Or was it more like a delicious cake surrounded by rot? This exceptional place was called Iraqi Kurdistan, or officially the “Kurdistan Region.”
This is where the victorious global capitalism has been injecting “massive investments,” while the West was “guaranteeing security and peace.”
Here, Turkish firms were building and financing countless projects, while their road tankers and later a pipeline, were moving mind-boggling quantities of oil toward the West.
At the smart Erbil International Airport, European businessmen, soldiers and security experts were rubbing shoulders with UN development specialists. Lufthansa, Austrian Airlines, Turkish Airlines, MEA and other major airlines were busy inaugurating flights to this new “hip” hub of the Middle East.
Never mind that the government of the Kurdistan Region kept clashing with the capital city of Baghdad, over the oil reserves, over the extent of self-rule, and many other essential issues.
Never mind that (as it often happens in extreme capitalist societies), the macroeconomic indicators were suddenly in frightening contrast with the growing misery of local people.
As long as the oil was flowing, as long as this self-administered region was pledging eternal allegiance to the West. But then the economy began slowing down, and then it halted. All social indicators nosedived.
The happiness of Western and Turkish investors, and especially of the political handlers, looked increasingly out of place, becoming almost insulting to those who were trying to make ends meet.
And on the day that I was leaving, February 9, 2016, “Iraqi Kurdistan” suddenly exploded in series of violent protests, over “austerity measures to avert an economic collapse.”
“Protests intensified in Iraq’s Kurdistan region on Tuesday… A decade-long economic boom in the autonomous region came to an abrupt halt in 2014 when Baghdad slashed funding to the Kurds after they built their own oil pipeline to Turkey and began exporting oil independently. That left the KRG struggling to meet a bloated public payroll of 875 billion Iraqi dinars ($800 million) per month. The KRG has tried to make up the shortfall by increasing independent oil sales to around 600,000 barrels per day (bpd), but at current prices the region is still left with a monthly deficit of 380-400 billion Iraqi dinars ($717 million).”
But the dispute with Baghdad and the financial shortfall are not the only issues that led to the present situation. Social policies in the Kurdistan Region had long been grotesquely inadequate, and the welfare of the local population had never been considered a priority.
One night, I met a UN education specialist, Ms. Eszter Szucs, who is based in Erbil. We had a short, intense talk:
“Iraqi Kurdistan is definitely not a social state. People are unhappy with the situation. They protest a lot, but it does not do them any good. Natural resources are privately owned. Social services are mostly extremely expensive: those who can afford it travel to get medical treatment in Turkey. The Kurdish Region is a very complex place.”
“Not a paradise in the heart of the charred Middle East?” I ask, ironically.
“Definitely not,” she replies. “There is of course really substantial investment flowing from abroad: mainly from the West and Turkey. But it is directed toward macroeconomic growth, through the oil industry. Not much comes back to the pockets of the ordinary people.”
I know that. I saw those “ordinary people” digging out dirty roots for dinner, in the middle of the villages located right near the oil refineries owned by KAR, the Kurdish oil company.
On February 9, 2016, protesters flooded the cities and towns of Sulaymaniyah, Koya, Halabja and Chemchemal. Suddenly, it was clear that the “success” of Iraqi Kurdistan has been nothing more than a house of cards. It became unsustainable, and it began its gradual collapse.
As we drove on Route 2, the road connecting the cities of Erbil and Mosul, I asked my interpreter: “Why do you think there are no funds to pay salaries, pensions, even wages of the local armed forces, the Peshmerga?”
“No money because the oil prices collapsed, and because of war with the ISIS,” the interpreter says. “Before, Baghdad was covering 75 percent of the costs of welfare for our people… Now it is sending nothing.”
I am wondering: “But why should you get money from Baghdad, if you are much closer to Washington. You keep pledging allegiance to the West, antagonizing rest of Iraq, threatening to declare full independence. You even built a direct pipeline leading to Turkey…”
“But Baghdad is still our capital…”
“But you are severing links with Iraq, and the Middle East…”
“Do you get any money, any substantial help from the United States?” I ask.
