Published: January 2006
The Kurds in Control
By Frank Viviano
In the city of Kirkuk, one of the most hotly contested places in Iraq, members of a Kurdish security force patrol an otherwise deserted street. "The place is hell on Earth," says National Geographic writer Frank Viviano. "Suicide bombers, drive-by shootings, targeted assassinations, you name it." Kirkuk has been Kurdish for thousands of years, according to the Kurds' tradition, though it now lies just outside their de facto territory. Saddam Hussein evicted Kurds from the city and repopulated it with Arabs. But now the Kurds want Kirkuk back—and are returning by the thousands. There's more than ethnic pride and history at stake here: Kirkuk sits on one of Iraq's largest oil reserves.

At 10 a.m. on a sweltering Tuesday morning, our death sentence was delivered by telephone. Photographer Ed Kashi and I had made the 50-mile (80-kilometer) trip from Erbil, the Iraqi Kurds' regional capital, to Kirkuk early that morning. Two Northern Oil Company officials accompanied us to the crest of a low hill. An iron red sun hung over the ancient city that Kurds call "our Jerusalem," floating in a thick haze of dust and refinery fumes. Swarms of flies rose from pungent clots of slick, stagnant water. Nearly nine billion barrels of crude lay below us. Suddenly the cell phones of both officials rang simultaneously. As they listened silently to the calls, I watched their faces tighten, noticed their eyes sweep across Ed's and fix briefly on mine. Without a word, one of them jumped into his pickup truck with a pair of their four bodyguards and sped away. The second official remained only long enough to escort us to the company gate. "You've been identified as foreign journalists by a terrorist group," he said. "Their fighters are watching us right now. Death threats have been made, and we can't afford to be seen with you."

He turned his head away, embarrassed. "Please try to understand. I have a family." Then he too left with the other bodyguards.

In the agonizing half hour that followed, our panicky driver raced at breakneck speed on a zigzag course through the Kirkuk streets. A mile (1.6 kilometers) short of the checkpoint where Kurdish troops manned barricades to the road north, we were brought to a halt by a traffic jam in the city's bazaar. The cars around us were full of young bearded men who fit the classic stereotype of a terrorist.

Paranoia? Less than 24 hours later, we were within 300 yards (275 meters) of a suicide bomber who blew himself up on the same street.

It was the bluntest possible reminder of what northern Iraq's Kurds see when they look to the south: a country awash in blood.

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."

It's hard not to get hung up on history if you're a Kurd in Iraq. I met not a single family there that had not fled its home at some point in the past 20 years, not a single farmer who had not seen his village shelled by bombs or artillery, not a single person without a tale of chemical weapon attacks, torture, or execution under Saddam Hussein. During the infamous Anfal campaign, which peaked between February and September 1988, the Iraqi Army destroyed thousands of Kurdish villages—and killed 100,000 people.

Mivan's father joined the conversation, smiling at his daughter as she interpreted my questions and his responses. Majid Nadir was a slim, articulate man in his late 40s, with a dark, neatly trimmed mustache and penetrating hazel eyes. He had his own grim story to tell—arrest by Saddam's police in 1979 for his dissident views, followed by torture and imprisonment for a year.

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.

Doing errands with his donkey, a former soldier in the Kurdish militia—the peshmerga, or "those who face death"—stops for a smoke and a chat with a member of a construction crew putting in a new road. Under UN supervision, several billion dollars of Iraq's oil revenues have been invested in the three Kurdish provinces in the north of the country during the last decade, feeding their residents, rebuilding villages smashed by Saddam Hussein, and bringing roads, electricity, and health clinics to rural areas.

Kurdish expatriates who have come back to their homeland since Saddam's fall are undoubtedly a force behind modernization. They arrive by the hundreds each month, carrying suitcases stuffed with euros, dollars, and pounds—along with foreign habits, attitudes, outlooks, and expertise they've acquired in exile.

Yet every government official and businessperson I spoke to was at a loss to specify the returnees' numbers or pinpoint where the bulk of the construction money might have come from. Its origins were too piecemeal for accurate monitoring, had monitoring of any kind been possible in cities without planning departments, maps, or population figures.

