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Iraq Kurds: The same but different

For Kurdish children, like these fourth-graders in the village of Hwana in the north, Kurdish is their first language. They study Arabic for only four hours a week.Sasa Kralj / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Persian pop songs blasting from shops compete with Kurdish music from passing cars. Hotel bars and restaurants are packed on the weekends, when people take strolls through peaceful streets.

Kurdish cities like this one in northern Iraq have been largely immune to the kind of violence that much of the country has suffered since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in the spring of 2003.

History and language differences add to Kurdistan’s contrast with the rest of Iraq — differences that will become ever more important when a new transitional government takes power, with the largely secular and independence-minded Kurds playing a major role for the first time.

Sense of 'ownership'
The key difference between “here and there,” said columnist Hiwa Osman, is the feeling of responsibility that Kurds have toward their cities and towns.

“If people see a suspicious car,” for instance, “they immediately report it to the security forces,” Osman said. “In Baghdad or other areas, there’s no sense of ownership.”

Kurdistan is exempt from a nationwide emergency law that has been in force since November. Law and order is largely enforced here, a far cry from the chaos that reigns in the rest of the country.

“First of all, the economic situation is better here, so is the security situation,” said Noshirwan Mustafa, a senior official in the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, the party that controls Sulaimaniyah.

Alcohol allowed
Mustafa, who studied at Baghdad University in the 1960s, said although he still loves Baghdad, it’s too risky a place to venture out unless absolutely necessary.

Almost daily bombings, kidnappings and murders have driven many Baghdad residents to take refuge in Kurdistan.

Here, they find a very different culture.

Plenty of shops sell alcohol openly in Kurdistan, unlike in Arab-populated areas where Islamic extremists have murdered liquor vendors.

Although Saddam’s army fought a ruinous 1980-1988 war against neighboring Iran, Iranian films and music are popular among Kurdish youth. Most Kurdish youngsters speak Persian, and many were either born or raised in Iran while their parents were exiles during Saddam’s regime.

Kurdish — and Iraqi
The recent elections, though, have brought out a nascent Iraqi nationalism in some Kurds.

“We finally feel we are Iraqis,” Osman said. “People feel they have a new identity.”

Osman said the constitution, which the new National Assembly is tasked to draft, has to recognize that the Kurds are different from the Arabs, if there is to be national unity.

“We have a young professional generation — at least a million of them — who do not speak Arabic. You can’t force them to learn Arabic to become Iraqis,” Osman said.

Most of the younger generation never lived under Saddam, whose genocide against the Kurds led to the deaths of some 200,000 men, women and children. But the hatred lingers, even among the youths who have never felt a part of Iraq.

Still, there are signs that the young generation may be ready to bridge the gap between Kurdistan and the rest of Iraq.

Ninth-grader Bafrin Najib wants to learn Arabic so she can understand the subtitles to the TV films. She also wants to understand the language of her fellow citizens.

“I am very sad that I don’t know Arabic,” she said in English. “I went to Baghdad and I couldn’t speak a word of Arabic. We are in Iraq, we have to speak it. We are also Iraqis, not Turkish,” she said.

Protecting their freedoms
For 13 years since the end of the first Gulf War, Kurds lived in a semiautonomous region under Western aerial protection, and Kurdish language and customs ruled.

At the very least, the Kurdish parties now want a secular, democratic and federal Iraq that will protect the freedoms they already have.

With their newfound clout, they may well get what they want.

The religious, majority Shiite Muslims were by far the biggest vote-getters in the Jan. 30 election. But because a two-thirds majority is needed to control the legislature, the Kurds, who make up about 15 percent of Iraq’s population, are in a powerful position to shape a new government.

Many Sunni Arabs, who comprise an estimated 20 percent, stayed home on election day, either out of fear of violence or to support a boycott call by radical clerics opposed to the U.S. military.