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A long way from Baghdad

Kurdistan is not Iraq, its citizens say again and again.

ERBIL, Iraq — Threatening decapitation is a popular joke in northeastern Iraq. Rather than ignore it, Kurdistanis acknowledge foreigners’ misplaced fear of them and dismiss its absurdity.

“I take you to my home, or maybe I kill you,” laughed Bullent, a Kurdistani dental student whom we met at Iraq’s border with Turkey, running his finger across his throat in a slicing motion. Despite his remark, we accepted the offer to visit his home in Erbil, Iraq’s third-largest city after Baghdad and Mosul.

Erbil is also the capital of Kurdistan, an autonomous region within Iraq with its own parliament and president. Fifty miles west in Mosul, Al Qaeda, though weakened, continues to terrorize people with drive-by shootings, car bombs, and extortions, Reuters reported on Nov. 27. Kurdistanis complain that their region’s proximity to Mosul gives it a bad rap.

“This way, dead. That way, safe,” distinguished our taxi driver at the fork in the road with one path leading toward Mosul and the other toward Erbil. He too made a slicing motion across his throat. As we drove into Erbil, illuminated fountains interspersed by palm trees wrapped in colored lights lined the median of a freshly paved road.  

“See?” Bullent said. “It’s nice.”

new fountain installations in erbil
New fountain installations in the heart of Erbil.
(Stephen Kurczy/GlobalPost)

When we arrived at his home, the family was preparing for the next day’s Bayram, or Eid, Islam’s holiest holiday. The men sat my companion and I down in the living room and, in fluent English, began telling us about their hometown. Kurds love America for ridding them of Saddam, explains Bullent’s brother, a structural engineer named Hussein.

“America gave us freedom,” I remembered the cab driver telling me on the ride there. “So they can have our oil — take it!”

American companies are rewarding this loyalty with lucrative construction contracts, Hussein explained. His Kurd-owned engineering firm has an office in Washington, D.C. to manage such deals.

“In 10 years, it will be like Dubai,” Hussein told us the next day, as he drove us around the city’s newly-constructed ring roads, past half-built, high-end hotels and a sprawling new shopping center.

The next day, we also explored on foot — a suicidal venture elsewhere in Iraq.

At the city’s center is a citadel that is, according to UNESCO's pilot project to restore it, up to 8,000 years old. We visited the historic mosque adjacent to it where well-known businessmen and clerics gathered for their afternoon prayer. A prime terrorist target, I thought immediately.