Nor in mid-2005 did northern Iraq have credit cards, banks, or conventional channels for major overseas investments. Until very recently, investors, like all other visitors, were obliged to take taxis across the dangerous Turkish or Iranian borders, the main entry points to Iraqi Kurdistan, with wads of cold cash in their baggage. The situation eased only slightly late last year, when Kurdistan Airlines was launched and introduced twice-weekly service between Erbil and Dubai, and a weekly flight to Frankfurt.

Parwen Babaker, the minister of industry for the eastern sector, was hard-pressed to specify any foreign manufacturing investments there, finally citing a British tobacco-products plant, capitalized at a scant 2.5 million dollars, and a small Italian-owned garment factory. "The gross domestic product of Kurdistan? I can't give you a figure for that," conceded Abdullah Abdulrahim, the region's deputy minister of economy and finance.

As for political institutions, their "facts on the ground" were as chaotic—and prolific—as the building boom. Depending on who did the counting, in 2005 Kurdistan answered to two, three, or four masters. There was the nominal central government in Baghdad, elected in a nationwide vote, endorsed by the U.S.-led occupation authorities—and all but impotent beyond the Iraqi capital and a few outlying cities. In Suleimaniya there was the bureaucracy formed by Jalal Talabani's Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), one of the two main Kurdish political coalitions. To the west, in Erbil, there was the parallel bureaucracy of veteran guerrilla leader Masoud Barzani's Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP). And since June Erbil has also hosted the putative combined regional government of a united Iraqi Kurdistan, with Barzani as its president.

Evidence of just how divided the region is: It was impossible to make phone calls between the rival cities of Suleimaniya and Erbil, which are just 95 miles (153 kilometers) apart, and the shiny new post office in Suleimaniya processes letters only to and from addresses in its own province.

This bewildering situation has its roots not only in the Kurds' longstanding conflict with Arab Iraq, but also in fratricidal tensions among the Kurds themselves. As recently as the mid-1990s, the PUK and KDP fought a murderous internal war in which thousands were killed. It was fighting between Kurds, not with Saddam's army, that had sent the most recent wave of Kurdish refugees fleeing overseas, and pushed former Warriors like Majid Nadir firmly into the camp of the Builders.

One night when I joined him as he smoked a cigarette in the street outside his house, Majid vented his bitterness at the Warriors. "Look at the problems between the two parts of Kurdistan. Look at that shameful war they dragged us into. It's impossible not to ask, What have they done to move us forward?

"Personally, I've already suffered too much, thanks to them. What I want now is for my children to be happy. I want them to have a future."

Nowhere did the future seem shakier, however, than in Kirkuk, a city with no Builders at all. A city that its U.S.-appointed Kurdish mayor, Abdulrahman Mustafa, described as "basically in ruins, even though more than a million people live here."

History has taught the Kurds the importance of territory, and Kirkuk, they say, belongs to them. The city has been a focal point of Kurdish culture for centuries and today is the cornerstone of Kurdish dreams. Kirkuk is not simply the Kurds' Jerusalem: It is also their El Dorado, a staggering treasure trove that could make their dreams a reality. The nine-billion-barrel oil field already in operation is a 500-billion-dollar bank account for independence, and some experts believe that the northern reserves hold as much as 40 billion barrels. The problem is that the city lies outside the area now controlled by the Kurdistan Regional Government. It will require arms, the Warriors insisted, to secure it.

The Kurdish warlord of this shattered realm was General Rostam Hamid Rahim, known locally as Mam (Uncle). After the oil field incident and its death threats, most of our commutes to Kirkuk from the safety of the protected zone were in Rostam's SUV, with the general himself at the wheel, surrounded by machine-gun equipped pickup trucks full of peshmerga sharpshooters. Each trip was a graphic sortie into the Warrior ethos. But the most chilling insight came from a story that was meant to be faintly comic, related one evening by a friend of the Nadirs.

"Mam Rostam was critically wounded," she began, "and in the mid-1990s the peshmerga sent him to Germany, where we were refugees then, for treatment." He remained there for a year, past his convalescence, she went on, "and like all of us, he was required to fill out an employment form when he left the hospital."

