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Last Updated: Friday, 12 August 2005, 16:10 GMT 17:10 UK
Iraqi Kurdistan a world away from war
By Caroline Hawley
BBC News, Baghdad

Iraqi Kurds celebrate in Kirkuk, 2005, after announcement of February's election results
Iraqi Kurds are feeling the benefits of the post-Saddam Hussein era
Fly into Irbil, the regional capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, and you feel that you have arrived in another country.

It is the Kurdish, not the Iraqi, flag that flutters from Irbil International Airport, Kurdistan's new, glass-fronted "gateway" to the world, which saw its first flights from Dubai, Beirut and Amman arrive last month.

The airport was built on a former military base once used by Saddam Hussein's regime to bomb the Kurds of Halabja.

Now it brings in investors. Businessmen, scared away from other parts of Iraq, are coming to Kurdistan instead, and helping its economy to take off.

"Before all we saw was war, and planes bombing our cities and villages," says the airport manager, Kameran Murad, who fought against the regime in the late 1980s.

"Now the aircraft are our link with the outside world. Everything is changing."

Economic success

Take the town of Suleimaniya. Its skyline is dotted with cranes. Everywhere you look bulldozers are at work.

We can go where we like when we like, which is not possible in Baghdad or elsewhere in Iraq.
Wolfgang Kohler

"Things are booming. The price of land is ridiculous. It's just going up and up and up," says businessman Bettin Saleh, who has two shops in a new mall.

"People have money, people are spending it, they feel it's safe to spend - and build for the future."

And there's no shortage of labour, as Arab Iraqis head north to join the Kurdish workforce.

"I'm here because it's dangerous where I'm from and there are no jobs," says Aziz Abed Ali, from Baghdad. "Here it is safe and there is work."

Unique stability

The Kurds have ruled themselves in northern Iraq since the aftermath of the Gulf war of 1991, when a "safe haven" was created to protect them from Saddam Hussein.

Rival Kurdish groups fought one another in 1996, but the current stability in Kurdistan now stands in stark contrast to other parts of the country.

In the lobby of the Sheraton hotel in Irbil - the smartest hotel in the entire country - there are plans on display for a grand project called "Dreamland," epitomising the hope and confidence of Kurdistan.

Western businessmen hover around the internet centre.

Kirkuk, Iraq
Kurdish Alliance came second in 2005's landmark poll
KDP and PUK formed backbone of grouping
Alliance won 25% of the vote

"Here we are free - we can do our jobs," says Wolfgang Kohler, who is part of a German delegation selling farm implements in Kurdistan. "We can go where we like when we like, which is not possible in Baghdad or elsewhere in Iraq."

Every Friday, Kurdish families head out to enjoy the rugged natural beauty of Kurdistan, to picnic by its rivers and waterfalls. The biggest threat to them is landmines - a legacy of a past they are trying to forget.

'We are Kurds'

For the future, the greatest hope of many Kurds is, eventually, to secede from Iraq.

"I feel Kurdish more than Iraqi," says Azad Nouri Abdullah, a pharmacist from Suleimaniya. "In my heart I want my own country - for the Kurds."

And that is not just the dream of an older generation, bitter at how imperial Britain drew boundaries in the Middle East.

"We are Kurds," says nine-year old Sardar Mohammed Ali, swimming with a group of friends in the serenity of Lake Dokan, near Suleimaniya. "We should have our own country like everyone else."

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