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Tourism facilities and services are under rapid development all across the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI).  At Zawita just outside Duhok a major tourism complex is nearing completion with a teleferic (cable car) to the top of a mountain with scenic views on both sides, three lakes and an aqua park, sports grounds and facilities, vacation accommodations including houses, apartments

, a motel and hotel; million-dollar residential villas, some for rent; restaurants and snack bars, picnic facilities, waterfalls and hiking trails, what else?  They say 10 million flowers have been planted and native wild animals will add to the sights to be viewed from the teleferic.


On the top of a mountain above Duhok City another major tourism complex is planned, Zowa Masterplan, and looking for investors: 



A major tourism complex with leleferic to the top of Korek mountain near Rawanduz has been operating for more than a year.  A teleferic offers amazing views of the mountains along the borders with Turkey and Iran, including Halgurd, at 3,600 meters the highest mountain in Iraq.  At the top is a lodge with restaurant, snack bar, rental accommodations, and recreation and amusement facilities including a zipline and ski runs.



Tourism is more than traveling and staying in hotels.  It's a way of connecting with other places and people in an enjoyable environment and, for the most part, promoting understanding.


Award-winning travel journalist and TV personality Joseph Rosendo promotes Mark Twain's view that " 'Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow mindedness' and that in the course of genuinely engaging with the world and its people we are changed for the better.  He demonstrates how travel offers the opportunity for growth and what is acquired on our journeys serves us in many ways for all of our days."


There are many kinds of tourism relevant to the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI), among them:


Adventure tourism


Archaeological tourism

Bicycle travel

Cultural tourism



Heritage tourism

Recreational travel

Religious tourism

Rural tourism

Sports tourism

Sustainable tourism

Geography tourism

Walking tourism

Wildlife tourism


Support facilities and services are needed for most kinds of tourism.



With its rich cultural heritage going back thousands of years, tourism possibilities offer promising opportunities to qualified and experienced organizers and guides who can share their knowledge and understanding in various languages with visitors.  This is one area where high standards of social science research and education are so important. 


Towards strengthening the development of cultural and eco tourism, all the social sciences have contributions to make in geography and history, economics and political science, archaeology and anthropology, psychology and sociology.  Also, natural sciences including geology, botany, and environmental science that explain the environment and help preserve it.



Excerpt:        "From Shanidar Cave, where Neanderthal remains were discovered in the 1970s, to St. Matthew’s Monastery, a 3rd century Christian outpost, to Lalish, a holy site for the Yazidis, a Kurdish sect, there are few or no guide books and scant information available on-site."



The New York Times

OCTOBER 9, 2013


Trips to Ancient Iraq




 The Citadel in Erbil.

Steppes Travel

The Citadel in Erbil.

Steppes Travel, a London-based company specializing in high-end cultural and archaeological tours, recently announced that it is offering two trips next year to the Kurdish city of Erbil in northern Iraq.

Frequently referred to as the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world, Erbil was a religious center of the Assyrian kingdom. The nine-day trips, March 28 to April 5 and Sept. 26 to Oct. 4, will explore sites like the sixth-century Citadel, the Civilization Museum, Choli Minaret and Dwin Castle.

Travelers will also visit nearby Dohuk to see St. Matthew’s Monastery, the site of the Battle of Gaugamela where Alexander the Great defeated Darius III, and the world’s oldest aqueduct. There also will be visits to one of Saddam Hussein’s palaces and the old Jewish city of Koisinjak.

“When people think of Iraq, they imagine a war-torn land, but this is a beautiful and green mountainous area with rolling hills and fields covered with poppies that also happens to be one of the most historically rich places in the world,” said Rebecca Bradshaw, an archaeologist leading the first trip.

The trips accommodate 14 people, and the rate, including internal flights, tour lecturer, accommodation, meals and gratuities is $5,288 a person. Steppes Travel will also arrange trips on other dates.


National Geographic



20 Best Trips of 2011


Kurdistan, Iraq


Dalal Bridge in Zakho, Iraq                                                                              Photograph by Lonely Planet Images, Alamy


Considered an oasis of peace and stability in a historically volatile region, the semi-autonomous Kurdistan region in northeastern Iraq is drawing a growing stream of curious Western visitors to its ancient cities, snowcapped mountains, and bustling bazaars. The 2010 expansion of Erbil International Airport—located in the provincial capital and main commercial center—has improved access to the region and helped fuel tourist infrastructure development. Recent advances include construction of several new luxury and business hotels and additional escorted small group tours focused on Kurdish ethnic heritage and historic sites.


