ARBIL, 18 Jan 2007 (IRIN) - Unlike other parts of the country, the three-province autonomous northern region of Kurdistan is not the Iraq of roadside bombs and beheadings. It is relatively safe and well-protected by an experienced security force. Locals and foreigners alike can walk around freely and there is even an active nightlife.
"Have you seen the other parts of Iraq? It's spectacular. It's peaceful," states a website advertisement to lure tourists and investors to Kurdistan, which consists of Sulaymaniyah, Dahuk and Arbil provinces.
"Welcome to Iraqi Kurdistan where democracy has been practiced for over a decade. This is not a dream. It's the other Iraq," adds the advertisement.
However, not all Kurds are in accordance with the picture painted of their region by advertisements or politicians.
"If political parties in the government of Kurdistan do not invest in peace and prosperity for the interest of the people of Kurdistan, then they will face internal pressure from an angry people, which could lead to everything collapsing," Dr Azad Ahmed Qader, a retired political professor in Sulaimaniyah, said.
"There is no real democracy in Kurdistan. Press freedom is marginalised and people can't express opposing views about anything without fear of being jailed and tortured. Corruption is everywhere and the residents know that these politicians are just businessmen," Qader added.
One thing that all Kurds agree on is that the level of violence in the north is far lower than in other parts of the country.
A police officer, who spoke only on condition of anonymity as he was not authorised to talk to media, said Kurdistan has witnessed just 10 bomb blasts since the US-led occupation of Iraq began in 2003. He added that 60 civilians had been killed and about 100 others wounded since then.
Over the past three years, there have been just three violent incidents in Arbil, two in Sulaimaniyah and five in Dahuk. All these attacks were directed against political party headquarters and army and police checkpoints and patrols.
Poor basic services
While a far cry from the mayhem and bloodshed that typify a day in the Iraqi capital, Baghdad, or other restive regions of the country, the northern Iraqi provinces that make up Kurdistan continue to suffer poor basic services.
Qadir Hama Jam, director of Sulaimaniyah municipality, said that local authorities in Kurdistan are struggling to keep up with the huge amount of development that is ongoing in that region. "We were not ready for this quick development and because of that we still have problems with electricity, roads, water treatment and other services," Jam said.
"But we are working on meeting all the needs of the people and of industrial projects by signing contracts with Iran to supply electricity. We are also trying to invite international companies to improve other services," he added.
Kurdistan has flourished in many ways since it came under US-British protection in 1991 to stop a brutal crackdown on the Kurds by former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein's army after the first Gulf War.
Since then, following a popular uprising against Saddam's government, Iraq's Kurdish region was granted autonomy. But during its 15 years of self-rule, Kurdish authorities have been unable to provide adequate services to residents, say analysts.
In contrast to the rest of Iraq, hotels, offices, houses and apartment buildings are going up at a frenzied pace. Arbil and Sulaymaniyah boast new airports. Some of the Kurds, who are ethnically distinct from Iraq's majority Arabs, have been returning from exile. Even Arabs are moving in, many of them professionals escaping from the violence and crime that afflict many parts of the south.
"Despite all that, most of the residents [in Kurdistan] still depend on wells for their water needs and private generators for electricity. The government provides electricity for just two hours a day," said Ahmed Haj Ali, a spokesman for the Kurdish Institution for Human Rights Studies, a Kurdish NGO.
"Still, roads and basic services are poor. Not all Kurds feel they will get a fair share of the new wealth from northern Iraq's oil fields and other businesses. On the outskirts of Arbil, for example, people live without running water or electricity," Ali added.
Ali said that local doctors always complain that hospitals lack modern medical equipment and essential medicines. Roughly 90 percent of the city's roads remain unpaved.
Like many other people, Mohmmed Serwan Hewa, a 28-year-old taxi driver from Arbil, is tired of having only two hours of electricity a day, having no fuel to run his car and no other basic services.
"Kurdish politicians are the only ones who benefit from this. They are making money and we are suffering. We are Kurds like them and no-one is better than any other," said Hewa.
"They [Kurdish politicians] were pretending to fight for Kurdistan people but they are turning a blind eye to our suffering and care only about their interests and how to fill their pockets with money," he added.
Kurdistan also has a displacement problem.
Mazin Abdullah Salom, a spokesman for the Iraqi Red Crescent in Baghdad, said there were just over 100,000 displaced people, about 17,000 families, including Kurdish and Arab, in Kurdistan.
"Some of these displaced families, especially the Arab families who came from Iraq's other provinces, are staying in houses or with their relatives. But others are staying in schools and some in abandoned buildings or in camps," said Salom, who recently visited Kurdistan to asses the situation of the internally displaced people (IDPs).
"Our main obstacle is that the IDPs are scattered in many places and some of them do not tell us where they are. This makes it difficult for them to get many things like blankets, fuel, cooking pots and heaters," he added.
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