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Archive for Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Kurdistan sets example for the Mideast

February 20, 2008

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— Aside from the obvious benefit of dethroning former dictator Saddam Hussein, the U.S.-led intervention in Iraq - which is rapidly approaching its fifth anniversary - has prompted more questions than answers for most Americans.

In one part of Iraq, though, the Kurdistan region, the way forward has never been clearer, as I learned last week during a detailed briefing here by high-level insiders. Quite frankly, the nation's northern realm - popularly known as "the other Iraq" or "the Iraq that works" - provides ongoing inspiration not only for the rest of the country but the entire Middle East.

In the interest of appropriate disclosure, let me state up front that the university where I spend most of my time is shaping a Kurdish political studies emphasis, and I have been active in its development. But my belief in soaring possibilities for Kurdistan predates that program by several years, and my general interest in the Kurds goes back more than two decades.

One cannot help being impressed by the Kurds, famously known as a stateless people who have waged a long, lonely struggle for recognition and acceptance, all the while maintaining their dignity, spirit and optimism.

Kurds in Kurdistan have taken a further step: the establishment of a rare system in the Middle East, one with increasingly democratic features and an economy based on free-market principles. It is worth underscoring that the 2003 U.S.-led intervention did not generate Kurdistan's advance. The region has enjoyed substantial autonomy and witnessed a good measure of progress since the early 1990s. Of course, change in Kurdistan certainly has gained momentum in the aftermath of Saddam's demise.

From the post-war construction of new international airports in the capital city of Erbil and Sulaimania to the widespread, rapid sprouting of new homes and businesses, Kurdistan is on the move, driven by hefty oil and gas reserves and growing agricultural prowess. A newly released book, "The Kurdistan Region: Invest in the Future," offers more details.

Although "The Kurdistan Region" - and the briefing, for that matter - is designed primarily to attract investment, it also presents useful insights into Kurdish history, culture and politics. If one's interests extend to education, as mine do, the book yields interesting information, such as the fact that two of Kurdistan's seven universities teach exclusively in English.

Now, if the preceding is too much for the skeptics, let me hasten to add that a stable and secure future for Kurdistan is not a foregone conclusion. Getting there will require a strenuous effort and consistently expanding ties with the outside world. Also, as much as Kurdistan rightfully touts an enviable record of security, it cannot escape its rough neighborhood. The specter of instability casts an unmistakable shadow from elsewhere in Iraq and the surrounding region.

Moreover, Kurdistan itself, as its leaders willingly admit, is very much a work in progress. It remains an emerging civil society, where fundamentals such as human rights, press freedom and political pluralism have yet to take their full and proper place.

Kurdistan is, however, distinguished by its practice of deliberate tolerance toward opposing beliefs and opinions. Blend in a can-do attitude and abundant resources, and it is easy to see why the Kurds have reason to bet on long-term success in "the other Iraq," the one that works.

- John C. Bersia, who won a Pulitzer Prize in editorial writing for the Orlando Sentinel in 2000, is the special assistant to the president for global perspectives at the University of Central Florida.

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