|The Kurdish government says monitoring of entry of non-Kurds is necessary to|
avoid the violence plaguing the rest of the country [GALLO/GETTY]
Maher al-Jasem, an Iraqi journalist from Anbar province, recently visited Erbil in northern Iraq, and found that while no political secession has yet occurred, the Kurdish city has effectively partitioned itself from the rest of the country.
Erbil is located 80km from Mosul and 90km south of Kirkuk along a crucial trade route to Turkey.
It is here that Kurdish authorities have chosen as the seat of the provincial parliament – the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).
And it is here that thousands of families sought refuge, escaping the sectarian carnage in the south of the country.
Fearing an influx of mostly Arab refugees, and infiltration by fighters, the KRG has clamped down on the entry of non-Kurds into the city.
Those wishing to enter the city are required to have a guarantor who is an "original Kurdish citizen" from Erbil.
Refugees fleeing the southern provinces must first navigate through the war-infested streets of Mosul and drive to Erbil's western gates to the Qerzhala checkpoint.
As I approached the checkpoint, a Kurdish security officer asked me to fill out a non-Erbil resident's entry application form in the presences of a guarantor.
I explained that I had been invited by a local news agency to visit their Erbil office.
The security officer said entry was barred without a Kurdish guarantor to vouch for me.
|I had believed myself to be in an Iraqi city, but we are feeling like foreigners, forced to apply for residency|
Two weeks after non-residents fill out application forms, they are expected to proceed to a security office in the Dollara district of the city to be notified of their status.
Safe and thriving
Major Hersh K Azakai, managing director of the Erbil residency office, justified the security measures, telling Al Jazeera: "This process is designed to maintain the stability of the Kurdish people who live in Kurdistan, and prevent gunmen who want to destroy our security from entering the area."
But despite the legal and security provisions for entry to the city, it has become the choice destination for thousands of Iraqis who do not have the financial means to leave the country.
There is no fighting in Erbil. Unlike nearly every other city and town in Iraq, Erbil has few war scars to show for the past four years since US forces deposed Saddam Hussein's government.
There are no high-security wires, roadblocks, or streets patrolled by sectarian militias. Cafes and restaurants are open for business and commerce is thriving.
Here, one can walk to the local marketplace without fearing a mortar shell, suicide car bomb, or kidnapping.
The Erbil international airport has been receiving major foreign airlines. Iraqi Airways operates out of Erbil but the airport facilities do not fly the Iraqi flag.
A new airport currently under construction is expected to lure foreign business investors – and tourists - to northern Iraq.
Journalists' safe haven
The relative safety of the city has made Erbil ideal for local journalists who have been threatened by armed groups or have survived assassination attempts.
Hussein E Haddad, an editor at the Iraqi news agency, came to Erbil a year ago but found himself treated almost like a foreigner.
"I had believed myself to be in an Iraqi city, but we are feeling like foreigners, forced to apply for residency," he told Al Jazeera.
But he says he can understand the security procedures which have effectively made Erbil a separate political entity within Iraq's borders.
He said: "The security procedures may be justified because, after all, since the invasion of Kuwait and the war in 1991, Erbil has been relatively stable whereas the rest of the country has slowly fallen into disarray.
"To ensure that Erbil did not fall to violence and terrorism, I think the authorities here isolated themselves from Baghdad. This [Kurdistan] is a separate region now despite the fact that the authorities have not announced independence."
Several Arabs who have flocked to this northern city privately express their belief that Erbil has all but formally seceded from the rest of Iraq.
Sarmad Al Ta'e, a broadcast presenter working for the Al-Hurra satellite news network, who is now based in Erbil, also feels that he is treated like a foreigner within Iraq's borders but does not seem to be bothered by it.
"I will change my status from citizen into resident although I am living in my country," he said.
The trade-off is bittersweet - security and safety for a sense of alienation.
Hamed Al-Humrani, a journalist from Kerbala, who is on assignment in Erbil, says that the question of Iraqi citizenship should be tied to political stability. Since there is no powerful central government and lawlessness persists in most of Iraq, he believes the issues of citizenship and residency become moot.
"Iraq is still under foreign occupation and Iraqis continue to die in great numbers"
Send us your views
He said: "Yes, this process makes us feel that we are strangers here but citizenship needs stability … so give me stability and I'll give you citizenship without a residency application process and without complexity."
But Essmat Arkushi, head of the Erbil security office, told Al Jazeera that he rejects any notion of Kurdish secession or independence.
Arkushi said: "To those Iraqis coming to our region, I tell them that the new Kurdish security processes do not represent the first step of independence and the initial announcement of Kurdistan state.
"These processes had been issued to keep the security of Kurdistan district; by this way we may prevent the terrorists of making penetration into our cities."
Security above all
For local residents, protecting Erbil from the bloody fighting raging in the rest of the country is paramount.
Jamal Peera, a Kurdish editor at the Iraqi Voices News Agency (WAMA), says the entry application forms and requirement for a guarantor have produced two mutually inclusive results.
"The positive impact of these stringent procedures is that we protect our cities from the explosions that you see elsewhere on TV every day," he said.
"The second is negative; Iraqi visitors may feel insulted by the complexity of the procedures."
Abd H Zeebari, a Kurdish journalist at the Al Iraq Al Hurra satellite channel, said security in Erbil had been tightened since a car bomb killed 14 people outside the KRG ministry of interior in May 2007. It was the first fatal attack since 2005.
However, residents say that the exuberance which was felt on Erbil's streets during Ramadan has now been replaced with caution as tensions rise with neighbour Turkey.