There is a gnawing sense that the war against ISIL may be the final test for Iraq’s Kurds.
It took two planes, a road trip and a rinky-dink speedboat to get me to Iraq’s Kurdish region in January 2003. It was the run-up to the US-led invasion. Journalists were competing to get in. But neighbouring Iran, Turkey and Syria weren’t making it easy.
After a six-day wait in Damascus, I flew in on a rickety charter plane, landing in the border town of Qamishli; the rest of the journey was by car, past the oil rigs, and into Malakia; and finally, a speedboat across the Tigris River.
The assignment – gauge the mood in the run-up to the war.
“Nobody knows much about the Kurds,” my editor had told me, flippantly. “Let’s humanise them. Find out what they eat, whether they go to the cinema, what they think of the upcoming US invasion …”
I spoke to a cross section of Kurds, from shopkeepers in the bazaars, truck drivers, communists, former political prisoners, survivors of the 1988 Halabja chemical attack, Peshmerga commanders to civil society activists.
Abdullah, a fruits and vegetables vendor at the Erbil bazaar, had told me back then: “We hope Saddam will be removed. Maybe then, the local government can focus a little bit more on our plight.”
The optimism was unanimous. The US had to invade, Saddam Hussein had to go, and so did the crippling sanctions that had so cruelly impeded progress in the semi-autonomous Kurdish region. For the Kurds, the war represented hope for a tantalisingly better future.
In Erbil, I interviewed Massoud Barzani, leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and president of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). In Sulaimania, I interviewed Jalal Talabani, leader of the rival party, Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK).
The next time I visited Iraqi Kurdistan, in the winter of 2005, it was a time to build. Fortune was flowing into the region, mostly from the Gulf countries and Turkey. Kurdish-administered northern Iraq was a blank slate; and adventurous, far-sighted businessmen from around the world were swooping in.
“The Kurdistan region is open for business,” KRG Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani told me in an interview in 2006.
There would soon be two new airports, several new housing projects, shopping malls, five-star hotels and Western fast-food chains. Still, in the midst of this investment frenzy, average Kurds endured hardships, such as regular power shortages, poor healthcare, an overstretched education system, and rents going up at a faster rate than public sector salaries.
I travelled back and forth for a few years, but I was most struck by what I noticed in 2010. It was weeks before the parliamentary elections, and the city was abuzz with rumours. Just a few months earlier, a new political party calling itself “Gorran” (Change) had emerged. It was the first significant newcomer on the Iraqi-Kurdish political scene, dominated for decades by the PUK and KDP.
Sulaimania is surrounded by mountains. We're buffered. If it weren't for the mountains, you'd probably hear the shelling.
The party capitalised on the economic stagnation and general malaise over a sense that Sulaimania was lagging behind the regional capital, Erbil, which appeared to be drawing the lion’s share of foreign investment.
“Have you seen Erbil? How many skyscrapers they’re building over there?” one young Sulaimania resident asked me. “They’re finally building one here in Suly, but it’s just one.”
And so I went to visit the site of the city’s first skyscraper, the upcoming Grand Millennium Hotel – a miniature replica of Dubai’s signature Burj al-Arab. Proud residents of Sulaimania had already dubbed it the “Burj Sulaimania”.
I followed with interest a year later, shortly after the outbreak of the Arab Spring. Demonstrations erupted on the Kurdish street, too. Some claimed these were orchestrated by Gorran, for political ends; others said the protests were a genuine expression of public dissatisfaction with the regional government’s failure to ease daily hardships.
Not much came of those protests, however. Kurds appeared unwilling to risk grappling with the post-Spring repercussions.
Last week, I got to return to Iraqi Kurdistan; my first trip back in five years. When I landed at Sulaimania Airport, security officers gave me an eye-scan and took my fingerprints on fancy machines. I remembered my first visit via speedboat, setting foot on muddy Kurdish shores in the cold of winter.
A snazzy new jazz bar had just opened up at the upscale Copthorne Hotel. It was the place to see and be seen. There were also several Lebanese restaurants with sprawling gardens and outdoor seating; an Italian restaurant offering homemade gelato; and a dusty antique shop in an old Ottoman-era home that had been converted into a trendy eatery.
On the face of it, there was little to suggest that the region’s revered Peshmerga were fighting yet another existential war only 60 kilometres away; not against Saddam’s army, but against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
“Sulaimania is surrounded by mountains,” a well-placed security source told me one evening, over tea on his porch. “We’re buffered. If it weren’t for the mountains, you’d probably hear the shelling.”
With much of the construction nearly complete, Erbil now boasts a skyline fit for any self-respecting Gulf country. High-end housing complexes, a sushi bar, franchise fast-food restaurants, such as Hardee’s and KFC, shops and international chain hotels, such as the Rotana and Divan, with the Marriott and Hilton soon to come.
But the city’s spectacular skyline belies the recent regional developments that have essentially turned it into a ghost town. Its pavement cafes, restaurants and ritzy hotels were once full of foreigners and expatriates. But the ongoing war with ISIL has spoiled investor appetites. The five-star hotels now cater exclusively to the few security and NGO types who have not vacated.
“If only you had come back a year ago, and then you’d have really seen something,” one local businessman, who owns a popular cafe, a shopping mall and a hotel, told me. “Things were different. Things were moving. And then ISIL happened.”
In contrast to all the flashy consumerist additions to the region, Iraq’s Kurds appear to be in a state of suspended animation. The hope of 2003 has been replaced with trepidation. If yesterday everything hinged on the removal of Saddam Hussein, today, everything they achieved hinges on whether or not their leadership can maintain a semblance of unity and hold the line against ISIL. Or else, all will come undone.
“We’re just waiting now,” the businessman told me. “Maybe it will pick up again when the war is over.”
Follow Tanya Goudsouzian on Twitter: @ummanais