A hidden Iraq lies behind the headlines: a land of vibrant souls, snowy peaks and the warmest of welcomes
It had been a typical day in Iraq. By nightfall suicide-bombers had murdered 16 Kurds at Kirkuk market, six young Sunni schoolgirls had died from a mortar attack, while 54 mutilated corpses were scattered throughout Baghdad's blood-soaked streets.
Somewhere near Falluja another US Marine succumbed to gunshot wounds.
Some 350km from Baghdad, however, the situation in northern Iraq couldn't be more different. Instead of widespread destruction, tall cranes dominate Arbil's skyline erecting glass-fronted shopping malls and plush five-star hotels. Instead of sectarian hatred, the local bazaar bustles with Kurds, flame-haired Assyrian Christians, and Arabs. Even the few American troops patrolling the streets are relaxed and do not carry guns. There hasn't been a terrorist attack on Arbil since early 2005.
Arbil lies within Iraqi Kurdistan. Under Iraq's new federal constitution the Kurds (who make up 15-20% of the country's population) have been awarded sanctuary and self-governance in Kurdistan province. Yet talk of outright independence remains only a whisper. With a significant Kurdish diaspora - in adjacent Turkey and Iran - Kurdistan has nervous neighbours who would forcibly resist any declaration of full independence.
Kurdish aspirations actually began to be realised in 1992 with the implementation of a no-fly zone enforced by American, French, and British jets. It ensured no repeats of the systematic massacres perpetrated by Saddam Hussein's Ba'ath regime. Saddam's al-Anfal annihilation of Kurdish opposition is most horribly remembered by poison-gas attacks at Halabja in 1988. Thousands died.
Now, since their nemesis's overthrow in 2003, a new confidence has spread across the region. This is reinforced by tight security. The peshmerga, former separatist guerrillas, maintain a ring of steel between Kurdish territory and Arab Iraq to the south. They man numerous armed roadblocks and checkpoints along roads and around Kurdish populations. Their vigilance sharpened by the maelstrom of daily sectarian violence occurring on Kurdistan's doorstep in the embattled cities of Kirkuk and Mosul - the latter just 60km from Arbil.
"If you went to Kirkuk with 50 bodyguards you still wouldn't be safe," said Atta, a Kurdish publisher I met in Arbil. "It's horrible there; Kurds are being murdered in broad daylight".
Yet so confident is the Kurdistan Regional Government in its own security, it has recently established a ministry of tourism. Arbil's new international airport is due to be fully completed by late 2007 and will become the gateway to northern Iraq. I landed there with a new Austrian Airlines flight: the first European carrier to fly into Kurdistan.
Starved of investment during Ba'athist rule and suffering after a decade of UN economic sanctions. This city of about 1 million people looks neglected. Even despite shining investments in new hotels, mosques, and residential projects funded by exiled Kurds and Middle Eastern investors.
Yet Arbil's rich history remains undimmed. Eight thousand years of occupation makes it one of the world's oldest continuously-inhabited cities. A colossal hilltop citadel looms over the city centre. Its mazy streets and passageways once trodden by Sumerian, Assyrian, and Seljuk footsteps; its great walls witnessed by Alexander the Great and besieged by Tamerlane. Excitingly for the city a rehabilitation project for the citadel has just begun.
Below the citadel, the labyrinthine Qasary bazaar thronged with shoppers. Inside covered souqs people were selling everything from golden jewellery and pots of curd to crisply-tailored suits and freshly-squeezed fruit shakes - I never once sensed any danger. Often I was mistaken for an American and welcomed at every opportunity. The Americans are heroes here. When I revealed my nationality to an old Kurdish man sporting a traditional keffiyeh turban he responded: "Inglese, you are welcome, you are my brother". Elsewhere I bought a box of my favourite Middle Eastern sweet, honey and walnut segak. The shopkeeper refused my money.
Outside Arbil, Kurdistan is crowned by snowy peaks and etched by white-water rivers. At Bekhal, two hours away, I visited a popular waterfall in a stunning mountain gorge. The surrounding picnic facilities were dilapidated, yet by summer will be busy with Baghdadi holidaymakers fleeing both the capital's heat and sickening violence. At Shaqlawa, a pleasant mountain town, I call by several Assyrian Christian churches, testimony to how smaller ethnic minorities live cheek-by-jowl alongside predominately Muslim Kurds.
"Kurdistan used to be a very popular destination in the Middle East but it needs a lot of investment for visitors to return," explained Sa'ad Alkhafaji of IKB Travel. Sa'ad fled to Britain from Iraq in the 1990s during Saddam's excesses and is now promoting travel there. "Kurdistan has a great future," he told me. "The nature is beautiful, the people are friendly, and it is secure." A security that all of Iraq is crying out for as each painful day passes.
Mark Stratton's travel writing has taken him to places as obscure as Mauritania, Djibouti and Eritrea
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