Kurdistan: The Other Iraq

<b>Bob Simon</b> On How The Kurds Are Reshaping Northeastern Iraq

This segment was originally broadcast on Feb. 18, 2007. It was updated on Aug. 3, 2007.

Try to imagine a peaceful and stable Iraq where business is booming and Americans are beloved. Now open your eyes because 60 Minutes is going to take you to a part of Iraq which fits that description: it's called Kurdistan.

Technically, it's inside Iraq but the Kurds who live there behave as if they already live in a separate state. As correspondent Bob Simon reports, they have their own prime minister, their own army, their own border patrol—even their own flag. And the overwhelming majority of Kurds will tell you they want nothing to do with Baghdad and the rest of Iraq.

And why would they after the brutal way Iraqis under Saddam treated them in the past? Why would they when they're doing just fine on their own?

When visiting Kurdistan, one can see nation-building wherever one looks—Kurds are building their country day by day. There are more cranes here than minarets and there's a run on cement. A new mall with 8,000 shops and stalls is going up. So is an apartment complex known as "Dream City," in which some of the units are selling for $1 million. A giant bowling alley is almost finished, and an opera house is not far behind. What's behind the boom? Security.

Kurds are quick to remind you that they are not Arabs and there is a de facto border between Kurdistan, which is in the northeast corner of Iraq and the rest of Iraq. Arab insurgents who want to slip into Kurdistan must get past hundreds of Kurdish checkpoints. And distinct from much of Iraq, the security forces in Kurdistan are disciplined and loyal. And they're all Kurds. There are no ethnic divisions here, so the violence stays on the other side of the border.

Asked how many American soldiers have been killed in the Kurdish-controlled area since the beginning of the war, Nechervan Barzani, the 40-year-old prime minister of what is officially called the Kurdistan Regional Government, tells Simon, "No one."

Major General Benjamin Mixon is the commanding officer for American forces in northern Iraq and Kurdistan, 20,000 in all.

Mixon tells Simon there are only 60 to 70 U.S. troops stationed in the Kurdish areas. "There's no need for American forces up there because of the nature of the situation," he explains.

"I guess compared to being stationed in the rest of Iraq, it's pretty good duty," Simon remarks.

"It's good duty. I've been up there. I enjoy going up there," the major general tells Simon.

60 Minutes wanted to test the security situation, so one Saturday morning Simon and the team dropped by the main market in Erbil, the self-styled capital of Kurdistan, just 40 miles from the rest of Iraq. The only disagreements here were about prices.

Just how safe is it? Simon, an American, strolled through the market in his shirtsleeves, without wearing the flack jackets reporters often have to wear in other parts of Iraq.

In any other part of Iraq, walking down the street like this would be patently suicidal. But the point is as far as people here are concerned this is not another part of Iraq—it's not Iraq at all. You may not be able to find it on a map but it is, Kurds will tell you, another country.

Asked if they were in Iraq right now, a student told Simon, "I think that I'm in Kurdistan, not in Iraq."

The feeling is widely shared. From students at Sulemaniya University to Ahmed Gilani, a Kurdish American Simon met in a café in Erbil. He came to Kurdistan recently from Texas.

"When we see the fighting going on in Baghdad here, it's the same when I used to watch it on TV in, in the States. It feels like a totally separate country," Gilani says.

While Iraq is just 40 miles down the road, Simon acknowledges he feels perfectly safe in Erbil.

"There you go. Go to Baghdad. I don't think you'd feel the same way," Gilani remarks.