With more than 75,000 square feet (7,000 square meters) of space for merchandise, the Mazi Supermarket—Iraq's largest—draws customers from all over the country to the prospering Kurdish city of Duhok. Anchor store in a growing megamall, the Mazi adjoins an amusement park that includes a spin-and-tilt ride, video games, and air hockey. But beneath the fun lies a painful chapter in Kurdish history: The complex was built on the site of a former Iraqi military facility where Kurds were imprisoned and tortured during the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein.

The first question read: Previous Job. Rostam immediately scribbled in the German word feldherr, "general." The story had it that he paused only briefly before answering the second question: Special Skills.

"Killing my enemies," he wrote.

A native Kirkuki, Rostam was a stocky, powerfully built man who veered, unpredictably, from the cold-blooded decisiveness that made him a legendary guerrilla leader to mawkish excesses of sentimentality fed by enormous quantities of alcohol. Over one endless dinner I watched Rostam put away a fifth of Scotch and half a dozen beers by himself. The faces in the room that long night were a study in the extremes of physical diversity. Tiger Woods could be a Kurd—and so could Robert Redford. Kurdistan is one of the Earth's most strategic land bridges, serving as an invasion and emigration route between Asia and Europe for thousands of years. Over the centuries, the Kurds have mixed with all of their neighbors and invaders, producing a gene map that ranges from wiry-haired and dark to blond and blue-eyed. The bond that holds these people together is "a sentiment as much as anything else," one Kurdish archaeologist told me, "derived from traditional life in the mountain valleys and adjacent plains where Kurds have always lived, and from the embrace of a shared culture and identity."

Someone in Rostam's entourage almost always sang Kurdish songs during those boozy dinners—about life in the mountains, about love, death, and loss—that inevitably reduced the general to tears. But next morning, the Warrior always returned, prepared to use his Special Skills.

His hero and model, he told me, was Genghis Khan's grandson Hulegu. In 1258 Hulegu sacked Baghdad, ordering the slaughter of 800,000 Arabs. Not surprisingly, Rostam regarded the war-weariness of the Builders, especially the educated young, with disdain. "The kids today are soft as chocolate bars," he said.

In Kirkuk no one indulged in chocolate-bar methods. In the seven decades before the gulf war, the Kurds mounted countless failed uprisings against Baghdad. Some insurrections were initially encouraged by supporters in the U.S., then abandoned by them and crushed by Iraqi forces. Control over oil-rich Kirkuk was an issue in every one of those insurrections.

Beginning in the 1980s, Saddam Hussein pushed aggressively for the Arabization of Kirkuk, expelling thousands of Kurds from the city. Since his fall, thousands of Kurds have returned, living in tents and ramshackle hovels a short distance from their former homes, now occupied by thousands of Arabs installed in Kirkuk after the Kurds' expulsion.    

Kirkuk is the most ethnically divided city in Iraq, a tinderbox of claims and counterclaims pitting Turkomans, Assyrian Christians, Shiite and Sunni Muslims against each other, and all of them against the Kurds. Lip service was given on all sides to resolving the ethnic tensions peacefully. But no one really believed it was possible.

The policy approach of the Warriors is simplicity itself: Every Arab who was moved to Kirkuk during Arabization should be kicked out. The two generations of non-Kirkuki Arabs born there since would also have to go. It is an undisguised demand for reverse ethnic cleansing.

"We call it justice," Rostam said—and most Kurds agreed with him.

As a reporter, I'd seen close-up the kind of justice the Kurds are asking for in Kirkuk—in Bosnia, Croatia, Kosovo. I'd seen the carnage wrought by ethnic nationalism in Northern Ireland and Basque Spain, the blind hatred in Israel and on the West Bank. After the Balkans, after Rwanda, the justice of ethnic nationalism was lost on me. But I'm not an Iraqi Kurd.

