Middle East

Iraq 10 years on: Good times in Kurdish Irbil

A street scene in Irbil
Image caption The city has changed dramatically

In the troubled security and political landscape of Iraq, the autonomous northern province of Kurdistan has emerged in the past 10 years as an inspiring success story.

The region's progress is on full display in its capital city of Irbil, some 400km (249 miles) north of Baghdad.

Iraqi Kurds, roughly estimated at five million, have stunningly rebuilt a dirt-poor and traumatised society from scratch since they gained their autonomy in 1991.

Irbil is unmatched by any other city in post-Saddam Iraq and is prospering like no other part of the country.

'Zero worry'

"We have turned Irbil from a run-down and shabby place into a little Dubai," Mahmoud Othman, an MP for the Kurdish Alliance, said proudly.

The skyline of the city, famous for its citadel and ancient monuments, is changing rapidly, with new hotels being built to accommodate visitors form Iraq and beyond.

Irbil has a glittering airport, European-styled traffic lights, well-paved roads and highly functional infrastructure.

"It is the safest place in the whole of Iraq and Irbil has been named the 2014 tourism capital of the year [by the Arab Council of Tourism]," Mr Othman added, a smile breaking out on his face.

"We have flourished because we are no longer run with an iron fist or fear."

"Investment is very, very lucrative in Iraq Kurdistan," said Tony Abu Nakad, a Lebanese investor whom I met in the lobby of his luxury hotel.

"In Irbil, you have zero worry. As a businessman, you don't have to be preoccupied with the security hassle in other cities like Baghdad."

Newly discovered oil has fuelled the economic prosperity.

Kurdish officials predict that Kurdistan could surpass Libya's output by 2019 by producing 2m barrels per day, putting it in the list of oil-producing giants.

But oil is a mixed blessing. It has strained relations with Iraq's central government in Baghdad as there is no agreement on how to share revenues.

Kurdish dream

The Kurds have angered Baghdad by striking lucrative contracts with dozens of oil companies. Baghdad calls such contracts illegal.

The President of Iraqi Kurdistan, Massoud Barzani, hinted last month that the region could seek full independence if disputes over oil revenues and oil-rich territories like the city of Kirkuk were not resolved.

But what is not independent about Iraq Kurdistan today?

The region has its own flag, parliament, government, president, powerful armed forces and its own language.

Image caption Irbil has a rich architectural history

Most of the young Iraqi Kurds, like Tazreen Zaman, a 21-year-old with a degree in accounting from the prestigious Saladin University, do not speak Arabic even as a second language.

"I was more keen on learning English than Arabic because English is a global language and can secure me a decent job in such a competitive market," she told me in impeccable English.

The Kurds are sticking hard to their identity and their mother tongue.

When Shiwan Ismail learnt I was Egyptian, however, he switched to Arabic, which is not widely spoken across Iraq Kurdistan.

"Our heritage is our only asset," said the 65-year-old, who wears traditional Kurdish costume, never out of fashion in Irbil.

It has long been the Kurdish dream to establish "Greater Kurdistan", a land connecting the Kurdish-inhabited areas of Iran, Iraq, Turkey and Syria.

"It is shame that a nation like us with a total population of 40 million people in the diaspora does not have a homeland," said Mr Othman.

But Turkey and Iran remain opposed to an independent Kurdish state.

"I know it is unrealistic to seek independence because we don't want war," said the Kurdish MP. "Greater Kurdistan is still a fantasy but we will not give up our dream."