Thriving Iraqi city where invasion has worked

19th August 2006

Thriving Iraqi city where invasion has worked

Prosperty, democracy, security ... and even chilled lager. The Mail on Sunday discovers a corner of this benighted country where the invasion HAS worked

With its tree-lined streets, smart public buildings and prosperous-looking residents hurrying to shops and offices, it could be a bustling Mediterranean city.

In the midday heat, the pavement cafes throng with university students swapping notes and preparing for the weekend.

But this, though it seems improbable, is Iraq.

The peaceful and thriving city of Sulimaniyah is less than 400 miles north of Baghdad and seemingly light years from the fear of suicide bombers and looming civil war.

Photographer Gary Trotter and I are the only Western journalists in town, incredulous at the free and open atmosphere and keen to test the Kurdish people's claims that Iraqis can work through the hell of the past three years and attain normality, stability and, yes, even happiness.

What we see here is the result of utter determination by the Kurds, oppressed for years by Saddam Hussein but who seized the chance of independence while the rest of Iraq was sinking into chaos.

Reconstruction grants were accepted hungrily soon after the coalition invasion, and industry, education and infrastructure have all benefited.

The Kurds' two warring leaders - Jalal Talabani of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and Massoud Barzani of the Kurdistan Democratic Party - have wisely pledged to work together.

Barzani was sworn in as Kurdish President a year ago, while Talabani is now President of Iraq. Their people are proud and optimistic and in Sulimaniyah it shows.

They feel that one of the deepest wounds in their history is about to be healed. Saddam will be accused tomorrow of genocide of the Kurds, including the chemical gassing of 5,000 people in Halabja in 1988 and the expulsion of 182,000 others, may of whom are still missing and believed to have been buried alive in desert graves.

"It is our day of reckoning, time for us to see justice at last," says activist Dana Hameed.

"Hundreds of Kurdish people are begging to go to Baghdad to be witnesses against Saddam. Dozens of lawyers from Sulimaniyah are vying for the chance to be there."

The Kurds are desperate that nothing should unsettle their new beginning. Businessman Ari Anwar Eissa tells us: "The brightest and best period of our existence is just round the corner. Life has never been so good for us in living memory."

Even our arrival in Sulimaniyah was, by Iraqi standards, sedate. The terrifying experiences of corkscrew landings into Baghdad airport - circling tightly from 600ft to avoid anti-aircraft missiles - were replaced by a smooth approach on a Royal Jordanian flight.

Until now, Iraq, for me, has meant terror and bomb blasts and a loaded handgun under my pillow. But Sulimaniyah is a ray of hope. Here, women are not hidden under the abaya, shuffling along in voluminous black.

There is no litter in the streets and no aid workers. I saw just three US Army humvees, and they were many miles out of town, looking aimless and unwanted, which they are.

The five million Kurds in northern Iraq occupy an area the size of Switzerland. Desperate for a federal Iraq that will grant them a permanent presence here, they must accommodate large numbers of Turkmen, Assyrians and Christians, all of whom share their territory.

But here, the Kurds are religious moderates, a different order of Sunni Muslims from the fanatics further south. There is volatility but it centres not on religion but on the ownership of the oil-rich city of Kirkuk.

The city is currently controlled by the Kurdish militia but its population is an ethnic and religious mix, including Sunnis and Shias, and any attempt to include it in a new Kurdistan will be fiercely resisted.

There are rumours that American forces promised the Kurds that they could keep Kirkuk - and Kurdish leaders are determined that their liberators will not renege. This means growing uneasiness between them.

Today, the American military keeps an uncharacteristic distance from the Kurdish authorities and is seldom seen on the streets.

At the Palace Hotel, coloured lights play on decorative fountains and marble statues. There is no blast tape on the windows to protect us from stray shelling, hot water comes from the taps and the lights work. Chilled lager is stacked neatly in the minibar.

In the lobby, incredibly, there is an internet wireless connection. This is not the Iraq I have known in all its broken-down horror, poverty and suffering since the coalition invaded in March 2003.

Friends in Baghdad recently told of sleepless nights in 50C and no electricity for the air-conditioning. Attempts to cool off on rooftops are interrupted by swooping helicopter gunships and regular firing of mortars and rockets. The crack of Kalashnikovs in the streets is regarded as just a minor nuisance.

In Sulimaniyah, by contrast, there is peace. The slopes of the Azmir mountain range that overlook the city glow in the haze, the long summer drought making parched grasses stiff and spiky between the walnut trees.

Up there in the cool night air, with no landmines to avoid, families are enjoying picnics, children are playing and a surreal calm prevails.

The Kurds will tell you with bursting pride that their lives and their future interests are guarded by their own militia, the fearsome Peshmerga freedom fighters.

These battle-scarred men and women are so effective at repelling persistent attacks by Arab insurgents that the Iraqi government is keen to bring them down to Baghdad and further south to quell the violence there.

But lorry driver Kawa Hussein is vehement: "We don't want our protectors to leave our region."

Police officer Hlwa Qader agrees: "These boys are our family and we don't want them in danger. We want them here."

Kurdish police, the Asaish, are highly visible in Sulimaniyah. They man checkpoints throughout the city and motorists do not complain. Vehicle and driver documents are handed over for inspection several times in one journey.

