Iraqi Kurdistan: State-in-the-making?

Chavy Land amusement park, Sulaymaniyah Life in Iraqi Kurdistan is a world apart from the daily violence afflicting other parts of the country

Wherever you are in the world it takes nerve to invest in the amusement park industry - roller coasters can go down as well as up.

But the Chavy Land Park in the Iraqi-Kurdish city of Sulaymaniyah offers a particularly challenging balance of risk and reward.

On the one hand there isn't much competition for the leisure dollar in the Iraqi tourism industry - not yet at least.

On the other, the violence and chaos of the last few decades is still a painfully recent memory.

You get an echo of that in the recorded announcement at the gate which reminds you that you're not allowed to bring weapons into the park.

But Chavy Land is an impressive achievement.

The neon lights of an imposing Ferris Wheel and an eye-wateringly high roller coaster gleam against the inky night sky like precious stones on a jeweller's cushion.

A haven of peace

It is attracting Iraqis from southern cities like Baghdad and Basra. Slowly the Kurdish region of Northern Iraq has already established a reputation for being more stable and more secure than the rest of the country.

It's beginning to look as though the Kurdish people of the region are quietly working to build a new nation-state here which would represent a challenge to the boundaries and borders created by the Great Powers at the end of World War One.

Hassan Mohamed Darner, chief executive of Chavy Land is in no doubt: "The Northern part of Iraq is... Kurdistan," he says proudly. "It's safe - people come here to study and they come here to trade."

People sitting in Irbil square with fountains and backdrop The main square in Irbil

Asked if the rest of the world should go ahead and grant Iraqi Kurdistan official diplomatic recognition he says simply, "Yes, definitely. And they should do it now."

It's certainly true that this is a time of renewed upheaval in the Middle East but the change is not yet on the scale of the deal-making and nation-building that followed the Great War.

Start Quote

The Kurds as a nationality have now re-appeared on the world stage. They're undoing Sykes-Picot for themselves”

End Quote Soli Ozel Political scientist

The Kurds emerged as losers from that process, specifically because a secret carve-up between Britain and France called the Sykes-Picot agreement, made no provision for an independent Kurdish state.

They were divided between Syria and Turkey, Iran and Iraq - a tough diplomatic neighbourhood in which to nurse forbidden dreams of statehood.

There is no doubt that the chaos in modern Iraq and the weakness of the federal government in faraway Baghdad presents the Iraqi Kurds, at least, with an opportunity to take their regional autonomy and quietly turn it into something more.

Every round of sectarian violence in the rest of the country - like the car-bombings at the weekend which killed at least 50 people - underlines that weakness and deepens Kurdish resolve.

'New rules'

The Turkish political scientist Soli Ozel offers this judgement on the importance of this moment in the Middle East.

"For all intents and purposes," he argues, "they have their own state in Northern Iraq and they're likely to have some kind of autonomous zone in Syria.

Map showing the Kurdish inhabited areas on the borders of Iran, Iraq, Turkey, Syria and Armenia

Therefore the Kurds as a nationality have now re-appeared on the world stage. They're undoing Sykes-Picot for themselves."

On this changing political landscape it feels as though everyone is learning the rules of a new game.

Turkey, for example, fought for decades to crush an armed Kurdish insurgency within its borders and as part of a kind of cultural war it tried to ban the very word "Kurd", preferring the ludicrous 'Mountain Turk' instead.

Turkish operations have in the past included incursions into neighbouring Iraqi Kurdistan which it's accused of providing safe havens for the Kurdish fighters.

But Turkey is also Iraqi Kurdistan's most important trading partner - buying its oil and gas and investing heavily in its construction boom.

The relationship works - for the moment - because each side has something that the other needs.

But there is clearly an underlying tension there too.

United Kurdistan?

Many Kurds still harbour the dream of a homeland which unites the Kurdish elements of Turkey, Syria and Iran as well as Iraq - although they're pragmatic enough to recognise that as no more than a distant pipe dream.

Turkish support will only continue as long as the aspirations to nation-building are strictly confined to Iraqi Kurdistan.

The regional government in the capital Irbil is playing its cards skilfully.

Badge showing flag of Iraqi Kurdistan The new flag of Iraqi Kurdistan offering a brighter future for Kurds

Hemin Hawrami from the country's largest political party, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), says its all a matter of balancing those long-term political dreams against the practical diplomatic realities of the moment.

"If you ask any Kurd whether they want to have an independent Kurdistan, definitely you will get the answer 'Yes'," he told me. "But Kurdistan's strategy is to pursue this path in a peaceful way. We don't want to be the reason for the break-up of Iraq."

Of course you don't have to be a political genius to spot that that leaves open the possibility that they'd be pleased enough if Iraq broke up for other reasons.

For now, it feels as though Iraqi Kurdistan believes it can work on building a new nation-state as long as it doesn't say out loud that it is building a new nation state.

It takes in refugees - mostly fellow Kurds - from neighbouring Syria. It has its own flag, anthem and armed forces, and most importantly of all, it has oil.

oil refinery Irbil oil refinery - a powerful currency for Iraqi Kurdistan

A new pipeline is being built to take Kurdish oil to Turkey although it's impossible for an outsider to establish if that's going to be a joint project with the rest of Iraq or an independent pipeline with oil going direct to Turkey and money coming direct to Irbil.

However that issue is decided, you get a clear sense that in Iraqi Kurdistan there is suddenly a renewed energy to the old dream of statehood.

But it's a dream which is struggling to come to life at a difficult time in a dangerous region.

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