Experienced guides such as Hinterland Travel and Kurdistan Adventures lead 8- to 16-day cultural tours. Highlights include Erbil’s historic citadel and Grand Mosque, the ruins of Salahaddin’s Fortress in Shaqlawa, and the Jarmo Neolithic village archaeological site (7,000 B.C.) located in the foothills of the Zagros Mountains. Some itineraries include excursions into Kurdish ethnic regions in eastern Turkey and northwestern Iraq.


The New York Times

7 Jan 11



The 41 Places to Go in 2011

34. Iraqi Kurdistan

Safety, history and a warm welcome in a stable corner of Iraq.

As United States forces withdraw from Iraq, a handful of intrepid travel companies are offering trips to the semiautonomous Kurdish region in the north, which has enjoyed relative safety and stability in recent years.

Geographic Expeditions is conducting a 21-day tour to Kurdistan and Eastern Turkey, about half of it spent exploring Kurdistan along the Hamilton Road, which connects strategic gorges, and the other half devoted to the Anatolia region of Turkey. Distant Horizons has been taking small groups of Americans to Kurdistan twice a year since 2008, has a trip this spring, The Changing Face of Iraqi Kurdistan, which will explore Erbil, Dohuk and Sulaimaniyah. And last April, after a 20-year break, Lufthansa resumed service from Frankfurt to Erbil, the Kurdish capital and fourth-largest city in Iraq.

While the State Department continues to warn American tourists to avoid Iraq entirely, the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office says the Kurdistan region is an exception. “The risk of terrorism in the Kurdistan Regional Government-controlled provinces of Dohuk, Erbil and Sulaimaniyah is markedly and statistically lower than in other parts of Iraq,” states its Web site.

Visitors can tour significant cultural landmarks like Erbil’s citadel, which dates to the Assyrian empire, and the site of the Battle of Gaugamela, which ended in the defeat of the Persian king Darius III by Alexander the Great and led to the fall of the Achaemenid Empire. The biggest lure is the opportunity for authentic cultural encounters. “Authenticity is something that can be lost so quickly as development occurs,” said Janet Moore, of Distant Horizons. 



31 Dec 12

Destination Kurdistan: Is This Autonomous Iraqi Region a Budding Tourist Hot Spot?


Kurdistan in northern Iraq — an autonomous region that retains a considerable amount of political freedom from Baghdad — is by far the safest and most accessible area of Iraq to visit

By Jay Newton-Small / Rwanduz, Iraq


Destination Kurdistan: Is This Autonomous Iraqi Region a Budding Tourist Hotspot? 

TJ Blackwell / Getty Images

A landscape in Kurdistan

It’s hard to image any tourists wanting to visit Iraq these days. “The Department of State warns U.S. citizens against all but essential travel to Iraq given the security situation,” reads the latest U.S. warning from last August. “Travel within Iraq remains dangerous.” (Other countries have issued similar advisories.) But if you read on, you’ll notice a caveat in the State Department’s warning: “The security situation in the Iraqi Kurdistan Region (IKR), which includes the governorates of Sulymaniya, Erbil, and Dohuk, has been more stable relative to the rest of Iraq in recent years,” it says. “There have been significantly fewer terrorist attacks and lower levels of insurgent violence in the IKR than in other parts of Iraq.”

Kurdistan in northern Iraq — an autonomous region that retains a considerable amount of political freedom from Baghdad — is by far the safest and most accessible area of Iraq to visit. Unlike the rest of Iraq, tourists can wander bazaars freely. Hotels — and homes and businesses — don’t suddenly lose power for unpredictable amounts of time. There are malls and five-star luxury hotels, spas and historical spots like Erbil’s ancient Citadel, a UNESCO World Heritage site. In fact, Erbil has been named the Arab Council of Tourism’s 2014 tourism capital. “We have an ambition to be an international, worldwide destination by 2015,” says Mawlawi Jabar Wahab, head of Kurdistan’s General Board of Tourism. “We never thought our ambitions could be so big.”