“Do Kurdish people feel disappointed because they get no support from the West?”
“Yes, very disappointed,” replies my interpreter. “We feel unsafe in our own land, especially lately. Everything could collapse at any moment. People here just want to get out of here – go to the US or UK.”
Is this the end of euphoria?
The road is surrounded by garbage dumps. Electric wires and high fences cut through the land. And the land lies idle; there is almost no agriculture left here. It is all oil, military bases, and inactivity and apathy.
Our car is stopped at several checkpoints. My colleague is harassed, because she has a Syrian visa in her passport. I have Iranian visa in mine… As our documents are being scrutinized, Turkish trucks and road tankers are sailing by, freely, enjoying undefined but obvious privileges.
South of Erbil, in the villages near Qushtapa, the road is severely damaged by Turkish and Kurdish tankers and trucks. On this thoroughfare connecting Iraq, Turkey and Iran, there seem to be more trucks and tankers than ordinary cars or buses. It is all about business, about “trade.” People hardly travel.
A few days ago, outraged citizens blocked the road, demanding changes in social policies, and that the government take action.
I make it all the way to the village of Degala. There, guards and local people look at me with suspicion.
“Why are you protesting?” I ask.
They try to avoid real issues first: “We want our road to be fixed…”
I insist: “Why, really?”
After a while, the ice is broken and one of the villagers begins with his lament:
“For six months we are not getting paid. On this road we see it clearly: there is so much business, so much money, but we get absolutely nothing. We are so angry! Trucks are carrying food and oil, but they don’t stop here. We are abandoned.”
As we drive towards Erbil, I see again that total neglect: fields lie idle. There is no diversification of the economy.
I ask my driver: “Was it always like this? Was Kurdistan producing food under Saddam Hussein? Was there agriculture?”
“Yes,” he shrugs his shoulders. “It was like… a different country.”
“Better?” I ask.
“Of course, much better.”
Then silence, again.
And now, there is a war.
One year ago, I managed to get all the way to the front line, just 7 kilometers from Mosul. I was shown the hills occupied by ISIS, I saw the destroyed bridge over the Khazir River, and then Sharkan village, Hassan Shami, and other villages bombed and ruined by the US forces.
Battalion commander Colonel Shaukat from the Zeravani militarized police force (part of the Peshmerga armed forces), took me around, in his armored Land Cruiser. Machine guns, smokes and bravado everywhere…
I asked him: “How many civilians died in those villages?”
“Not one,” he replied. “I swear! We provided great intelligence, so the US forces knew what to bomb.”
He treated me as if this was my first warzone. Hundreds died. It was obvious, and the relatives of the victims later confirmed it to me. There was hardly anything left of the villages. Most likely, most of the villages vanished during the attack. Colonel Shaukat was trained primarily in the UK. He knew how to talk.
This time I speak to Omar Hamdy, the manager of the 5-star Rotana Hotel in Erbil:
“I am Iraqi, from Mosul. I lost my brother and uncle in that city, after ISIS took it. Of course ISIS were created and trained by the West and Turkey, but I also blame the Iraqi army – 54,000 of them just threw away their weapons and ran away.”
I said: “But they were most likely scared, knowing that behind the ISIS were the NATO countries.”
“Yes, definitely,” he replied.
“And what about Russia?”
“I am actually very, very interested in Russia and what it is now doing in the Middle East. Russia truly fights against ISIS. The US – they come; bomb the villages taken by ISIS, kill mainly civilians, and also ‘by mistake’ drop the weapons to the area, so ISIS can get their hands on them… I have many friends who are actually fighting against ISIS, in Mosul, therefore I am always well informed.”
Families are on both sides of the line, and the mobile phones are working. It is possible to keep informed about the situation in Mosul, by simply calling relatives and friends.
Then he continues:
“Even if Mosul would ever be freed from ISIS, there would be many different factions and perpetual conflicts.”
“Not unlike the Libyan scenario?” I interrupt him.
“Exactly. Not unlike the Libyan scenario…. Also, what worries me is what is happening to the children of Mosul; ISIS is heavily indoctrinating them.”
“That happens in many countries that the West destabilized,” I utter.
