The Other Iraq

by yuri Kozyrev

Iraqi Kurdistan, Sulaymaniyah, May 2015. Though the battle lines are less than three hours away, many Kurds insist family picnics must carry on.

Iraqi Kurdistan, Sulaymaniyah, May 2015. Though the battle lines are less than three hours away, many Kurds insist family picnics must carry on.

Since 2003, Kurds have developed a parallel state. It has been the most stable place in an unstable country. 

Iraq’s Kurds are independent in all but name. 

Technically, Kurdistan is inside Iraq but the Kurds who live there behave as if they already live in a separate state. Kurds have their own prime minister, parliament, national anthem, flag, and their own 175,000-man Army, the pesh merga, which means “those who face death”. And the majority of Kurds will tell you they want nothing to do with Baghdad and the rest of Iraq. Why would they when they’re doing just fine on their own?

Since 2003, Kurds have developed a parallel state. It has been the most stable place in an unstable country. It seemed an island of prosperity and stability, even as the rest of Iraq was effected by violence following the American invasion.

Iraqi Kurdistan, Erbil, September 2015, Peshmerga returning from the front line wait for a lift on the outskirts of Erbil. Behind them looms a skyline of unfinished buildings, a reminder of a more hopeful era. "We haven't been paid in months," says one soldier. "It doesn't matter. We would all die for Kurdistan."

Iraqi Kurdistan, Erbil, September 2015, Peshmerga returning from the front line wait for a lift on the outskirts of Erbil. Behind them looms a skyline of unfinished buildings, a reminder of a more hopeful era. "We haven't been paid in months," says one soldier. "It doesn't matter. We would all die for Kurdistan."

Iraqi Kurdistan, Jalawia, September 2015, Acting Mayor of Jalawla, a town at the tip of Diyala province, stands in the ruins of his town. His family home was destroyed by ISIS and much of the town suffers the damage of the battle to push ISIS from Jalawla in late 2014. Despite being free of ISIS, the residents of Jalawla aren't allowed back and the town is still strewn with IEDs.

Iraqi Kurdistan, Jalawia, September 2015, Acting Mayor of Jalawla, a town at the tip of Diyala province, stands in the ruins of his town. His family home was destroyed by ISIS and much of the town suffers the damage of the battle to push ISIS from Jalawla in late 2014. Despite being free of ISIS, the residents of Jalawla aren't allowed back and the town is still strewn with IEDs.

Iraqi Kurdistan, Erbil, October 2015, Revelers raise beers at Bar 52, a nightspot popular with foreigners. The city has enjoyed an oil boom in recent years, attracting many expatriates. Some locals now complain there are too many bars and clubs.

Iraqi Kurdistan, Erbil, October 2015, Revelers raise beers at Bar 52, a nightspot popular with foreigners. The city has enjoyed an oil boom in recent years, attracting many expatriates. Some locals now complain there are too many bars and clubs.

"We can study hard, but there is war," says one student. "Maybe all our work achieves nothing."

There are more cranes in Erbil than minarets. There are luxury hotels, malls with thousands shops, apartment complex known as “Dream City,” in which some of the units are being sold for $1 million. The recent surge by ISIS, a drop in oil prices and the disputes with Baghdad, have taken a toll on the Kurdish economy.

Iraqi Kurdistan exists in dangerous surroundings. But that has been the case since 1991, when it first got extreme autonomy. Since then, it has steadily entrenched itself as the rest of Iraq has fallen apart, especially after IS grabbed a chunk of it. 

Iraqi Kurdistan, Sulaymaniyah, May 2015, Female Peshmerga belonging to the PUK train at a base outside Slemani. Many of them join the force seeking safety from abusive family relationships; others join to defend Kurdistan from ISIS.

Iraqi Kurdistan, Sulaymaniyah, May 2015, Female Peshmerga belonging to the PUK train at a base outside Slemani. Many of them join the force seeking safety from abusive family relationships; others join to defend Kurdistan from ISIS.

Iraqi Kurdistan, Kirkuk, April 2015, Kurdish troops called Peshmerga play volleyball behind the front lines. When ISIS fighters, whose ranks are believed to include former Iraqi Army officers, began capturing Iraqi towns in 2014, the peshmerga proved one of the only forces able to stop them.

Iraqi Kurdistan, Kirkuk, April 2015, Kurdish troops called Peshmerga play volleyball behind the front lines. When ISIS fighters, whose ranks are believed to include former Iraqi Army officers, began capturing Iraqi towns in 2014, the peshmerga proved one of the only forces able to stop them.

Iraqi Kurdistan Kabarto 2 Refugee Camp, October 2015, A girl watches as a daughter (right), her mother (center), and sister-in-law are photographed with their faces concealed. The women are Yazidis, an ethnic Kurdish minority. The daughter and sister-in-law say they were forced to marry ISIS fighters before escaping to a refugee camp in Kurdistan. To get away, the daughter leaped from a second-floor window. "I didn't believe I would survive," she says.

Iraqi Kurdistan Kabarto 2 Refugee Camp, October 2015, A girl watches as a daughter (right), her mother (center), and sister-in-law are photographed with their faces concealed. The women are Yazidis, an ethnic Kurdish minority. The daughter and sister-in-law say they were forced to marry ISIS fighters before escaping to a refugee camp in Kurdistan. To get away, the daughter leaped from a second-floor window. "I didn't believe I would survive," she says.

The political map of northern Iraq has changed since the Islamic State invaded Mosul, Iraq’s second city. Kurdish forces are now in full control of Kirkuk and Sinjar and have claimed control of hundred kilometers of land that had been under control of Iraq.

For the Kurds, the new reality has amounted to a paradox: the whole world wants the Kurds to fight ISIS, but the Kurds themselves mostly just want to secure Kurdistan.

Under the threat of ISIS, the Kurds appear remarkably united in their eagerness for an independent state.

Iraqi Kurdistan, Sulaymaniyah, September 2015, The view of the city from the northeastern Goyje Mountain.

Iraqi Kurdistan, Sulaymaniyah, September 2015, The view of the city from the northeastern Goyje Mountain.


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