Iraqi Kurdistan has come a long way very quickly. In 2007 it had just 106 hotels, and it now boasts more than 400. They’ve built a $400 million state-of-the-art airport in Erbil and two others across Kurdistan. Marriott is building a massive complex in Erbil called the Empire that will include a five-star hotel, a condo village and a go-cart track. Hilton, Kempinski and Sheraton are also building hotels. In 2013, Kurdistan expects to bring in $1 billion in tourism revenues and hopes to quintuple that number in just two years. Erbil’s 2030 development plan calls for a wildlife safari park, a Grand Prix racetrack and a 36-hole golf course.

Still, Iraqi Kurdistan has a ways to go to becoming an international destination. “They’re doing well with regional tourism, Iraqis and Iranians, Gulf tourists. People just looking for a chance to enjoy cooler, mountain weather, maybe put a foot in the pool. Enjoy some nice malls and shopping,” says Harry Schute, who runs the Other Iraq Tours. “But as far as Western tourists go, they’re in their infancy. It’s still just the tip of the spear.”

During a typical Eid holiday period in recent years, Kurdistan saw influxes of up to 90,000 regional tourists. Iraqis driving up from the south comprise the largest group of visitors — some 70% of the tourists. After that come Iranians, Turks and then Europeans. The tourism board has contracted a Lebanese company, Team International, to help the Kurds outline a development plan for 65 tourism spots across the region, from ski resorts to kayaking to places of historical and religious significance. Alcohol has long been allowed in moderate Kurdistan, but there is even talk of casinos — a first for the Middle East. “Why not?” grins the region’s Foreign Minister Falah Mustafa Bakir when asked about potential gambling.

Outside of Erbil, the infrastructure is poor. So, while the country is rich with castles, old churches of various faiths and other archaeological piles, there’s not much to help tourists get there. From Shanidar Cave, where Neanderthal remains were discovered in the 1970s, to St. Matthew’s Monastery, a 3rd century Christian outpost, to Lalish, a holy site for the Yazidis, a Kurdish sect, there are few or no guide books and scant information available on-site. There is a textile museum being built at Erbil’s Citadel town, thanks, in part, to U.S. support, but judging by its hollow, roofless building, opening day is a ways away. “When you think of a place like Petra in Jordan,” Schute says, “think of all the guidebooks, guides, signs, brochures and pamphlets that explain what you’re looking at. We have none of that here. So you need to rely heavily on the guide to, for example, explain to you that the field you’re looking at is where Alexander the Great defeated the Persian King Darius III in 331 B.C.”

And significant security challenges remain. The proposed ski resort is in the middle of territory used by the PKK, a Turkish-Kurdish terrorist group based in northern Kurdistan, and it is unlikely to be built any time soon. And the tens of thousands of Iraqi troops mustered on Kurdistan’s southern border because of a dispute with Baghdad over oil and borders — Baghdad accuses Kurdistan of plotting to break away and form its own country — are a reminder that Kurdish security is still fragile. “The tensions hurt and have already affected the market,” says Nawroz M. Muhammad Amin, one of the director generals of Kurdistan’s Investment Board. “But, thankfully, it’s the low season, and hopefully things will be resolved soon.”

But in terms of raw potential, Kurdistan is also blessed with some pretty spectacular nature, including Gali Ali Beg, or the Grand Canyon of the Middle East, as most locals call it. The ravine not only provides breathtaking views, it also has world-class rafting — “Kayak to Baghdad!” reads one overly ambitious advertisement — and potentially rock climbing and caving. Even without signs and skiing, restaurants and luxury villas, the mountains are already a popular destination for local tourists. On a sunny December day, Luay Kareem, 29, was showing his new bride and her family the town of Bekhal, which sits literally inside of a waterfall. “Baghdad’s just a city, but this is nature. It’s beautiful, very nice,” says Kareem, an officer in the Iraqi military who is on his fourth trip to the Kurdish mountains. When asked what he thinks of Kurdish aspirations of independence and his fellow troops gathered on the border, Kareem cocks his head and ponders the question for a few seconds. “Would I still be able to come visit if they get independence?”


25 Feb 11

Iraqi Kurdistan, Vacation Paradise?


Sure, it's scenic and relatively safe, but tourist destinations need [clean] public restrooms and ATMs


By Jackie Spinner

ERBIL, Iraq—Fifteen minutes into my interview with the tourism minister for the Kurdistan region of Iraq, I was ready to ask the big question.

