank. But in Iraq since 2003, “this is not the Kurdish story. The story is about power and empowerment.”
With the collapse of the Ottoman Empire after the First World War, the Kurds were promised an independent homeland in the Sevres Peace Treaty of 1920. But the treaty was never ratified and “Kurdistan” was dismembered. Since then, Kurdish rebellions have raged in Iran, Iraq and Turkey, and Kurds have clashed with Turkish-backed forces in Syria.
In Iraq, the Kurdish region gained de facto autonomy in 1991, when the United States imposed a no-fly zone over it in response to Saddam’s brutal suppression of Kurdish uprisings.
“We built our own institutions, the parliament, the government,” said Hoshyar Zebari, a top Kurdistan Democratic Party official who served as foreign minister in Iraq’s first post-Saddam government. “We also had our own civil war. But we got past that,” he said, referring to the fighting between rival Kurdish factions in the mid-1990s.
In an interview at his home in Masif, a former resort town in the mountains above Irbil, Zabari added: “The regime change in Baghdad has brought a lot of benefits to this region. “
Iraqi President Abdul Latif Rashid, a member of the rival Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, also gave a glowing assessment of post-2003 developments. The Kurds’ goal is “a democratic Iraq, but at the same time some kind of … self-determination for the Kurdish people,” he said.
With the American overthrow of Saddam, he said, “We have achieved that… We have become a powerful group in Baghdad.”
The post-invasion constitution codified the Kurdish region’s semi-independent status, while an informal power-sharing agreement now stipulates that Iraq’s president is always Kurdish, the prime minister is Shiite, and the speaker of parliament is Sunni.
But even in the Kurdish region, the legacy of the invasion is complicated. The two major Kurdish parties fought for power, while Irbil and Baghdad clashed over the division of territory and oil revenues.
Meanwhile, Arabs and minorities in the Kurdish region, including the Turkmen and Yazidis, feel marginalized by the new order, as do Kurds who are not affiliated with one of the two key parties that serve as gatekeepers to opportunities in the Kurdish region.
As the economic recovery has stagnated in recent years – both due to domestic problems and global economic trends – more and more young Kurds are leaving the country in search of better opportunities. According to the International Labor Organization, in 2021, 19.2% of men and 38% of women aged 15-24 in Irbil province were unemployed and out of school.
Wahab said that the economic success of Irbil after 2003 was also characterized by widespread waste and patronage in the public sector.
“The corruption in the system really undermines opportunity,” he said.
In Kirkuk, an oil-rich city with a mixed population of Kurds, Turkmen and Sunni Arabs, where Baghdad and Irbil have vied for control, Kahtan Vendavi, the local leader of the Iraqi Turkmen Front party, complained that US forces’ “support is very clear to the Kurdish parties.” after the 2003 invasion.
The Turkmen are the third largest ethnic group in Iraq, numbering an estimated 3 million people, but they do not hold high government positions and hold only a few parliamentary seats.
In Kirkuk, the Americans “appointed a governor of Kurdish nationality to run the province. Important departments and security agencies have been handed over to the Kurdish parties,” Vendavi said.
Some Kurdish groups also lost in the order after 2003, which consolidated the power of the two major parties.
Ali Bapir, head of the Kurdistan Justice Group, a Kurdish Islamist party, said the two ruling parties “treat people who don’t belong to them as third- and fourth-class citizens.”
Bapir has other reasons to resent the US incursion. Although he fought against the rule of Saddam’s Baath Party, US forces that arrived in 2003 accused him and his party of links to extremist groups. Shortly after the invasion, the United States bombed his party’s compound, then arrested Bapir and imprisoned him for two years.
Kurds who do not participate in the political sphere have other, mainly economic, concerns.
Tara Chalabi, 40, who was picnicking with her mother, sister and a friend in the vast Sami Abdul Rahman Park, once built on a military base under Saddam, admitted that “the safety and security situation here is excellent.”
But he ticked off a list of other grievances, including high unemployment, the end of subsidies for heating fuels from the regional government and frequent delays and cuts in pay for public servants like him.
“It is now uncertain whether they will pay this month,” he said.
Nearby, a group of university students said they hoped they would emigrate.
“Hard work was enough to succeed in life,” said a 22-year-old girl who gave only her first name, Gala. “If you study well and get good grades… you would have a good opportunity, a good job. But now it’s very different. You must have connections.”
In 2021, hundreds of Iraqi Kurds rushed to Belarus in the hope of crossing into Poland or other neighboring EU countries. At the time, Belarus was happy to hand out tourist visas in order to put apparent pressure on the European Union by creating a wave of migrants.
According to Wahab, those who left were from the middle class and could afford the plane tickets and smuggling fees.
“To me, that’s a sign that it’s not about poverty,” he said. “Basically, it’s the younger generation of Kurds who no longer see a future for themselves in this region.”
Associated Press writer Salar Salim in Irbil, Iraq, contributed to this report.