He does not know. He only knows that it has been happening in his city and country.
When I returned to my hotel, a British dude was practicing politics with a female receptionist. Military talk, about training local military folks, and then oil production talk – it is all in vogue, or at least acceptable as a social interaction between “hip” locals and macho expats.
There are all those private security experts, military men, instructors, intelligence officers and advisors. It is one huge mind-blowing medley of military bravado, openly paraded and spiced with turbo-capitalist dogmas.
I am studying local sources. And more I do, it becomes obvious that things are going from bad to worse.
Statistics Director in Suleymaniyah, Mahmud Osman, told recently BasNews:
“Compared to 2014, in 2015 the expenditure of each family has decreased by 30 percent – that it includes buying basic needs, home stuff, traveling and so on… the unemployment rate in the [Kurdistan] Region was 7 percent in 2013, but now it has risen to 25 percent…”
The poverty increased dramatically, too. And the Region has extremely lax ways of calculating poverty: if a family does not spend IQD 105,000 ($87) in a month, the family is considered poor. That is $21.75 per person per month, lesser than a dollar a day! Not to mention, that Kurdish families have, on average, more than four members.
I ask my driver how much a family of five needs to survive in and outside Erbil.
”At the absolute minimum, $1,000 a month in the city, and $600 in the countryside.”
“How many families are making that much?” I wonder.
“Not even one half… Much lesser than half,” he says.
I am puzzled; I want to know, to hear from the people of “the Region,” whether their lives have truly collapsed.
In Kawergosk village, an elderly man, Mohamad Ahmad Hasen, is chillingly frank about the situation:
“They [the government, the system] are not helping us with absolutely anything. And now we have absolutely nothing. There, look, see that huge oil refinery? They are on their own and we are on our own. There are no new jobs and we are living hand-to-mouth.”
In another village, I speak to one of many families that managed to escape from ISIS-occupied territories. They come from the city of Hammam al-Alil, near Mosul. They all agree that things were much better before the US invasion:
“During Saddam Hussein, Iraq was a proud and decent country. Security was good. Now we don’t even know who our enemies are, and who is behind them.”
Next door, a woman shares her plight. According to a conservative culture of Mosul, she is not supposed to talk to us. But she has several children, all near starvation. She is fed up, and she says:
“Our men are in the Peshmerga. They are fighting ISIS. I have seven children. My neighbor has seven children. Nobody is working anymore. There is no help. Even the Peshmerga is not getting paid. It is all extremely difficult and I am not even sure how are we going to survive!”
But Turkish truck and tankers are moving up and down the roads, day and night.
Not long ago, during our meeting in Istanbul, Professor E. Ahmet Tonak summarized the situation between Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan:
“Turkey is very supportive of the regime in Erbil; if for nothing else, at least for economic reasons. Whoever goes there – to northern Iraq – or what we call southern Kurdistan, would notice that Turkish companies are dominating that Kurdish Region almost completely… There is oil there, obviously, but there is also another, political factor: the Iraqi Kurdish regime is the only friendly Kurdish force Ankara has in the entire area.”
But the allies of the Kurdistan Region do not seem to be too interested in the plight of local people.
While the social system is collapsing, Erbil is turning into one of the most segregated places on earth: with 12-lane roads, fragmented communities, absolutely no public transportation, almost no cultural institutions, but plenty of malls for the rich, as well as luxury hotels for the expats.
In the area where the majority of people live on less than $1 per day, a decent hotel room now costs over $350, and the daily rate for car hire from a hotel is around $400.
There is great fear in the Kurdistan Region. And fear is feeding anger. And anger may lead to violence against the corrupt pro-Western regime.
And what is Erbil’s “solution”? Reuters reported on February 11, 2016:
“Massud Barzani, de facto president of Iraq’s Kurdistan Region, declared in early February that the “time has come for the country’s Kurds to hold a referendum on statehood.”
Baghdad is watching and warning: “Don’t do it! You will not be able to survive without us.”
But the regime in Kurdistan Region appears to be too stubborn. As in all colonies of the West, it is business as usual: “Profit over people.”