Another morning like any other in Kirkuk: We were en route to an interview when a loud thump shook the air, and an acrid column of smoke billowed into the sky. A young man had detonated 80 pounds (36 kilograms) of explosives and bolts strapped to his waist. The blast, outside a mosque roughly a quarter mile (0.4 kilometers) up the road, killed 23 people and wounded more than 80. Had we arrived a minute sooner, we would certainly have been among them.

There is nothing unusual about happenstance salvation south of the 36th parallel, or about happenstance death. A minute here, a minute there: the random distinction between obliteration and morning prayer.

This time, Rostam rammed his SUV in a 180-degree spin, and we tore a few blocks west to the headquarters of the Kurdish-led Emergency Services Unit (ESU), an elite rapid deployment force. A phalanx of armored vehicles was forming in the motor pool, ready to head for the bombing scene. Just after we sat down for a briefing in the office of the ESU's commander, Khattab Omar Arif, six men quietly filed in behind us.

They were one of the American counter-insurgency squads that show up in the wake of terrorist attacks. "Maybe Delta Force, maybe CIA, maybe something else," our interpreter whispered in my ear. "Nobody is really sure who they are."

The men wore no uniforms and no identification tags, and their squad leader's sole words to us were "no questions and no photographs." His comrades sported an eclectic Hells Angels' mix of shaved heads and shoulder-length hair swept into ponytails. One of them wore a black T-shirt emblazoned with a skull and crossbones. Their arms cradled assault weapons with sniper scopes, and they had pistols in leg and shoulder holsters and tucked into the rear of their slacks.

Locals refer to them as Rambos. For an hour the Rambos sat in silence, eating fruit and sipping tea, listening intently as I interviewed Commander Arif. They were the only Americans we encountered in Kirkuk.

Behind the thinly veiled pretense of a search for national unity, Kirkuk was locked in an undeclared ethnic civil war. Some Rambos had reportedly collaborated with the ESU in the unexplained disappearances of hundreds of Kirkuk Arabs and Turkomans, many of whom turned up without formal charges in Kurdish prisons.

Preparing to lead all-female units of the Kurdish militia, or peshmerga, women officers study military strategy at a base near Suleimaniya. During the Kurds' long struggle against Saddam Hussein, women at first worked behind the front lines building camps, tending the wounded, and spying on the enemy. But beginning in 1996 they officially took up arms as members of the Peshmerga Force for Women. "Kurdistan is totally different from the rest of Iraq," says Parwen Babaker, herself a minister of industry in the region. "Women ministers, judges, and soldiers are exercising an equivalent role as men."

The chief of a police station on the city's northern end greeted me with the chevrons of a peshmerga major buttoned onto his shoulders. But halfway through our interview, to prepare for the arrival of a delegation visiting from Baghdad, he replaced them with the insignia of a captain in the Iraqi National Army. Most of his men were peshmerga veterans like himself, and he said he had flatly refused a command from the central government to begin replacing them with Arabs.

A similar order directed at the Oil Protection Force was also dismissed by its commander. All 3,000 of the men who patrolled the 384-square-mile (995-square-kilometer) Kirkuk oil field in 2005 were Kurds. But according to a National Oil Company (NOC) source, there were only 160 Kurds among its 10,000 workers, the majority of whom owed their jobs to Saddam's Baathist Party.

The effect was near paralysis. The enormous field was littered with abandoned pipes, rusted pumps, and broken machinery. NOC officials declined to supply any production figures, but the level of activity was visibly low. No significant investments have been made in equipment or technology since before the gulf war, as international energy firms waited to see who would win the struggle for Kirkuk.

"What you're looking at is an oil museum," a staff engineer said. "Everything in it is obsolete." Then he grew somber. "I'd estimate that at least half of our employees have links to terrorists. The rest of us are afraid, every minute of every day."

According to Iraq's oil ministry, there were 642 terrorist attacks on oil fields in 2004, at a cost of ten billion dollars. In the first six months of 2005, terrorists struck at U.S. and Iraqi military targets outside the protected zone more than 12,000 times.

How could the Kurds imagine reunification with Arab Iraq, I asked myself. How could the world expect it of them?

