Michael Rubin recently spent nine months as a visiting professor at Northern Iraq's three universities. Originally from Philadelphia, he graduated from Yale College in 1994 and received his Ph.D. in history from Yale in 1999. His book, Into the Shadows, has just been published by The Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He is a fellow at TWI and at the Carnegie Council in Ethics and International Affairs. He spoke in New York on Tuesday, July 10, 2001.
Life in Free Iraq
I had the unusual opportunity to spend nine months in Northern Iraq, where I lived and observed with practically no interference. I entered without an Iraqi visa, so I did not have to rely on Saddam Husayn.
While the large portion of Iraq under Saddam Husayn's control closely monitors foreigners, the North is fairly open. I walked around unescorted and, on occasion, shucked my driver and drove myself around. This way I could really see what I wanted and talk to whom I wanted.
For five months I lived in Sulaymaniyah, a highly developed city of about a half-million people and one of the three major cities of northern Iraq; it is the site of the University of Northern Iraq and home to the University of Sulaymaniyah. I had a chance to integrate myself into the routine of a normal Iraqi life. On some mornings I would wake up at about 5:30 am, and along with fellow university faculty, businessmen and doctors from the hospital, head to the local park to play a pickup game of soccer, which was followed by a breakfast, sometimes boiled sheep's skull. During days off we could go hiking or mountain climbing. At night we often would go to country clubs to relax, not necessarily divided by gender. Such habits reflect not just the elite of the population, but a majority of the people. I even played Playstation (the video game) with my guards and my students.
Of the approximately 3.5 to 4 million people living in Northern Iraq, 80 percent are Kurdish Muslims, 5 percent are Turkmens, and the rest are spread among various small groups.
The North enjoys freedom of speech and access to various forms of media. On television, the channels of the two major Kurdish political parties and some foreign stations from the BBC, Turkey, Iran and even Israel are available. Newspapers can be obtained from all parties and factions from the entirety of Iraq. There are also a number of computer classes being taught in the schools. Internet cafes have proliferated. To compare, there are only five Internet cafes in Baghdad which are under tight control and to which only member of Saddam's family and political party or other privileged folk have access. In Sulaymaniyah there are about twenty-four Internet cafes, not including the University. The northern Iraqi "safe haven" was created in 1991, responding to the flood of Kurdish refugees leaving Saddam Husayn's Iraq out of fear of a repeat of his chemical weapons attacks on civilians.
As a result, northern Iraq has been completely independent of Saddam Husayn's control since 1991. There are some fifteen political parties, with two dominant ones, the PUK (the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan) and the KDP (the Kurdistan Democratic Party). They have basically run things over the decade. Because the North suffers from the same sanctions as Saddam Husayn's portion of the country -- despite its acceptable political situation and its full compliance with the United Nations -- it offers a perfect way to assess the responsibility for the South's problems. We can compare the effects of the economic sanctions on two separate regions under two very different powers.
The Prosperity of Northern Iraq
Surprisingly, the sanctions have done more to help northern Iraq's advancement than to hurt it. Sanctions have brought for the first time in its history, a share of Iraq's oil revenue equal to the region's percentage of the total Iraqi population, which is 13 percent. This influx of money has permitted the North to develop, with new schools built, roads paved, telephone service implemented, and medical clinics well stocked.
The local supermarket is packed with everything a person could possibly need, including Haagen-Dazs ice cream. In my entire time there I have seen no one go hungry, though many people remain in dire poverty. Children that went barefoot three years ago now have shoes thanks to the influx of oil-for-food program money.
While foreign investment has been growing from ethnic Kurdish individuals in Sweden, Germany, and England, serious investment cannot happen unless people have a guarantee as to the future safety of northern Iraq from Saddam Husayn.
In the ten years since sanctions began, the number of cars has quadrupled in the city of Sulaymaniyah. While a neighboring country like Iran, (which many people consider to be richer than Iraq), has cars consisting mostly of 1970-era Chevys, northern Iraq has high-quality used BMWs, Mercedes, and Volvos from the mid 1990s. Open markets are flourishing everywhere, and you can find anything you could want in them. The people of northern Iraq also eat more meat on a regular basis than those in Iran and in many other Arab countries.
Sanctions can get in the way. For example, the authorities in the North lack control over the money allotted to them from the oil revenue. Before they can receive the money, the Kurdish parties must submit proposals to the United Nations on how it will be spent, providing lists of orders. Items not ordered will not arrive until the following ordering period. Thus, when hospitals run low on medical supplies, they have to be bought on the black market, with 50 percent of the drugs coming from Turkey, 30 percent from Iran, and about 20 percent from -- get this -- the U.N. warehouses in Baghdad, sold by guards or Iraqi officials on the side for personal profit.
Even with sanctions, Iraq remains a wealthier country (in terms of GDP) than other Middle Eastern countries, such as Syria and Yemen. This prosperity is much more apparent in the democratic safe haven than in the Iraq of Saddam. In all, compared to the rest of the Middle East, with the exception of Turkey and Israel, northern Iraq is a political utopia. A comparison with the North makes clear that Saddam's Iraq has decayed not because of the sanctions but because the dictator who runs that region has no desire to work with them. Rather, he has used them as a scapegoat on which to blame the poor condition of his people. Sanctions are not the problem; Saddam's cynical refusal to feed his people is.
Reactions to US Policy
Among Kurds, there is a high level of frustration with U.S. policy towards Iraq. Despite removing Saddam's army from Kuwait, the United States stopped short of removing him from power, something many Iraqis are still angry about today. Looking to the future, Kurds know from experience that Saddam views negotiations not as a way to find a compromise but as a means to further his own agenda. Any compromise with Saddam is just appeasement. They also know he responds only to clear and intimidating messages from the United States. After the election victory of George W. Bush, the people of northern Iraq believed the new administration would be tougher in its dealings with Saddam. Iraqi's in both the North and the area under Saddam were overjoyed at the February 16 bombing of targets south of Baghdad; and then were astonished to see the US backtracking and trying to appease Saddam. At the least, they want the U.S. government to be clear about its intentions and to support the administrations in northern Iraq.
Iraqi troops are terribly demoralized: after they briefly occupied a city in the safe haven, British and U.S. planes flew low overhead, causing Iraqi troops to throw down their weapons and surrender. If northern Iraq could get serious air support from the United States, Iraqis say the Iraqi army would likely surrender, defect or rebel. Simply put, Iraqis say they do not want to die for Saddam.
With "smart sanctions" the United Nations is trying to expedite the approval process for civilian goods so as to take away Saddam's ability to blame the sanctions for the poverty of Iraqis. I don't believe this will work because no sanctions have so far worked as they are supposed to in theory. Without dealing with the root cause of suffering-Saddam-the problem will not be resolved. After all, smart sanctions do not force Saddam to feed his people, so Saddam's propaganda platform will remain unchallenged.
Why do the sanctions against the North persist? Because of regional politics. The only way to end sanctions in the North and continue them in the rest of Iraq is by declaring special status for the North, which worries many in the region who feel Iraq might then split apart, something of which neighboring countries are extremely wary. The U.S. government did not want to take responsibility for the breakup of Iraq after Operation Desert Storm, and it continues to be vague in its goals for Iraq. The Kurds themselves, many of them patriotic veterans of the Iraqi Army do not wish to split from Iraq; they do want a federal, unified and democratic Iraq. Their only problem is with Saddam Husayn himself. Until he is removed, nothing can proceed.
Summary account by an intern at the Middle East Forum.