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Kurdistan’s dance with history, modernity

Kurdistan is defined more  by culture and tradition than by distinct borders. It is a place that must dance with five partners — Iraq, Iran, Turkey, Syria and Armenia, the  countries with whom it shares territory.
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Iraqi Kurdistan, which has enjoyed relative freedom since the 1991 Gulf War, in some ways is in an enviable position.

That year the Kurds established a semi-autonomous region under the protection of U.S. and British forces. With oil reserves estimated in the billions of barrels, two international airports and a new investment law, Iraqi Kurdistan has been the beneficiary of relative calm in a fractious country.

Kurdistan is defined as much by culture and tradition as by borders, a place whose dance with five partners — Iraq, Iran, Turkey, Syria and Armenia, with whom it shares territory — has come to define its character.

Despite nationalistic aspirations that go back generations, and the rise of a nationalistic identity, the people of Kurdistan live in a homeland without fixed boundaries, making them the largest ethnic group in the world without a nation to call their own.

Between 25 million and 30 million people live in Kurdistan's 230,000 square miles, a land mass slightly smaller than the state of Texas.

It is a region of broad contrasts in climate (from subzero winters to warm summers), languages (from Kurdish to Aramaic) and cultures (from the supermarket-modern cities of Arbil and Sulimaniyah to mountainous areas where change comes slowly, if at all). 

The dream of Kurdish independence has been frustrated at least since the end of World War I, when the breakup of the Ottoman Empire and the creation of modern Turkey led to a drive among Kurds for their own homeland. In the 1920s and 1930s, Kurds revolted in Turkey; thousands were displaced after martial law was imposed.

War's legacy
War and a history of exploitation by the government of Saddam Hussein are very much Iraqi Kurdistan's legacy.

The Iraqi army under Saddam fought to contain Kurdish rebellion. That effort at suppression ultimately led to Saddam's gassing of Kurds with chemical weapons in Halabja in 1988. Some reports estimate that 5,000 people died in the gas attack.

About 4,000 Kurdish towns and villages were believed to have been destroyed by the Iraqi army between 1975 and 1991.

Stark contrasts
The freedoms since 1991 have made stark contrasts possible: women wearing modern clothes, for example, cross paths with those adorned from head to foot with the chador and burkha, traditional Islamic garments that obscure a woman's identity.

The pursuit of Kurdish autonomy has led to recent violence. In August and September, the Kurdistan Freedom Falcons, a wing of the separatist Kurdistan Workers Party, took responsibility for a series of deadly bombings in neighboring Turkey.

The group, which has also sabotaged oil pipelines in Iraq in the past, has fought for years to establish Kurdistan as an independent country. More than 37,000 people have been killed in fighting since PKK rebels took up arms against Turkey in 1984.

According to the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, since mid-2005, Turkish casualties from PKK attacks “have been mounting at a rate close to that experienced by U.S. forces in Iraq.”

Danger under foot
Iraqi Kurdistan is thought to have an estimated 7 million land mines, which kill and maim hundreds every year; it is thought to be the second most mine-infested location in the world, second only to Afghanistan.

The No More Landmines Trust found that 85 percent of the villages in northern Iraq, the heart of Iraqi Kurdistan, have mined areas. “The population of Iraq faces one of the most extensive landmine and unexploded ordnance contamination problems in the world,” the group reported.

War and the sectarian dangers common to greater Iraq are infrequent in Iraqi Kurdistan, but never out of mind. Civilians in and around Arbil are subject to checkpoint searches by the Kurdish police; pesh merga fighters and the Iraqi National Guard train on bases near Sulimaniyah and Mosul; and members of the Oil Protection Force brandish weapons as they patrol the streets of Kirkuk.

But life can approach normal: A wedding party — some of whom survived the 1988 chemical attack — celebrated recently with dances in Halabja; a hang glider embraces the freedom of the air above Mt. Asmar; and children can frolic on a merry-go-round in the shopping and amuseument complex known as Dream City, a development built on a site where Kurds were tortured and killed not so long ago.