Monday, January 20, 2014

Welcome 2014!

Snow in the mountains outside of Sulaimaniya
I know, I know, I'm just about the worst blogger in the world.  Posting a new blog is always on my "to-do" list but with everything else on the list, a new post invariably falls to the bottom and before I know it, months have passed (this time, more than 2 1/2 months!).  All is well here in Northern Iraq, though there have been a few failed IED's aimed at members of the Peshmerga (Kurdistan's armed fighters) in my hometown of Sulaimaniya.  And of course, things in Southern Iraq continue to deteriorate not only with daily car bombings and other terrorist activities in Baghdad and elsewhere, but also from new dangers.  As widely reported, militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), an offshoot of Al Qaeda, are battling the Iraqi army to control Fallujah, Ramadi and other areas of Anbar province. 
Welcome to Kurdistan
There is a terrible sense of deja vu about this latest wave of violence. First, as many as 70,000 people may have been displaced, with an estimated 14,000 Iraqis having crossed into the semi-autonomous Kurdish region in the past week after fleeing their homes in Anbar province to escape fighting that broke out at the end of December among government troops, tribal leaders and Islamist insurgents. Second, Anbar province was at the heart of the insurgency against US troops and this latest influx of IDPs (internally displaced persons) adds to the existing 1.13 million who were displaced inside Iraq during the sectarian violence of 2006 to 2008.   
Arbat refugee camp
Already overtaxed from hosting more than 200,000 refugees from Syria, the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) is working with aid agencies to prepare a temporary holding camp for IDPs arriving from Anbar.   Many of the Syrian refugees are also living in a temporary refugee camp at Arbat.  Although the permanent camp was scheduled to open by now, it has not and so in addition to dealing with all the other hardships they face, refugees are now living through the winter in tents that were undoubtedly made for summer, in areas that become a sea of mud after the rains that come at this time of year. 
View from 5-star hotel in Erbil
Nevertheless, Kurdistan continues to thrive -- and things should only get better economically following the KRG’s announcement on January 8 that oil has begun flowing to Turkey. The federal government of Iraq continues to condemn this unilateral agreement between Turkey and the KRG but has its hands full with, among other things, the situation in Anbar Province.  However, both the KRG and Al Maliki's government have reasons to resolve their differences.  As noted by one security analyst, "given that both oil rights and Iraq’s portion to the KRG national budget remain major points of contention between Erbil (the capital of Kurdistan) and Baghdad, Erbil is likely to make efforts to find a solution, while Baghdad similarly maintains a vested interest in resolving outstanding issues in order to increase general state revenues."   The bottom line is that the phenomenal growth in the Kurdistan region will continue, at least in the urban areas. Each time I visit the Erbil (which is once or twice a month), it seems as if hundreds of more apartments, shopping malls, homes and hotels are under construction.  The same is true in the city in which I live, Sulaimaniya, though to a lesser extent.  Yet Kurdistan remains a country full of contrasts -- modern cities alongside rural villages that seem to be lost in time.  
Kurdish Countryside
As the new year starts, I continue to marvel at how incredibly fortunate I am to call this beautiful region my home.  And I wish you, your family and friends a healthy, happy and prosperous 2014.