But it feels right and is in contrast to the panicky nervousness of young American soldiers at checkpoints in Baghdad, where a wrong move often prompts shooting. Here the Kurds - experienced, disciplined and authoritative - command respect.

In the balmy evening air in the city's park, teenagers are roller-skating to the improbable sound of rap music while businessmen talk over dinner at the outdoor Revan Turkish restaurant.

Families stroll all around, and in a clearing is a wedding party. The bridegroom wears a white linen suit, the bride is resplendent in Kurdish national dress - an extravagant swirl of colour topped with gold and glass beads, dangling earrings and emphatic make-up on milky-white skin.

Friends dance an endless halparke, the traditional rhythmic shuffle, linking arms and laughing over their chanting.

Iraqi Kurdistan is enjoying its new-found power, claiming to have the fastest-growing economy in the Middle East. Its oil fields are expected to be in full production next year and the region will be self-sufficient in petrol. For now it comes in plastic containers filled from tankers coming over the Iranian border and costs $1 (53p) a litre.

The Kurdish regional government has got the judiciary working and the traffic flowing. Universities are flourishing and women's rights groups are encouraged.

A youth centre in Sulimaniyah has full membership for sports and music activities, and the city's museum and gallery is showing regional art alongside its outdoor piano recitals and poetry readings.

Far from the destruction of Baghdad, this Kurdish showpiece has established a Directorate of Antiquities to preserve its many beautiful 18th Century houses with frontages of carved wood and stone.

"These lovely old homes are part of our national treasure," says director Pakshan Abdullah Muhammad. "We have a budget for buying up those most in need of restoration. They are a bright part of our city's history and we value them."

In every family there are young and old who remember the worst of times while looking forward to the best. English graduate Yerevan Adham is 26 and has been a refugee almost all his life.

He and his family fled persecution not once but three times under Saddam. He remembers a childhood spent in cellars and tents. His proudest possession at the age of eight was a copy of the Oxford English Dictionary.

"That's what I read, that's what I studied," he says. "It's what got me through all the terrible times and I still have that dictionary today. I learned English from it and it got me to university, and that's where I met my wife who is an English graduate like me and a teacher."

Yerevan's home is Halabja, the troubled border town that was too close to Iran for Saddam's liking.

From tomorrow, the world will be reminded at Saddam's genocide trial that Halabja's inhabitants were herded into the desert and killed there, and that in 1987 and 1988 he gassed, banished and killed members of every single family, in many cases wiping out generations.

"My earliest memories are of us all squeezing into the cellar with our neighbours," says Yerevan.

"All the Halabja houses were fortified with thick cement because there was continual bombing overhead.

"I was the eldest of four brothers and my father often ran to the school to bring me home as an air raid started. My mother cried all the time. Everyone was afraid of Saddam.

"In 1987 large parts of Halabja were razed to the ground because Saddam suspected families were feeding and sheltering the Peshmerga. People were taken away on military trucks, shot and piled into massed graves.

"My father was a fugitive from the Iraqi army and was afraid he would be arrested and our family would starve. He took us on the long walk towards the Iranian border because there were other Kurdish people there and sympathy for refugees. After two days we reached a tented camp and stayed there for months."

Yerevan recalls how his father worried about his schooling and eventually sent him and his younger brother back to Halabja to live with their grandfather.

"It was terrible, missing our parents and them missing us. My little brother Nawshirwan and I cried ourselves to sleep every night."

After a year, their parents returned. Yerevan's father surrendered himself to the Iraqi government and paid a huge fine for his desertion.

Ten days later, heavy bombing started. The family scrambled up into the mountains to shelter in caves. The next day Saddam sent his pilots to drop napalm and mustard gasses on the entire population. Five thousand people died in agony.

"I was only eight but I remember the sight of so many people blinded and vomiting and driven crazy by what had happened," says Yerevan.

"My grandfather died, along with 13 members of his family, my father's cousins. My father and his brother were the only ones left."

Then Iranian troops arrived in helicopters to urge people to leave the caves to get to safety. Yerevan, his brothers and his mother were flown out and his father went separately.

"We were given shelter in schools and mosques," he says. "We didn't find my father until two months later. We went together to Krmanshah, an Iranian city where we lived in tents for a year, literally fighting for food every time an aid agency sent in trucks."

Today, Yerevan and his wife, Howjen, have their own house in Halabja, his parents and brothers live nearby. "We are free and Kurdistan is free," he says, as we journey to Dukan Lake, a hour's drive from Sulimaniyah.

"There are Kurds in Turkey and in Iran, but it is here in Iraq that we have achieved independence and we hope for a federal country that will recognise us, a central Iraq probably governed by Sunnis, and a southern Shia state.

"We see nothing negative about the division of Iraq into three. It is the only way to achieve peace here and share power.

"Today we have our own government and our own president. We have relative prosperity and a growing economy. Most of all, we have peace and we plan to hold on to it. We have achieved that while the rest of Iraq is in disarray. We are sorry for those people suffering, but we must put our own people first."

Standing with Yerevan at the top of a mountain slope, looking down at the breathtaking beauty of the lake and a single fishing boat tacking lazily through translucent blue, I see no anger and no bitterness in him.

Instead, there is the touching wisdom of an old head on young shoulders. And a feeling of hope.