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A long way from Baghdad

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

On Eid in 2004, twin bombings targeting officials killed 109 people. Adnan Mufti, the former Kurdistan House Speaker, spent four months in the hospital and lost most of his colleagues that day, he told me from his brother’s home on Eid this year.

Mufti, who is ethnically Turkish, explained why he believed Kurdistan had achieved the stability that eluded the rest of Iraq. The government — specifically, his party, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan — respected ethnic minorities and gave them a voice, he argued.

Representation in the Kurdistan government is based on population, like the U.S. House of Representatives. One parliamentarian represents 40,000 members of his or her ethnic group. However, even though there are only 4,000 Armenians in the region — far too few to qualify for a representative — the Kurdistan government still granted them one representative, Mufti explained.

After leaving the Mufti home, we walked the empty streets. It seemed as though the entire population remained at home celebrating the holiday and preparing a feast, until we arrived at Minaret Park. There, thousands had gathered to wander the pristine grounds where bulbous, bright roses lined manicured paths and unveiled women walked around with sticks of cotton candy in one hand and their husband’s hand in the other. Girls in new dresses and boys in child-size silk suits gathered around the park’s main attraction that afternoon — a pool filled with giant, inflated floating balls with children inside them running in place as if on a hamster wheel. 

At the center of another Erbil park, Iraq’s self-proclaimed first art gallery — Shanidar Gallery — had a special exhibit featuring art condemning violence against women. The goateed curator, Hawkar Rskin, said business was thriving.

Since 2003, he had been commissioned by the local government to paint murals on several of the underpasses of new roads. He recently completed a mosaic at another park in town. Would he be able to work freely elsewhere in Iraq, I asked. He just laughed.

Kurdistan is not Iraq, its citizens say again and again. This is because of Kurdish military, not American, who have almost no presence in the area. On the 350-kilometer road from the Turkey border to Erbil, we passed 10 checkpoints, all staffed by Kurds. At one stop, an officer leaned into the car and, like many, cracked a joke.

“We are with Muqtada al-Sadr’s militia and are here to cut off your heads,” he said, smiled, and waved us past.