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Saints of the Shiite Muslims adorn rugs for sale in Erbil, capital of the Kurdish region in the far north of Iraq—and a place where most of the population is Sunni Muslim. In the 1980s Saddam Hussein persecuted Iraq's nearly six million Kurds—whatever their religion—killing tens of thousands and tearing countless families from their homes. Protected in the 1990s by an internationally enforced no-fly zone, the Kurds flourished. Now, under the leadership of Jalal Talabani, Iraq's first Kurdish president, they're helping to reshape the country—but with reservations. Polls show that what they really want is an independent country of their own.

The Nadirs lived just east of Suleimaniya's city center in a small stone house. It had a kitchen equipped with a wooden table and six chairs, and one bedroom shared by the two girls and their mother, Parwen. The rear of the house was occupied by a windowless living room where Mivan's five-year-old brother, Parosh, and Majid slept on a sofa and a folding cot. Majid and Parwen both worked six days a week, he as a mechanic, she as a road engineer. Fair-skinned and in her mid-40s, Parwen was a practicing Muslim, though like the majority of Kurds, she was resolutely moderate. "I'd like to go to Mecca if I can ever afford it, and make the hajj," she said. But she refused to cover her hair as many Muslim women do and shrugged when Majid described himself as indifferent to religion.

"Your own conscience is the most dependable judge of what is right or wrong, not something you hear in a mosque," he said. "If I had the money to travel, I'd use it to see Europe, or I'd go visit my brother in Hamilton, Ontario."

"My husband is a very clever guy. Do me a favor and take him to the U.S.A. with you," Parwen said, slapping Majid on the arm. They both laughed. In Kurdistan it's not unusual for women to speak their minds—or serve as military officers, government ministers, and engineers, like Parwen, presiding over men at construction sites. "What matters here isn't whether you are a man or a woman," Parwen said. "It's getting the job done well."

Getting the job done, whatever the sacrifice was manifestly the Nadirs' child-raising philosophy. They'd carefully budgeted for the computer equipment and books, in English and Kurdish, that filled one wall of the living room. Money had also been set aside for a larger home, closer to the private high school that Mivan attended, and that her ten-year-old sister, Avin, and Parosh were expected to attend in turn. Everything about their family life spoke eloquently of hope and aspiration. "I want to build things, like my mother," Mivan had said on the mountain.

At every turn in Kurdistan, I heard that word "build." I heard it from men like Majid, who'd had their fill of violence. It had the quality of a mantra among the young:"You can't build a nation with weapons," said Ranja Tahir, 20, an economics major at Suleimaniya University. And it was an outright article of faith among women. Even among women such as Feiza Majid Talabani, the Mata Hari of Kurdistan.

Feiza was an unlikely spy. Short, a bit round, and gregarious, she had jogged over to introduce herself at a peshmerga female officers' training base. We chatted while her fellow trainees fired practice rounds of rocket-propelled grenades.

She had been infiltrated into Kirkuk early in the 2003 war to unseat Saddam, a 25-year-old disguised as a fragile elderly woman, with a cell phone and miniature camera hidden under her robes. For a month, until the city fell under a joint Kurdish and American attack, she provided daily reports on Iraqi Army troop movements.

I asked if she'd been frightened. "We all only die once," Feiza answered, "and if you're a Kurd, death is near every day."

It was a Warrior's response—in Kurdish, peshmerga means "those who walk before death"—and I expected the rest of our conversation to be in the same militant vein. I was wrong. "You have to understand, I didn't join the army because I want to shoot people," she said. "It's because I believe women bring a different idea to an army's purpose. Women are builders, not destroyers. Building, that's what needs to be done now."

Building is what Iraqi Kurds have been doing, across the protected zone, in an orgy of urban expansion. The unmistakable effect, as one Kurdish official put it, is "facts on the ground," a separate Kurdistan so complete in its physical weight—and institutions—that its existence is a fait accompli.

Kurdish cities like Suleimaniya, and Erbil in the western sector, are mazes of unmapped, cement-choked streets lined with cranes and half-finished apartment blocks. Majid Abdulrahman, the harried director of housing for Erbil, estimated that the money spent on residential building in 2005, valued in dollars, will be 40 times the level in 1996. When I asked what Erbil's population might be, he shook his head: "I have absolutely no idea." He added that he had no city plan for Erbil in his office. "If such a thing exists, and I doubt it, I've certainly never seen it. I'd refer you to the ministry of planning, but we don't have one."

The outskirts of the city are a patchwork of shantytowns, swollen with refugees from outside the protected zone, where a third of Iraq's Kurds still live. Their streets chart an unintentional time line of human lodging, recording the march from mud-walled huts to cinder-block bungalows to two-story villas; each mutely declares how long each family has resided there, adding handmade bricks and tar-paper roofing, piece by piece, year by year.

In what was once a low-rise residential neighborhood next to Erbil's central market, a six-million-square-foot (550,000-square-meter) commercial plaza, the City Centre Project, was rising. Its architects foresee 6,000 shops and other businesses in the one-billion-dollar complex, which is to include four 30-story office towers.

Scratch the surface of Kurdistan's building boom, however, and it's clear the prosperity is mostly veneer. Apart from the construction itself, Kurdistan has virtually no industry. From 1996 to 2003 money flowed into the region under the UN's controversial oil-for-food program, which allowed Iraq to export oil and purchase flour, rice, milk, and other staples. That money has now dried up. Meanwhile the program stunted the region's once healthy agriculture: There was no reason for Kurdish farmers to keep raising wheat in competition with handouts.

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