Ankawa, Kurdistan Region, Iraq - After thousands of US troops have packed their bags to return home in time for Christmas with their families, celebrations of Jesus’ birth may be more sober this year in Iraq.
Many Iraqi Christians suggest the withdrawal of American soldiers removes a stabilizing and pacifying force, contrary to the perception amongst most other Iraqis that almost nine years wrought little more than chaos and destruction.
Nowhere does this pro-American sentiment find its voice more than Ankawa, a predominantly Christian and affluent northern suburb of Iraqi Kurdistan’s capital, Erbil.
Without a doubt, the increasingly prosperous north is far calmer than the rest of the country, and the regional government takes security precautions seriously. But pessimism about the future is slowly rising.
On Monday afternoon, 29-year-old Sermat Patros was kidnapped from his family’s home furnishings store along a busy commercial street in his tranquil neighbourhood.
Friends and family say this was the first time such a crime occurred here since intra-Kurdish strife in the mid-1990’s. The recent act may not have been political, but for some, it represents the crossing of a perceived threshold towards greater insecurity.
And just last week, in the Kurdish province of Dohuk near the Turkish border, mobs destroyed several Christian shops in the town Zakho. Some Kurdish media also described that event as an unprecedented attack for the northern part of the country.
Peter, who asked that his real name not be used, is a Salahadin University economics student by day and hotel receptionist by night. Like many others who were internally displaced during the war, he believes Iraq has become too unpredictable.
“Of course, Kurdistan is the safest area of Iraq,” he says, describing how he left Baghdad after his family dwelling in the Green Zone near the defence ministry was targeted by RPGs fired by unknown assailants five years ago.
“When you get to a safer area, you don’t want to again leave and go back to the more dangerous place,” he says, his voice shaking with uncertainty the night before his friend Sermat was freed by Kurdish special security forces.
Half-million dollar Chaldean
At his house with relatives after a press conference outside the police station, Sermat says he was sleeping on Thursday morning - blindfolded and tied down - when he faintly heard voices speaking in Kurdish then suddenly felt at ease.
Members of a SWAT team had repelled down from helicopters around 7:00am and then rescued Sermat from his four captors.
The victim says he actually had remained comfortable throughout the ordeal, but never felt as relieved as when he returned home to his wife, 21-year-old Amal, and a crowd of hundreds of cheering people from his Chaldean Catholic community who danced to ceremonial songs and sacrificed a bull in front of his family residence to honor the occasion.
Sermat, who playfully calls his wife Amoula, still resides with her in the spacious stone home belonging to his mother and father - an officer at the regional telecommunications company.
Amal told Al Jazeera she called her husband’s phone repeatedly during the three days of captivity during which he was kept shackled in a small house in Erbil. But the assailants - four Arabs who demanded a ransom of $500,000 - would only reply via text message from Sermat’s phone.
“I kept telling them ‘I just want to hear his voice’ and they said ‘we want the money first’.”
Authorities had used records from Korek, a local mobil phone company, to locate the source of the messages, prior to carrying out the rescue operation on Thursday morning.
“This kidnapping was only about money,” Mazil Palander, Sermat’s uncle, told Al Jazeera. “Yet this is far away from politics. Even if you have strong police, you still can’t 100 per cent guarantee the situation.
“But we are thankful that the Asayish [counter-terrorism] guys did their best, not sleeping or eating for three days. They gave us lots of calls while we were sitting and praying .. We put our faith in God, and our faith has been returned.”
Raveen, Sermat’s cousin, says, “This is about the safety of people internally. As for the [US] soldiers, it’s up to them whether or not they are leaving.”
Sermat’s cousin and uncle both insist that the crime was not political. They say the kidnapping was carried out as an act of economic desperation, without any sectarian undertones.
But there is a subtext to recent events. Christians and Kurds in the north of Iraq say they fear the onset of more violence - whether mere “criminal” offenses or targeted political attacks.
‘The Other Iraq’
Kurdistan, an autonomous region within the federal Iraqi republic, feels like a separate country. And many residents are recent arrivals from the rest of Iraq, having fled from security nightmares in Basra and Baghdad, and even from Kirkuk and Mosul nearby.
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Unlike the rest of the country, there have only been a handful of major attacks in the Kurdish region - most notably 2004 dual bomb attacks that killed 98 people in Erbil.
Fresh concerns about safety in the north were stoked on December 2 in Zakho, when minority-owned businesses - including liquor stores, hotels, a beauty salon and a massage parlor - were ransacked by Islamist mobs.
“This marks the first such destruction of Christian and other ethnic minority establishments in Kurdistan region ever … [and] threatens fragile security,” wrote Salah Bayaziddi in the Kurdish Globe newspaper.
Although the US military presence in Kurdish areas has been minimal, many Kurds and other minorities see the troops as a valuable ally.
“We would give food and water to the troops,” says Peter, the economics student. “They were our friends, even though they were targets.
“But now everyone wants to go to the US or Australia. My cousin is leaving for France on Sunday. Some other European or Western government must contain [the situation in Iraq]. They know that it is dangerous for us here.”
'No real future'
Rasul is a talkative cab driver who comes from an area of Iraqi Kurdistan that straddles the Iranian border. “Of course, the American army is good,” he said, adding that most Kurdish Muslims feel similarly. “So we want them to stay.”
Pretending there was a chance his words could convince US defence officials to halt the withdrawal, Rasul says, “If they leave, then our situation will become worse.”
One Assyrian Christian member of the Peshmerga - the Kurdistan’s regional army - told Al Jazeera that members of his faith believe that only the US can protect religious minorities from sectarian strife.
“Whether it’s Sunni-Shia, Kurdish-Arab, or Muslim-Christian, the troubles will escalate,” said 26-year-old Baghdad-born Yousef, who asked that his real name not be used.
Yousef was wounded in the right side of his abdomen in a triple-bomb attack in the capital four years ago while he was working for a private US security contractor. He laments the US departure for the loss of many decent-paying jobs and the pullout of a security guarantor.
“There is no real future for us in Iraq,” Yousef says firmly, an automatic weapon on his left shoulder and the Kurdish army crest with an embroidered yellow lion on his right.
“Once the Americans go, then we’ve got nothing.”