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Iraq: Life In Northern Provinces Seems A World Away From War-Torn Center

The city of Irbil is at the center of Iraq's Kurdish-controlled northern provinces, whose residents were brutalized for years by former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. Following the 1991 Gulf War, the region was protected by a "no-fly" zone patrolled by U.S. and British war planes. Today, as RFE/RL reports, the residents of Irbil are happy that Hussein is gone and cherish hopes of a brighter future.

Irbil, Iraq; 11 November 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The northern city of Irbil is so different from war-torn central Iraq that visitors would be forgiven for thinking they are in another country.

No shooting is heard at night. There are no bombings or barbed wire. No tanks, kidnappings, killings, or looting. The residents of the city, the majority of whom are Kurds, are friendly. Smiles are not uncommon.

Irbil, however, like all of Iraq's Kurdish north, has enjoyed such peace for a relatively short time. Ousted Iraqi President Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons numerous times to suppress rebellious Kurds, including the worst attack, against Halabjah, in 1988, in which Human Rights Watch says 3,500 to 5,000 people were killed. The Kurds also cannot forget Hussein's forced Arabization program and his brutal attempts to suppress the Kurds' 1991 uprising. That was followed by tensions between the two main Kurdish factions -- the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK).

U.S. diplomatic pressure finally stopped the fighting and resulted in the Washington agreement of September 1998, whereby the two parties committed themselves to power sharing in the region. Both factions supported the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq last spring.

Indeed, the Kurds in Irbil largely credit the U.S. for the years of relative peace and prosperity they have enjoyed. The U.S. is really welcomed as a liberator here. U.S. and Kurdish flags are seen in many logos and advertisements. There is a Washington Restaurant in the center of town, where one wall features a huge U.S. flag painted beside the Kurdish colors.

Muhammad Kudr Abdella, a shop owner in the commercial district of Irbil, told RFE/RL: "[During the Hussein era,] we didn't have electricity, petrol, even food. We had sanctions on us. Now we have no electricity cuts. We have electricity for 24 hours. We have free trade, and we can go to Jordan, Turkey, and Syria and get anything from any country we want. Now I have a passport."

He notes proudly that there is no curfew in Irbil, or U.S. troops patrolling the streets, as they do in Kirkuk, 80 kilometers south. He says Kurdish police are enough to secure the city. Abdella says Irbil is one of the rare cities in Iraq where drivers obey road rules and there are no traffic jams.

The Kurds are doing all they can to protect the peace. There are some six checkpoints on the road from Kirkuk to Irbil. Almost every car is thoroughly searched. Nobody is allowed to travel in Kurdish areas in cars without plate numbers. Serious incidents of violence are rare.

Shakhwan Ali Muhammad sells mobile phones in a shop with a Western look. He says business is booming. "Economically, it's good. During 1992 through 1997, it wasn't good, but it is now," he said. "We can go to Baghdad and come back, but I still haven't gone there. I have never been to Baghdad." Shakhwan doesn't feel it is safe enough to visit the Iraqi capital. He says he has a feeling that, economically at least, life is getting better. There are more jobs, and salaries seem to be rising.

However, the mobile phones that Shakhawan sells are some $20 to $30 cheaper in Baghdad than in Irbil. The food is cheaper in Baghdad, too, but hotels seem to be cheaper in Irbil, perhaps because there are not as many foreigners in the city. A room in a decent hotel in Irbil costs $20 per night, while a less comfortable room at Baghdad's Al-Hamra Hotel costs $90 per night.

It is difficult to accurately compare prices, however, because old Iraqi dinars -- without Hussein's picture on them -- are still used in Irbil. But Irbil's traders will accept almost all currencies -- from Saddam dinars, to U.S. dollars, to the new Iraqi dinars introduced last month.

Adnan Dino works in one of Irbil's hotels. He says he has traveled several times to Baghdad and is not afraid to go there. For Dino, the right to travel freely seems to be the biggest benefit to toppling Hussein. Dino says coalition forces have brought democracy to Iraq and opened all of the country to the Kurds. "Of course, now we have freedom and people are more relaxed now. The situation is better. People can go back and forth [to Baghdad] as they please, and people from the south are coming to the north and the northerners are going to the south for tourism," he said. "The situation is very, very good."

Dino says that during Hussein's rule, Kurds were not allowed to travel south and that there were Iraqi Army checkpoints. In any event, nobody ever considered going south because people were scared of Hussein. He says he hopes the future will present more opportunities for travel within Iraq. He says northern Iraq has the potential to become a big attraction for tourists, "because our resorts are nice and the countryside is nice, too."