Irbil, 8 December 2005 (RFE/RL) -- The first thing that strikes a visitor to Irbil is how hard it is to spot an Iraqi flag.
"We believe that it is in the Kurdish interest, for the Kurdish future...to have a new Iraq which will be a democratic Iraq with federalism."
Instead, flagpoles fly the banner of the Kurdistan Regional Government. That banner may have most of the colors of the Iraqi flag, but it is overlaid with a Kurdish emblem of the sun.
The modified flag is just one of the many signs that Iraq's Kurds have quietly built an almost independent -- and increasingly prosperous -- state of their own in northern Iraq. While the rest of the country is mired in security problems that keep all but the most intrepid foreign civilians off the streets, here foreign businesspeople move openly and without armed escorts.
The businesspeople are carrying out local development projects or setting up bases from which to do business with other parts of Iraq. Everywhere there is evidence of their presence -- and of investment by the Kurdish diaspora in Germany and other parts of Europe. New commercial buildings are going up. So too is a new tract of homes for the wealthy, dubbed Dream City.
Many of the visitors arrive aboard one of two Iraqi Kurdish airlines that began regular flights from Europe two months ago. Both are charter companies that lease planes with German or Greek pilots and crew. But the companies bear distinctively Kurdish names -- Kurdistan Airlines and Sawan Airlines.
In Kurdish, Sawan means "newborn" -- a name that recognizes that this is the first Kurdish airline in history.
Kawa Besarani is chairman of the group of private Kurdish investors who created Sawan Airlines. He says the intention was to end the traditional isolation that meant the region could only be reached by flying to Baghdad or traveling across neighboring Turkey, Syria, or Iran.
Besarani, who is based in London, speaks of the airlines as if they were almost national symbols. He suggests they are not only about doing business but also about redressing historical grievances. "So many times, we traveled back to our homeland, Kurdistan, by flying hours and hours, driving hours and hours, and stopping hours and hours in border lines -- to see the humiliation, the questioning by different police at borders, asking for your ID, asking your destination, asking you, 'What's your name?', asking where you're going, under the sun and the rain," Besarani recalls. "All these sorts of things pushed me and are the main reasons to take an initiative and to initiate this project."
Governments in Iraq, Turkey, Syria, and Iran have historically kept tight control over their Kurdish minorities in an effort to stop the spread of Kurdish nationalist sentiment. Those controls have included restrictions on cross-border travel.
But the revival of Iraq's Kurdish region raises a question pivotal for the future of Iraq and the broader region: Will the Kurds in northern Iraq be satisfied with the trappings of statehood they have already achieved, or will they press on toward full independence?
Adnan Mufti, president of the Kurdistan National Assembly, the region’s parliament, says the aim of Iraqi Kurds is to maintain a high degree of autonomy but within the framework of a new federal Iraq. "It is not easy to change the map now, at this moment," Mufti says. "So, because of that, we believe that it is in the Kurdish interest, for the Kurdish future, to follow the issues of Iraq, to have a new Iraq which will be a democratic Iraq with federalism."
The United States and the central government in Baghdad have repeatedly said they want to preserve the territorial integrity of Iraq, and Kurdish leaders have committed themselves to that goal. Ankara, which has largely suppressed an armed Turkish Kurdish movement for greater autonomy, has warned that any independent Kurdish state emerging from Iraq could reignite the conflict in southeast Turkey.
Mufti says he hopes the Kurdistan region's success in recent years will encourage Kurds in neighboring states to seek change by pushing for federalism and democracy, saying Iraqi Kurds' experience could be "a good [example] for our other Kurdish brothers in Turkey or Iran or Syria to struggle in a democratic way to get their own rights."
Kurds and other Iraqis go to the polls on 15 December to elect a new national parliament that will have to address a number of issues related to the Kurdistan region's autonomous status. These include the distribution of government revenues and Kurdish demands for Kirkuk, Iraq's fourth-largest city, to be recognized as the capital of the region.
The incorporation of oil-rich Kirkuk, which currently lies outside the Kurdish autonomous region, would strengthen the region's economic base. The proposal is, however, opposed by other Iraqi parties, including the minority Turkomans who, like the Kurds, lay claim to the multiethnic city.
RFE/RL's coverage, background, and analysis of Iraq's December 15, 2005, legislative elections.