Journalists know about the big question. In the parlance of the trade, it's called the bomb, although I was uncomfortable using the B-word even in this relatively secure corner of Iraq. Noting how safe the region is, the New York Times last month listed Kurdistan as No. 34 on its 41 places to travel in 2011. It beat out Miami.

A government Web site that markets the region as "the other Iraq" notes that Kurdistan has few American soldiers on its soil. This is no war zone, bub. The Web site also boasts that no foreigners have been kidnapped here, which would be true if three American hikers hadn't mistakenly wandered into Iran in July 2009 and hadn't gotten arrested in Iraq, according to a recent WikiLeaks report. The hikers went on trial in Iran on Feb. 5 and pleaded not guilty to charges of spying and trespassing. (By the way, I asked an Iraqi friend if he would take me to the spot where the hikers were arrested. I had the exact GPS coordinates from the WikiLeaks report. He flat-out refused. No one just wanders around that part of Iraq, he said.)

I was leaving Erbil the next morning and driving to Sulaimaniyah, a two-to-three-hour drive, depending on whether you go through the mountains or around the city of Kirkuk. I was traveling with two Fulbright fellows from Oman who were visiting Iraq for the first time. One of them was pretty nervous about the trip around Kirkuk, even though I assured her that it was safe enough—enough being a great qualifier for most things in Iraq. Safety wasn't my main concern. She drinks a lot of water. And a lot of coffee. I knew from making the trip countless times before that there's no public rest stop along the way, and that's what I wanted to ask Tourism Minister Samir Abdulla Mustafa about. If the New York Times plug resulted in more tourists to the Kurdistan region, and if all these tourists hit the road, where were they going to use the bathroom?

"The security in Kurdistan is very good, but that doesn't mean we have everything we need for tourists," Mustafa acknowledged, responding like a man who'd made that trip many times himself and knew not to load up on tea before he got in the car.

The Kurdistan region has not escaped the unrest sweeping the Middle East. On Feb. 17, Kurdish security guards opened fire on a crowd of demonstrators in Sulaimaniyah, killing two people. Since then, thousands have continued to gather and march all over the country. A countrywide "Day of Rage" anti-government protest is planned for Friday, Feb. 25.

Andrew Engel taught at the same American Language Center in Damascus where hiker Sarah Shourd worked. Undaunted by the arrests eight months earlier, Engel decided to visit the Kurdistan region in April 2010, although he never made it to the border where the hikers disappeared, because he ran out of cash before he could travel that far. "Point 1, the KRG needs ATMs," he told me, referring to the Kurdistan Regional Government. Most of Iraq is not connected to an international banking network.

"The infrastructure is incredible when compared with Syria or other Middle East countries or with the challenges the Kurds have historically faced," said Engel, now a research assistant at a think tank in Washington, D.C. "The roads were newly paved, we marveled at how clean everything was, and construction was everywhere. But, for the Western traveler flying in from Europe or Istanbul, this might not seem as incredible. Kurdistan is unevenly developing, but this might be a part of its charm."

The New York Times called the region "Iraqi Kurdistan," a name that can be quite contentious, even offensive, though tour operators love to use it because it plays up the difference between the region and Baghdad. It implies a country called Kurdistan that has Iraq connections. That just isn't so. Kurdistan is a region of the Republic of Iraq, and that is undoubtedly one of its draws as a travel destination. People can visit Iraq without assuming the risk of, well, going to Iraq. Baghdad certainly didn't make the Times' list. But Kurdistan is not a separate country, even if it has its own parliament, its own military, its own language, and its own visa stamp. It is more of a renegade state. Even the prime minister of the region, Barham Salih, concedes that Kurdistan is more powerful as part of a democratic Iraq than as its own separate nation, although die-hard Kurdish nationalists don't share that view.

The Kurdistan region is appealing because not many outsiders come here. It is still authentic. The Citadel in Erbil dates back at least 7,000 years and is considered the oldest continuously inhabited settlement in the world. When the government forced the residents of the Citadel to move so they could rehabilitate it, they let one family stay, ensuring it would maintain that status.  In 2009, the Citadel was temporarily placed on the UNESCO World Heritage list and will receive a more permanent spot once it is rehabilitated.

