A South Dakotan in Iraq: Post-war Kurdistan thriving, but Americans not profitingThough U.S. spent blood and treasure, other nations rushing in for spoils
By: Todd Epp, For The Daily Republic
ERBIL, IRAQ — While South Dakota service men and women along with their colleagues from across the United States stream out of Iraq this month, at least in northern Iraq’s semi-independent Kurdistan Autonomous Region, the rest of the world — and their goods — are streaming in.
Turkish groceries and toiletries, Japanese cars and SUVs, Korean experts — and even Iranians — are taking advantage of the relative peace and prosperity won by the United States in two Gulf Wars and an extended No Fly Zone.
I had the opportunity to spend a week in Kurdistan over Thanksgiving, visiting a law school buddy from Texas. My friend is one of the few Americans in Erbil trying to bring Yankee lawyering and business know-how — particularly oil and gas know-how — to Kurdistan.
So, notwithstanding the fortune in American lives and treasure, it is largely Japanese Toyota Land Cruisers instead of American Chevrolet Envoys on the roads and off-brand Turkish packaged foods instead of American icons like Kellogg’s breakfast cereal and Campbell’s soups on the supermarket shelves.
In perusing a guidebook for a large international industrial exhibition held in October in Erbil, not a single American company or individual was listed as exhibiting. Iranians and Iranian companies were. Syrians and Syrian companies were. They are not exactly USA friendly, nor do they have the same policy goals and aspirations in the Middle East as does the United States.
Erbil, capital of the Kurdistan Autonomous Region, is a vibrant city with a metro area of about 1.6 million, platted out like the Pentagon, with a series of major ring roads and connected by other “spoke” roads. The new outer ring roads are every bit as nice and well engineered as I-90 here in South Dakota, with green signage in Arabic and English. There are sports bars, fine restaurants and even a professional soccer team.
The hub of the Erbil “wheel” is the Citadel, a massive Ottoman stone fort that sits on layers of continuous civilization dating back over 7,000 years. It literally sits on the cradle of civilization.
Surrounding the Citadel are dense blocks of “shouks,” roughly organized by what they sell. Satellite dishes — of which there is a huge market — are in a below-ground mall, clothes are in another area, electronics in yet another area, with all areas sprinkled with roasted chicken restaurants and refreshment stands. On the edges of town there are shopping malls that rival anything you would find in Sioux Falls or Minneapolis.
Erbil has not had any terrorist incidents since 2004 and street crime is low. (Interestingly, Kurds will tell you everyone has a gun — an AK-47 or a semi-automatic pistol — but there is seldom any gun play. But malls tell you to keep your guns outside, and you go through a metal detector.) But just to be safe, 20-foot-tall “blast walls” surround any government or military building or installation of any consequence.
The American consulate in the Christian Ainkawa section of town has no signage and no flag and is a beige building set behind beige blast walls. To say it is nondescript is an understatement. As such, security from terrorists is a constant worry and effort by the Kurdistan Regional Government. So far, the KRG has been successful in keeping Kurdistan from falling into the same sectarian violence that is found to the south in Baghdad and Basra. The region promotes itself as pluralistic and democratic, though friction between political parties and Muslims and Christians occasionally occurs, and Turkey sometimes crosses the border chasing Kurdish separatists.
While security is on everyone’s mind, Erbil residents are enjoying their new freedoms and economic opportunities. The government has turned some of Saddam Hussein’s old military bases into sprawling, forested parks. Restaurants like the Marina and Today feature Arabic, Kurdish and Western food, even pizza.
On the other hand, Erbil is like two separate counties when it comes to alcohol. In the Christian Ainkawa enclave, there are many more liquor stores than churches, sometimes three or four to a block. Meanwhile, outside of the Christian sector in the much larger Muslim sections of town, alcohol remains taboo. It was my observation that there are not enough Christians in Erbil to allow for so many liquor stores and bars to be that profligate. Draw your own conclusions.
While doing my research for the trip, I read that Kurds love Americans in general and former President George W. Bush in particular. George W. Bush and America rid the Kurds of Saddam Hussein, who did everything in his power for decades to destroy the Kurdish people through genocide, chemical weapons, torture and resettlement. Still, during my visit, my friend and I were not swooned over by the Kurds, but we were always treated respectfully. And, there was no mention of President Bush.
Since American involvement in the region, life has improved immeasurably for the average Kurd. According to one American aid worker who has been in Kurdistan since the end of the first Gulf War and the No Fly Zone, up until recently, life was much more difficult in Erbil and Kurdistan.
“Saddam tried to starve them out,” he said about the Kurds. “Nothing in. No food, no water, no fuel. It was a struggle to survive.”
The longtime aid worker also said the American-styled supermarkets with their shelves brimming with food and consumer products (alas, not from the USA), were also only a recent phenomenon of the past year or so, reflecting new-found prosperity from the nearby booming oil and gas industry.
Thus, the Kurds have taken to their semi-independence from Baghdad and relative freedom from war with relish. With an estimated 45 billion barrels of oil reserves in Kurdistan, at least one American company — ExxonMobil — has recently made an exploration deal with the KRG. The deal angered the central government in Baghdad but also gives at least some indication of where one major American corporation is laying its bets: on Kurdistan and its “black” gold rush.
But ExxonMobil is the exception and not the rule of American commercial interest and influence in Kurdistan. For example, a British company designed and a Turkish company built the recently opened, state-of-the-art Erbil International Airport. South Koreans are the airport’s consultants. The good news is that other opportunities await, but they will not wait long for Americans to decide if they want to pursue them. Other nations are swooping in while United States businesses sit on the sidelines.
So what does it all mean?
Besides seeing an area of Iraq that is far more secure than Americans can imagine after nearly a decade of war, my main takeaway from my visit to Erbil is that the United States and Americans are wasting an opportunity to make money in a wide-open and friendly place. Besides profits and jobs for Americans and better goods and services for the Kurds, with Americans and American processes, we would also bolster a struggling democracy and an important region with our influence and idealism. After all, Americans have already paid for that opportunity with the most precious resource we have — our blood.
Todd Epp, 53, of Harrisburg, writes occasional freelance articles for The Daily Republic. This was his fourth trip to the Middle East. He has previously visited and reported on Israel, Palestine, Jordan and Syria.