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Kurdistan: The Other 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.

The Kurds are acting as if the end of Iraq is near. In many schools, English, not Arabic, is being taught as the second language.

The Kurds are very big on the trappings of statehood. It's as if they're eager to prove that they exist. They have their own 175,000-man Army, the pesh merga, which means "those who face death." When you arrive in Erbil, immigration officers give your passport a Kurdish stamp. And if you want to see the Iraqi flag, don't come to Kurdistan. It has been banned.

"Under that flag they destroyed our country, our people. So that's why our approach is to change that flag and have a new one," Prime Minister Barzani explains.

The new Kurdish flag is literally everywhere; but it's a flag without a country.

Like most Kurds, Dr. Ali Saed Mohammed, the president of Sulemaniya University, would like to change that, and soon.

"What would happen if tomorrow the prime minister of Kurdistan went before parliament and said I declare a state, an independent Kurdistan," Simon asks.

"This decision will be welcomed by 99.9 percent of the Kurds in Iraqi Kurdistan. We will say yes. We will back it," Dr. Mohammed says.

Dr. Mohammed wants the prime minister to take the step, preferably "tomorrow," he tells Simon.

But the Kurdish prime minister is not likely to push for complete independence. Not tomorrow. Not next year.

"Every Kurd we've spoken to since we've been here says, 'We're a separate country. We're Kurds. We don't want to be with Iraq,'" Simon remarks. "You're prime minister of this country."

"I think it's a right for every Kurd to say that. Because, really, they are different. They are a different nation, different people. So, but we have to be realistic," Barzani tells Simon.

"Being realistic means that the Iranians and the Turks and the Syrians would not be happy if you were to declare nationhood. Is that what you are saying, Sir?" Simon asks.

"Yeah, exactly. Our neighbors, they will create more problems for us," the prime minister explains.

The Kurds have a saying: no friends but the mountains. There are 30 million Kurds in the world, the largest nation without a state. But only five million reside inside Iraq's borders. The rest are in Iran, Syria and primarily Turkey. There are so many Kurds in Turkey that the Turks are afraid that an independent Kurdish state would lead to unrest; they are dead set against it.

So Kurdish leaders believe that, at least for the time being, the answer is federalism, a soft partition of Iraq into three parts. Kurdistan in the north, a Sunni state in the middle and a Shiite region to the south, with Baghdad as only a nominal capital.

While Barzani and Kurdistan may be paving the way for such a division, the American government doesn't want partition of any kind, no matter what it's called. The Bush administration and the U.S. military see Kurdistan not as a shining new nation but as a shining example to the rest of a united Iraq.

"I think if the Iraqis will simply look north and see what the possibilities are, and do not align themselves with the extremists they can see the great potential that this country has to be a prosperous nation," Maj. Gen. Mixon explains.

"But from the Kurdish point of view, they've got a going concern. Now they're at peace. They're making money. They're looking towards the future. They look to the rest of Iraq and they see chaos. They see bloodshed. They see civil war. Why shouldn't they try to remain separate?" Simon asks.

"I believe that to their long-term interest, it's better to stay linked with Iraq and all the resources that are available throughout Iraq and it makes them stronger," Mixon says.

Many Kurds believe the Americans are missing the point. A separate Kurdistan, they say, would make for something extremely unusual: an American ally in the Middle East.

"The Kurds will be the best friends in the region," Dr. Mohammed says. "Even better than Israel, I am sure of that. We will be the best friends for the Americans in this region. We will be faithful."

Dr. Mohammed does not view the war as a U.S. invasion. "It is liberation. Americans liberated Iraqi people from dictatorship," he tells Simon.

It is a sentiment echoed in, of all places, a mosque. Like Iraqi Arabs, Kurds are Muslims. But this is surely the only Islamic part of the Middle East where you'll hear kind words about America after Friday prayers.

"Can America think of Kurdistan as an ally, as a friend?" Simon asked a man.

"We were always with Americans. We even love America. But we are waiting for America to repay our love," the man replied.

The Kurds may have to wait a long time because for the U.S. military there is another overwhelming reason to keep the Kurds inside Iraq: oil.

One of Iraq's largest oil fields sits just across Kurdistan's de facto border in an ethnically mixed city called Kirkuk. It is crucial to the future economic health of Iraq. The trouble is the Kurds say Kirkuk historically belongs to them. And this year there will be a referendum asking Kirkuk's citizens if they want to join Kurdistan.

Asked why Kirkuk is so important, Prime Minister Barzani says, "It's Kurdistan. If you go back to history, any fight between Kurds and Baghdad is over Kirkuk."

If the Kurds win the referendum, and they are favored to do so, many fear Iraqi Arabs could turn Kirkuk into an inferno.

"They will not be happy of course. They will create problems by bombing at cars. And, the usual things which they do every day. They blow up mosques. Why not ordinary people?" Dr. Mohammed remarks.

The Kurds are all too familiar with violence, Iraqi style. They have a tradition of tragedy, none more brutal than the blow that came down in a matter of minutes one bloody Friday in 1988.

Some 5,000 Kurds were gassed by Saddam's army at a place called Halabja; those images are remembered today on murals. Many Kurds say you'll never understand Kurdish yearnings for the future if you haven't seen the brutality of its past.

Ahmed Gilani, who returned to Kurdistan from Texas, knows first-hand: his father was executed. "By Saddam's regime…till today they never told us what the reason was. Thankfully unlike some of the people, we got his body back," he tells Simon.

Gilani was six years old when his father was murdered. Two months after the execution, his family was told to come and pick up the body.

"Just like that. And they charge you for the bullets," he remembers.

It is memories like that which provide the motor for a giant security trench which the Kurds are building along their border.

"We don't trust the Arabs. The same tragedies might happen again. And that's why I say the Kurds should have their free state," explains Dr. Mohammed.

Free state? Not yet. Free market? Right here. While in the rest of Iraq they're counting bodies, the Kurds are counting their money. Gleaming shopping centers are sprouting up from the sand. One sports an escalator, the first in Kurdistan.

There are plans for an American University, not surprising since there is a strong desire to have it the American way.

Well, almost. During Simon's visit, what seemed ordinary was hailed as a momentous event: an Austrian Airlines flight arrived in Erbil, the first landing by a Western carrier in any part of Iraq since the start of the war.

"Can you imagine having an American airline flying directly from New York to Erbil?" Simon asks Barzani.

"Why not? Yeah, why not?" the prime minister replies.

Asked if he thinks this could happen in the near future, Barzani says, "I mean I don't know near future. But, I'm sure it will happen."

And Kurds are starting to believe the same could be said for their hopes of an independent Kurdistan. History's perennial losers could turn out to be the winners of this war.

"Do you ever feel like you're dreaming?" Simon asks Dr. Mohammed.

"Well, sometimes dreams come true," he replies. "I hope my dream will come true. Will be a reality. Why not?"

Kurdistan, however, is not completely immune from the violence that has rocked the rest of Iraq. In May, a car bomb killed 19 people in Erbil. It was the first attack inside Kurdistan in two years.
Produced By Draggan Mihailovich
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