St. Matthew's Monastery, or Dayro d-Mor Matay, as it is known locally, is another ancient site tucked into the mountains about 20 miles from Mosul. The monastery dates to the fourth century and features a chapel and a crypt that holds the remains of Matthew, a Turkish-born monk who died in 411. Unusual for a tourist site, it doesn't allow photography, but the monks who live there are friendly and showed an Iraqi reporter and me around, leading us into caves where the monks hid from their attackers and showing us an ancient chain that villagers would put around their necks to say a prayer. More recently, Christians who fled the violence in nearby Mosul sought refuge in the tiny rooms of the monastery.

The Kurdistan region is studded with similar reminders of its bloody and not-so-distant past, including the Red Museum in Sulaimaniyah, a converted jail where members of Saddam Hussein's regime tortured and murdered men, women, and children as part of a genocidal campaign against the Kurds. Many of these atrocities occurred in places so breathtakingly beautiful that it's hard to reconcile these postcard vistas (not available yet on postcards) with the more-familiar images of Iraq from TV news.

"It is one of most historical and archeologically endowed places in the world," said Douglas Layton, general manager of The Other Iraq Tours. "It is also scenic, unlike most of the rest of the Middle East—crisscrossed with dramatic rivers, lakes, and snow-covered mountains."

About 80 percent of tourists who come to the Kurdistan region visit from inside Iraq. During the summer months, when the rest of the country is smoldering from the heat, Iraqis crowd the hotels and resorts around the northern region's three major cities of Duhok, Erbil, and Sulaimaniyah, where the weather is more temperate and the jade waters of Lake Dokan lure swimmers, boaters, fishermen, and kayakers. Another popular spot is the waterfall at Ahmed Awa, not far from the scrabble border with Iran where the American hikers were apprehended. Mustafa, the tourism minister, said that as part of a comprehensive plan his ministry is developing, the government will provide warnings to tourists about the dangers of venturing off the beaten path. In fact, he said, tourists should follow only recommended routes so they don't accidentally leave the Kurdistan region or wander into Iran, easy to do if you're unfamiliar with the surroundings.

Without turning this into an endorsement of traveling to the Kurdistan region, which the U.S. State Department still advises against, I must say that the Kurdistan region doesn't feel dangerous. Iraqis from all over the country are friendly, and their culture is beckoning, perhaps because it has been off-limits for so many decades.

"It's more safe than many European cities, even New York," said Akram Jibouri, general manager and owner of the Safeer Hotel in Erbil. "People here are friendly with the foreigners and especially the Americans. When I say it's safe, you can walk alone. You don't even need a guide. But the problem is the infrastructure. The travel agencies are not in a position to handle a big group of people showing up."

Indeed, I discovered this last spring on a boating trip to Lake Dokan. After a bumpy, two-hour road trip to reach the lake from Sulaimaniyah, after helping to blow up an inflatable boat, after drinking a bottle of water so I wouldn't get dehydrated under the blazing sun, I needed a latrine. There was no latrine. I had to sneak into the van and quickly relieve myself into the empty water bottle, a trick honed in 2004 during six weeks with U.S. Marines while covering the Battle of Fallujah.

Daniel Williams, a Canadian university student, ended up in the Kurdistan region last year after a two-year backpacking trip across Asia. "I wanted to go to Iraq for the chance to see something no one else could and because it was a mystery to me," said Williams, who spent two weeks in the Kurdistan region. "I had no real idea of what it would be like to see the Euphrates or Mesopotamia in real life. My only image of Iraq beforehand was via CNN, and I was sure that couldn't be the whole story."

Williams told me the Kurdistan region was one of the most interesting places to which he's ever traveled. He fell in love on his first day.

"There is no guidebook for the KRG to tell me where to sleep or what to see, so I cluelessly began wandering town when a young boy invited me into his father's shop for a drink," he said. "In quintessential Iraqi style, he eventually gave me dinner, a place to sleep, a guided tour around Erbil, and bought my bus ticket to my next destination after three days of hospitality."

Jackie Spinner is a journalist based in the Middle East. She was a staff writer for the Washington Post for 14 years and covered the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. She is the author of Tell Them I Didn't Cry: A Young Journalist's Story of Joy, Loss, and Survival in Iraq.

