Kurdish city prospers as Baghdad struggles

December 5, 2008


    Five years ago, the city of Sulaimaniya in the semi-autonomous region of Kurdistan was pretty nice, but Baghdad wasn’t that bad either.

    Now, after years of sectarian bloodshed in Baghdad, and comparative peace and stability in Kurdistan, Sulaimaniya has shot ahead, as I saw on a recent reporting visit.

    In the last five years, Sulaimaniya has built tall buildings, cleaned its streets, imported modern cars and attracted foreign companies.

    In the same time, Baghdad has retreated behind blast walls and sand bags, investors are waiting on the sidelines and only a handful of buildings are being built.

    When I went to Sulaimaniya in 2003, just after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, to escape the heat of Baghdad, I thought then that if I spent a month there that would be enough time to allow the authorities in the capital to restore electricity to a city that had sunk into darkness.

    I did not realize that Baghdad would still be in tatters five years later.

    Sulaimaniya, in contrast, feels more prosperous now than the last time I saw it.

    Relative security has allowed foreign companies to crowd into the city, especially Turkish and Iranian firms. Huge hotels have been built on top of the hills overlooking beautiful scenery and adding to the city’s elegance.

    A lack of security has left Baghdad looking like a vast anchaotic military base, with districts cordoned off by concrete walls and squads of soldiers and police deployed at checkpoints in almost every street.

    In Sulaimaniya, residents look happy and satisfied. One taxi driver wearing traditional Kurdish clothes of baggy trousers and a sash, told me: “We live a comfortable life. What more do we need?”

    That is not the sort of thing you hear from most people in Baghdad.
    The taxi driver continued: “The government provides us with 15 hours of electricity (a day) and for the rest we depend on private generators. Sometimes in summer they (the government) provide us with 22 hours of electricity.”

    I thought about my situation and that of others who live in Baghdad, where we are lucky to get a few hours of electricity a day to deal with temperatures that average 50 degrees Celsius in the summer. Water, which has to be pumped, only flows when the power is on.

    Ask a Baghdad resident his or her opinion on the election win of U.S. President-elect Barack Obama, or on any other issue, and they will likely tell you they are too busy worrying about the chronic problem of power and water shortages to think about
anything else.

    In popular Mawlawi street,  I spent some time on one of my favourite past-times — shopping.  While standing near a nuts and sweets shop, I met a couple from Baghdad with their three-year-old son. I seized the opportunity to chat with them while they asked the shop keeper to weigh out half a kilo of dried figs.

   “We came here three years ago,” the man said. “We feel content living here. There is security here.”

   One other thing that amazed me about Kurdistan was how western the women looked, wearing jeans and tops that would be condemned in other parts of Iraq, where religious passions have been rising during years of sectarian fighting between minority
Sunni Arabs and majority Shi’ites.

    So I took advantage of the opportunity and slipped on jeans and a Western-style top.
    I strolled past Azadi Park, or Freedom Park, where I was told couples could go to romance each other. There was also a platform on which I was told anybody could climb to have their say, like the famous Speakers’ Corner in London’s Hyde Park.

   Baghdad still suffers daily car bombings and suicide blasts even though the violence is much reduced from two years ago.

    I usually spend my annual vacation abroad but this year I think I may go to Kurdistan.

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