With a civil war raging in Syria, an escalating Turkish propaganda war and a weak government in Baghdad, the Kurds of northern Iraq are once again in limbo.
"That's a palm tree", Feki, an under-cover guy someone in the administration has saddled on me. "Why? What's wrong with a palm tree? You guys are living in a desert here" I was asking. "No, these palm-trees pictures are Arabs symbols. We are not Arabs and do not want anything to do with them," explains Feki.
Feki is a follower of the Islamic creed and belongs to the Sunni sect. For the by far overwhelming majority of the Kurdish population in Iraq religion is not so much part in daily life. Shiites and Sunnis do not kill each other as in the rest of the region which was once Iraq.
The greatest concern today is the fact that Iraq since the war of 2003, is no longer a united state. The former Iraq is split into three entities. One of this three is Iraqi Kurdistan. Politically and economically de facto independent, Kurdistan acts mainly without the central government in Baghdad.
While in Iraq, Kurdistan, the second Gulf War did not really took place and the Kurds managed to establish relatively stable state structures, it is still not independent from the Central Government. Of course the "order" in Iraqi-Kurdistan is founded on a a "Stasi-like" spy system. But unemployment is relatively low with an average of 15% and significantly lower than in the rest of Iraq there is also a kind of obscure "clientèle-system" in place.
Today, with an civil war in Syria sponsored by Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries, Kurdish businessmen getting worried that this could lead to a return of the times of 1958. This was after the end of the English occupation in 1958, followed by a coup d'etat, also known as the 14 July Revolution, which resulted in a 20 year slaughter, until 1979 Saddam Hussein seized power. Interestingly he was quickly exploited by those Western governments who hated the mullah regime in neighboring Iran. Saddam went into the trap and invaded Iran, only to retreat in disgrace and shame after a bloody 8 years long war.
This concern of Kurdish business people is more than justified: The Civil War in Syria is putting Iraq's fragile society to the test and exacerbated the religious tensions. The signs of the approach of Iraq to rely on Iran are obvious. The Shiite-dominated leadership in Baghdad worries are a victory of Sunni radicals in Syria so that they form increasingly alliances with Iran against the more radical fanaticism Whabbi (Al-Qaeda) and Salafist (Al-Nusra terrorists).
"We Kurds here are showing that an interdenominational coexistence is possible," the president of the Chamber of Commerce in Erbil told me. This slightly naive view is because many Kurds have suffered under violence for years, fought among themselves and against various governments as Peshmerga for countless years. They are exhausted and have now become a kind of "Salon Peshmerga" to serve as a kind of folkloric cliché.
At a centuries old graveyard a history professor even goes back to the time of Zoroastrianism, a monotheistic religion that have Influenced other later religions including Judaism, Gnosticism, Christianity and Islam. He has his own TV show and understands to read the Kurdish history of from the tombs. "Here you can see the sun. She is the symbol of us Kurds. And there you can see the sword above the cross. "
He is dragging me over a 700 years old cemetery and continues to lecture: "The inscriptions on grave stones can tell you a lot about the history. Perhaps that is the reason why Whabbi do not allow grave stones on their graves in their culture." He, as a Sunni, describes the Safavid dynasty as the real heirs of Zoroastrianism and is praising the Safavide for their protection of Kurds against the all the intruders during their rule.
Later in a typical Kurdish village we sit with tea and bread with honey and yogurt he repeated the same concerns I have heard previously from businessmen. "Iraq is in danger of falling apart," says the professor of history. There would be the most incredible rumors, unrestrained propaganda in the west of the armed opposition in Syria.
"You journalists start believing your own propaganda - how can you write seriously about a 'armed' opposition? You call such people usually simply terrorists but in the case of Syria they are opposition. What are this for double standards?" He even did not excluded the possibility of a union of Syrian and Iraqi Kurds because of what Turkey's propaganda on behalf of the 'armed opposition' in Syria.
" Currently the most incredible threat scenarios are being invented instead to look at the root of the problem that arises in the Saudi desert. There everything is only about religion but not about equal education for all. We don't want this here. But we will have this all over again if the Sunnis of Iraq's province of Anbar unite with their brethren from Syria."
to be continued.... with a second part about media landscape and daily life in Erbil
here are some photos...