Vanity Fair

April 2007


Letter from Kurdistan


Holiday in Iraq


Over Christmas break, the author took his son to northern Iraq, which the U.S. had made a no-fly zone in 1991, ending Saddam's chemical genocide. Now reborn, Iraqi Kurdistan is a heartrending glimpse of what might have been [in the rest of Iraq].


by Christopher Hitchens


Last summer, you may have been among the astonished viewers of American television who were treated to a series of commercials from a group calling itself "Kurdistan—The Other Iraq." These rather touching and artless little spots (www.theotheriraq.com) urged you to consider investing in business, and even made you ponder taking your vacation, in the country's three northern provinces. Mr. Jon Stewart, of The Daily Show, could hardly believe his luck. To lampoon the ads, and to say, in effect, "Yeah, right—holiday in Iraq," was probably to summarize the reaction of much of the audience. Sure, baby, come to sunny Mesopotamia, and bring the family, and get your ass blown off while religious wack jobs ululate gleefully over your remains.

Well, as it happens, I decided to check this out, and did spend most of the Christmas holiday in Iraqi Kurdistan, bringing my son along with me, and had a perfectly swell time. We didn't make any investments, though I would say that the hotel and tourism and oil sectors are wide open for enterprise, but we did visit the ancient citadel in Erbil, where Alexander the Great defeated the Persians—my son is a Greek-speaking classicist—and we did sample the lovely mountains and lakes and rivers that used to make this region the resort area for all Iraqis. Air and road travel were easy (you can now fly direct from several airports in Europe to one of two efficient airports in Iraqi Kurdistan), and walking anywhere at night in any Kurdish town is safer than it is in many American cities. The police and soldiers are all friendly locals, there isn't a coalition soldier to be seen, and there hasn't been a suicide attack since May of 2005.

It wasn't my first trip. That took place in 1991, in the closing stages of the Gulf War. With a guerrilla escort, I crossed illegally into Iraq from Turkey and toured the shattered and burned and poisoned landscape on which Saddam Hussein had imprinted himself. In the town of Halabja, which has now earned its gruesome place in history, I met people whose hideous wounds from chemical bombardment were still suppurating. The city of Qala Diza had been thoroughly dynamited and bulldozed, and looked like an irretrievable wreck. Much of the area's lavish tree cover had been deforested: the bare plains were dotted with forbidding concrete barracks into which Kurds had been forcibly "relocated" or (a more accurate word) "concentrated." Nearly 200,000 people had been slaughtered, and millions more deported: huddling in ruins or packed into fetid camps on the Turkish and Iranian frontiers. To turn a spade was to risk uncovering a mass grave. All of Iraq suffered terribly during those years, but its Kurdish provinces were among the worst places in the entire world—a howling emptiness of misery where I could catch, for the first time in my life, the actual scent of evil as a real force on earth.

Thus, I confess to a slight lump in the throat at revisiting the area and seeing thriving, humming towns with multiplying construction sites, billboards for overseas companies, Internet cafés, and a choice of newspapers. It's even reassuring to see the knockoff "MaDonal," with pseudo–golden arches, in the eastern city of Sulaimaniya, soon to be the site of the American University of Iraq, which will be offering not only an M.B.A. course but also, in the words of Azzam Alwash, one of its directors, "the ideas of Locke, the ideas and writings of Paine and Madison." Everybody knows how to snigger when you mention Jeffersonian democracy and Iraq in the same breath; try sniggering when you meet someone who is trying to express these ideas in an atmosphere that only a few years ago was heavy with miasmic decay and the reek of poison gas.

While I am confessing, I may as well make a clean breast of it. Thanks to the reluctant decision of the first President Bush and Secretary of State James Baker, those fresh princes of "realism," the United States and Britain placed an aerial umbrella over Iraqi Kurdistan in 1991 and detached it from the death grip of Saddam Hussein. Under the protective canopy of the no-fly zone—actually it was also called the "you-fly-you-die zone"—an embryonic free Iraq had a chance to grow. I was among those who thought and believed and argued that this example could, and should, be extended to the rest of the country; the cause became a consuming thing in my life. To describe the resulting shambles as a disappointment or a failure or even a defeat would be the weakest statement I could possibly make: it feels more like a sick, choking nightmare of betrayal from which there can be no awakening. Yet Kurdistan continues to demonstrate how things could have been different, and it isn't a place from which the West can simply walk away.

