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Iraqi Kurds
JANUARY 2006
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Iraqi Kurds @ National Geographic Magazine
By Frank Viviano
Photographs by Ed Kashi
The Kurds may be the only group powerful enough to keep Iraq from tearing itself apart. But who says that's what they want?

Get a taste of what awaits you in print from this compelling excerpt.

Since the aftermath of the 1991 gulf war, nearly four million Kurds have enjoyed complete autonomy in the region of Iraqi Kurdistan—protected from Saddam under a "no-fly zone" north of the 36th parallel and behind the defensive wall of the Kurds' highly disciplined army, the peshmerga. They have held region-wide elections, formed a legislature, and chosen a president, establishing a world entirely apart from Baghdad—a de facto independent state. For the first time in their long history, Kurds are wielding significant political power, successfully negotiating for control over their own military forces and authority over new oil discoveries in their own terrain. Under the federated Iraq being called for by the international community, they would have powers of autonomy that match—or even exceed—what they now enjoy.
 
But in the end, the essential Kurdish truth today is that they can't give up the dream of outright independence. After 14 years of self-rule, the Kurds can no longer imagine themselves as Iraqis. To travel through Kurdistan is to follow an intense national debate whose central issue is no longer the pros and cons of full, unambiguous separation from Iraq. It's how best to secure it. I came to think of it as a debate between Builders and Warriors.
 
A 13-year-old girl put the distinction into words. I met Mivan Majid in a mountain park above the city of Suleimaniya, where she was taking the evening air with her father and younger sister. To the north and east the jagged ridges of the Zagros Mountains, marking Iraqi Kurdistan's border with Iran, were receding into dusk. To the south, the immense Mesopotamian plain was a sunset-gilded carpet stretching toward Baghdad and the Persian Gulf. I needed some air myself—we'd stopped at the park after our escape from the oil field—and I involuntarily flinched when a tall, gangly teenager in faded blue jeans tapped me on the arm.
 
"Hey," she said, "are you guys American?"
 
That's an uncomfortable question in the Middle East today, but her casual manner put me immediately at ease. She had remarkable poise and proceeded to grill me in near-perfect California slang, which she'd picked up from an expatriate girlfriend.
 
When I learned her age, it struck me that Mivan Majid was the Kurdish dream personified. She had never known a day under the rule of Baghdad. Suleimaniya, her hometown and the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan's eastern sector, has been under unbroken Kurdish control since 1992, the very year of her birth. She wanted to be an engineer, Mivan told me, "because they build such cool things: houses, roads, shopping centers. It's like, when you're an engineer you don't get hung up on our terrible history. You look ahead."

Get the whole story in the pages of National Geographic magazine.

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