Thursday, May 10, 2007

Iraqi violence catches up with Kurdistan

The war in Iraq took a new and dangerous twist yesterday. A bomb exploded in Arbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, claiming many casualties. A suicide truck bomb detonated in front of the offices of the Interior Ministry killing 19 and injuring 70 others. The bomb damaged the nearby Kurdish security services building and left a three-metre-deep crater in the road.

Kurdish officials blamed al-Qaeda linked insurgents Ansar al-Sunnah and Ansar al-Islam for the incident. It was the first major attack on the capital of the autonomous Kurdish region for two years. Kurdistan is the northern-most of Iraq’s provinces and the one least affected by the sectarian violence that has crippled the rest of the country since the US-led invasion in 2003. The last attack of this scale occurred in 2005 when a suicide bomber blew himself up outside an Arbil recruitment bureau killing 60 people.

Arbil has a population of about one million and is one of the oldest continuously-inhabited cities in the world. The city is also called Erbil or Irbil in Arabic but it is known in Kurdish language as Hewl√™r - the place where the sun is worshipped. The city was founded around 2300 BC as “Urbillium”. Most of the city rests on a 30 metre tall mound consisting of ruins from Arbil's long history. Alexander the Great won an important battle near the city that led to his conquest of Persia. The Greek historian Xenophon called the city Carduchoi.

The Roman general Pompey took the province 200 years later. The Romans renamed the province Corduene. The name survives today in the name of the people that inhabit the area – the Kurds. Arbil became an important town during the Ottoman Empire as a trading post between two provincial capitals: Baghdad and Mosul. After the First World War ended, Kurds lobbied Britain to create an independent Kurdistan. Instead they were subsumed into the new British Iraqi mandate and launched several revolts which the British put down.

When Iraq became formally independent in 1930, the Kurds launched another bid for independence but Britain quashed the rebellion again. Mustafa Barzani rose to become the new power. Kurdistan’s remote location, astute politicking, support from Tehran and occasional warfare with Baghdad allowed Barzani to come to arrangement with whichever central government was in power.

In the early 1970s Barzani fell out with the new de facto ruler of Iraq, Saddam Hussein. Barzani lost the support of Iran and was forced to flee to the US. In 1975, Arbil became chief city Saddam’s new creation, the Kurdistan Autonomous Region. But real power was now with Baghdad. Arbil’s power returned after the 1991 Gulf War, when with the support of the allies’ no-fly zone it became the capital of semi-independent Iraqi Kurdistan. The city descended into civil war between two Kurdish factions. Mustafa Barzani was now long dead, but his son Massoud Barzani returned to Arbil in 1995 to claim victory with the support of Saddam.

Arbil celebrated the overthrow of Saddam in 2003. Since then, only isolated, sporadic violence has hit Arbil. The new Iraqi constitution of 2005 explicitly recognizes the Kurdistan Regional Government. Security in the region is controlled by militias loyal to the Kurdish party. The Kurdistan flag flies everywhere while the Iraqi flag is rarely seen. The relative safety has seen many foreign firms invest in the area in recent years. Arbil has a construction boom and is building a new international airport costing $300 million due to open next year.

Kurdistan is also looking to develop its own oil wells, something always hindered during the Saddam era. Several British companies have approached Kurdistan's government-run Oil & Gas Petrochemical Establishment to discuss deals. Kurdish officials estimate their unexplored oil reserves at about 45 billion barrels, though that figure is questioned by outsiders. Nonetheless Kurdistan’s short distance to Turkey’s pipelines is a major advantage. The other major advantage is safety. The theme among foreign businessmen here is they can work safely by basing their Iraq operations in Kurdistan rather than 320 km south in Baghdad. Yesterday’s bomb attack may force some to re-examine this theory.

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