In my hometown of Washington, D.C., it's too easy to hear some expert hold forth about the essential character of any stricken or strategic country. (Larry McMurtry, in his novel Cadillac Jack, has a lovely pastiche of Joseph Alsop doing this very act about Yemen.) I had lived here for years and suffered through many Georgetown post-dinner orations until someone supplied me with the unfailing antidote to such punditry. It comes from Stephen Potter, the author of Lifemanship, One-upmanship, and other classics. Wait until the old bore has finished his exposition, advised Potter, then pounce forward and say in a plonking register, "Yes, but not in the South?" You will seldom if ever be wrong, and you will make the expert perspire. Different as matters certainly are in the South of Iraq, the thing to stress is how different, how very different, they are in the North.

In Kurdistan, to take a few salient examples, there is a memorial of gratitude being built for fallen American soldiers. "We are planning," said the region's prime minister, Nechirvan Barzani, in his smart new office in the Kurdish capital of Erbil, "to invite their relatives to the unveiling." Speaking of unveiling, you see women with headscarves on the streets and in offices (and on the judicial bench and in Parliament, which reserves a quarter of the seats for women by law), but you never see a face or body enveloped in a burka. The majority of Kurds are Sunni, and the minority are Shiite, with large groups belonging to other sects and confessions, but there is no intercommunal mayhem. Liquor stores and bars are easy to find, sometimes operated by members of the large and unmolested Christian community. On the university campuses, you may easily meet Arab Iraqis who have gladly fled Baghdad and Basra for this safe haven. I know of more than one intrepid Western reporter who has done the same. The approaches from the south are patrolled by very effective and battle-hardened Kurdish militiamen, who still carry the proud title of their guerrilla days: the peshmerga, or, translated from the Kurdish language, "those who face death." These men have a very brusque way with al-Qaeda and its local supporters, and have not just kept them at a distance but subjected them to very hot pursuit. (It was Kurdish intelligence that first exposed the direct link between the psychopathic Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and Osama bin Laden.) Of the few divisions of the Iraqi Army that are considered even remotely reliable, the bulk are made up of tough Kurdish volunteers.

Pause over that latter point for a second. Within recent memory, the Kurdish population of Iraq was being subjected to genocidal cleansing. Given the chance to leave the failed state altogether, why would they not take it? Yet today, the president of Iraq, Jalal Talabani, is a Kurd: a former guerrilla leader so genial and humane that he personally opposed the execution of Saddam Hussein. Of the very few successful or effective ministries in Baghdad, such as the Foreign Ministry, it is usually true that a Kurd, such as Hoshyar Zebari, is at the head of it. The much-respected deputy prime minister (and moving spirit of the American University in Sulaimaniya), Dr. Barham Salih, is a Kurd. He put it to me very movingly when I flew down to Baghdad to talk to him: "We are willing to fight and sacrifice for a democratic Iraq. And we were the ones to suffer the most from the opposite case. If Iraq fails, it will not be our fault."

President Talabani might only be the "president of the Green Zone," as his friends sometimes teasingly say, but he disdains to live in that notorious enclave. He is now 73 years of age and has a rather Falstaffian appearance—everyone refers to him as "Mam Jalal" or "Uncle Jalal"—but this is nonetheless quite a presidential look, and he has spent much of his life on the run, or in exile, or in the mountains, and survived more dangerous times than these. You may choose to call today's suicide murderers and video beheaders and power-drill torturers by the name "insurgents," but he has the greater claim to have led an actual armed Resistance that did not befoul itself by making war on civilians. In Baghdad, he invited me to an impressively heavy lunch in the house once occupied by Saddam Hussein's detested, late half-brother Barzan al-Tikriti, where I shared the table with grizzled Kurdish tribal leaders, and as the car bombs thumped across the city I realized how he could afford to look so assured and confident, and to flourish a Churchill-size postprandial cigar. To be chosen by the Iraqi parliament as the country's first-ever elected president might be one thing, and perhaps a dubious blessing. But to be the first Kurd to be the head of an Arab state was quite another. When he was elected, spontaneous celebrations by Kurds in Iran and Syria broke out at once, and often had to be forcibly repressed by their respective dictators. To put it pungently, the Kurds have now stepped onto the stage of Middle Eastern history, and it will not be easy to push them off it again. You may easily murder a child, as the parties of god prove every single day, but you cannot make a living child grow smaller.


Peshmerga soldiers hold Kurdish (left) and Iraqi (right) flags as they participate in a graduation ceremony at a stadium in the town of Sulaimaniya, October 25, 2005. By Azad Lashkari/Reuters/Landov.