The roads in Kurdistan say all you need to know about the Kurds' view of the future. On a new multilane highway west of Suleimaniya, where Parwen Nadir is employed as an engineer, laborers trucked in from the refugee camps of Kirkuk wield picks and shovels around the clock. They grunt in the fierce sun by day, and by night they toil under the glare of klieg lights, readying the terrain for bulldozers and asphalt rollers. Hundreds of miles of roads are being pushed through the mountains. All of them link cities in Kurdistan to each other or to its foreign borders. The roads south, toward Arab Iraq, are in a state of advanced disrepair. They will not be needed when Iraqi Kurdistan is free.

The aims of the Builders and Warriors converge on those roads; they are united, despite their other differences, in their position on rejoining Iraq. "Deep down, nobody in Kurdistan supports it, from babies in their cradles to the oldest men in our villages," Mam Rostam insisted.

"The Arabs have punished us too much, for too long," agreed Omar Rahan, 64, a shepherd in a hamlet of 80 families in the northern mountains. "They attacked this village in 1977, then again in 1986 and 1991. They destroyed every house, every tree. Every time we came back and rebuilt. You won't find anyone here who wants to be part of Iraq again."

In an informal referendum held in Kurdish-dominated regions during the January 2005 Iraqi elections, 98.7 percent of Kurds voted for full independence rather than reconciliation with Arab Iraq. "Among young people, the figure is probably 100 percent," asserted Rebwar Hasan, 25, a reporter at Hawlati (The Citizen), Kurdistan's largest circulation newspaper.

On sheer practical terms, said Mohsen Omar, a celebrated Kurdish writer, "it's very difficult for Kurds to conceive of life in a reunified Iraq, especially the younger generation." After a decade and a half of Kurdish education in the protected zone, he noted, "almost no one under 30 even speaks Arabic."

Nowhere in the KDP sector of Kurdistan was an Iraqi flag flying or any semblance of Iraq's supposed central authority evident when Ed and I wandered its length and breadth. "I was raised thinking of this as our beautiful mountainous north, but now I see that the Kurds have made it their north, and that we're not welcome," said Inaam Hassan al-Yasiry, 26, an Arab women's rights advocate from central Iraq who was attending a conference in Erbil. "Personally, I still consider the Kurds Iraqis, but they make it clear they don't see themselves that way."

The picture was only slightly less dramatic in the region's eastern sector, thanks to the elevation of PUK leader Jalal Talabani to Iraq's interim presidency last April. In public Talabani has argued for a federal state, with significant local autonomy for Kurds under a national government in Baghdad. But few people in his Suleimaniya fiefdom doubted that his private goal, his fundamental purpose, was to oversee Kurdistan's inexorable drive to full independence.

For his part, KDP chief Masoud Barzani was blunt in his assessment of Kurdistan's destiny: "Self-determination is the natural right of our people," he said after the 2005 referendum. "When the right time comes, it will become a reality."

It would be one thing if the Kurds of Iraq lived in a vacuum, where the prospects for full self-determination rested only on their own tenacity. But they must also contend with their neighbors—Iran, Turkey, Syria—each of which has its own sizable Kurdish community, each of which is deeply hostile to the establishment of an independent Kurdistan in northern Iraq, fearing it would threaten control over their own restless Kurdish people.

"We need our neighbors. We need their trade, their economic cooperation, and coordination on security matters," said Shafiq Qazzaz, a close adviser to Masoud Barzani. "But they all see any aspiration of Kurdish nationalism as anathema."

One result has been a transparently double-tracked political strategy. "Yes, we make a commitment to Iraq, to the process of establishing a federal state," Qazzaz continued. "But at the same time we must also seek another way, in case a truly federal Iraq proves unfeasible."

None of the Kurds' present allies, including the U.S., is likely to back Kurdish independence against the combined will of Tehran, Ankara, and Damascus.

When Barzani's "right time" arrives, the Kurds will face it alone. Neither the Builders nor the Warriors harbor any illusions about that.

"The Americans liberated us from Saddam, but they did it for their own interests," Majid Nadir told me. "History says they'll abandon us, as the outside world always does, when it's in their interest."