I got a whiff of this intoxicating "birth of a nation" emotion when I flew back with Talabani from Baghdad to his Kurdish home base of Sulaimaniya. Here, as in the other Kurdish center, in Erbil, the airport gives the impression of belonging to an independent state. There are protocol officers, official limousines, and all the appurtenances of autonomy. Iraq's constitution specifies that Kurdistan is entitled to its own regional administration, and the inhabitants never miss a chance to underline what they have achieved. (The Iraqi flag, for example, is not much flown in these latitudes. Instead, the golden Kurdish sunburst emblem sits at the center of a banner of red, white, and green.) Most inspiring of all, perhaps, is Kurdish Airlines, which can take a pilgrim to the hajj or fly home a returning refugee without landing at another Iraqi airport. Who would have believed, viewing the moonscape of Kurdistan in 1991, that these ground-down people would soon have their own airline?

The Kurds are the largest nationality in the world without a state of their own. The King of Bahrain has, in effect, his own seat at the United Nations, but the 25 million or so Kurds do not. This is partly because they are cursed by geography, with their ancestral lands located at the point where the frontiers of Iraq, Iran, Turkey, and Syria converge. It would be hard to imagine a less promising neighborhood for a political experiment. In Iraq, the more than four million Kurds make up just under a quarter of the population. The proportion in Turkey is more like 20 percent, in Iran 10 percent, and in Syria perhaps nine. For centuries, this people's existence was folkloric and marginal, and confined to what one anthropologist called "the Lands of Insolence": the inaccessible mountain ranges and high valleys that bred warriors and rebels. A fierce tribe named the Karduchoi makes an appearance in Xenophon's history of the events of 400 B.C. Then there is mainly silence until a brilliant Kurdish commander named Salah al-Din (Saladin to most) emerges in the 12th century to unite the Muslim world against the Crusaders. He was born in Tikrit, later the hometown of Saddam Hussein. This is apt, because Saddam actually was the real father of Kurdish nationhood. By subjecting the Kurds to genocide he gave them a solidarity they had not known before, and compelled them to create a fierce and stubborn Resistance, with its own discipline and army. By laying waste to their ancient villages and farms, furthermore, he forced them into urban slums and refugee centers where they became more integrated, close-knit, and socialized: historically always the most revolutionary point in the emergence of any nationalism.

"The state of Iraq is not sacred," remarked Dr. Mohammad Sadik as we drove through Erbil to his office at Salahaddin University, of which he is president. "It was not created by god. It was created by Winston Churchill." Cobbled together out of the post-1918 wreckage of the Ottoman Empire, Iraq as a state was always crippled by the fact that it contained a minority population that owed it little if any loyalty. And now this state has broken down, and is breaking up. The long but unstable and unjust post-Ottoman compromise has been irretrievably smashed by the American-led invasion. Of the three contending parties in Iraq, only the Kurds now have a serious Plan B. They had a head start, by escaping 12 years early from Saddam's festering prison state. They have done their utmost to be friendly brokers between the Sunni and Shiite Arabs, but if the country implodes, they can withdraw to their oil-rich enclave and muster under their own flag. There is no need to romanticize the Kurds: they have their own history of clan violence and cruelty. But this flag at present represents the closest approximation to democracy and secularism that the neighborhood can boast.

Americans have more responsibility here than most of us are aware of. It was President Woodrow Wilson, after the First World War, who inscribed the idea of self-determination for the Kurds in the 1920 Treaty of Sèvres, a document that all Kurds can readily cite. Later machinations by Britain and France and Turkey, all of them greedy for the oil in the Kurdish provinces, cheated the Kurds of their birthright and shoehorned them into Iraq. More recently, the Ford-Kissinger administration encouraged the Kurds to rebel against Baghdad, offering blandishments of greater autonomy, and then cynically abandoned them in 1975, provoking yet another refugee crisis and a terrible campaign of reprisal by Saddam Hussein. In 1991, George Bush Sr. went to war partly in the name of Kurdish rights and then chose to forget his own high-toned rhetoric. This, too, is a story that every Kurd can tell you. However the fate of Iraq is to be decided, we cannot permit another chapter in this record of betrayal. Meanwhile, you should certainly go and see it for yourself, and also shed a tear for what might have been.

Christopher Hitchens is a Vanity Fair contributing editor.




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