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(photo credit: Matthew Gutman)
First came the roar. Then the pounding of automatic gunfire.
Dahen Sabir and Dlawar Salar, both 25, peeked out of the Nishtman, or "Motherland," radio station, a ramshackle outfit with an antenna barely powerful enough to receive local TV.
"Can't be a terrorist attack," announced Sabir, a producer. "It's probably just hooligans."
Police had broken up the Irbil vs. Dohuk soccer game at the Irbil Stadium across the boulevard, after Irbil fans pelted their team's opponents with anything they could get their hands on. Some brought their side arms, according to the daily Khabat newspaper. Police quelled the melee by firing their AK-47's into the air and whacking fans with nightsticks.
For the rest of terrorism-stricken Iraq, the elections this Thursday, which will usher in the first permanent democratic Iraqi government in history, are about security.
For Kurds like Sabir and Salar, in autonomous northern Iraq, it is about the economy, electricity and government reform.
"Living expenses have risen so that people our age can't form a family, and unless you belong to one of the major parties, you have no chance," Salar said.
The Kurds in the north gained autonomy from Saddam Hussein's Iraq in 1991. Iraq's Kurds - who are not ethnic Arabs and speak an entirely different language - have since governed themselves, and quickly established a stronger economy than the government of Saddam Hussein, under stringent economic sanctions throughout the 1990s.
Sa'edi Barzdinji, a professor of law at Irbil's Salahaddin University and a member of the Iraqi National Assembly, explained that while Kurdistan is no democracy, "the issues here are ones that normal Western countries deal with. Kurdistan is safe."
The Kurds managed to do it by unifying against Saddam, and after the war by creating the most stable and unified bloc in the National Assembly. Kurdish regional guardsmen, formerly known as the Peshmerga militia, operate snap checkpoints on most roads, and have grown adept at driving Islamic terrorists from Kurdish cities. Armed security officials guard the entrances to most public and private institutions.
No American soldier has been killed in the Kurdish safe haven in the north since Saddam was toppled in the spring of 2003.
Despite the militarism of the place, added Barzdinji, the Kurds have a thriving press, some of which is critical of the regional Kurdish government.
Nevertheless the Kurds' unity makes life hard for Sabir and Salar, two squat men in suits and heavily gelled hair, who support the Kurdish Democratic Labor Party. The two "superpowers of Kurdistan," as the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) are known, supply jobs for supporters. Open wall space in Irbil is plastered with posters depicting Kurds in traditional dress - one curiously has a bride and groom - dropping ballots for KDP and PUK.
Those two parties are running on a joint list while the minute Kurdish Democratic Labor Party decided to chart its own course with a different list.
We couldn't even get any funding to change the radio station from AM to FM, said the pair. They make about $100 per month. Rent prices have shot up in the past year, making it impossible for the two to live properly, much less invest in the station.
Ibrahim Qais, a real-estate agent in downtown Irbil, said his waiting list is "several hundred names long." His office is wallpapered in street maps of bloc housing all of which are full, he said. Rent for an average two-bedroom apartment downtown costs about $500. Most Kurds' wages don't reach $150 a month.
Some neighborhoods have more blackouts than electricity. Fuel prices are three times what they were under Saddam, even though an increasing number of imported Mercedes and SUVs clog the streets.
Northern Iraq still lags far behind most countries in terms of infrastructure, care for the environment and foreign investment. But the streets are relatively orderly, imported goods from Turkey and Iran spill out from store fronts, and almost everyone feels safe.
"Overall," said Dr. Azzat Jalal, dean of Salahaddin's College of Economy and Business Management, "the economy is 100 percent better off than it was three years ago." He offered himself as an example: Before the fall of Saddam, he made $40 a month, now his salary is $1,500 a month.
Government employees - those who work for the regional government under the control of the KDP - are granted adequate salaries, he noted. Although Kurdistan, as the Kurdish north is known locally, is autonomous, it receives 17% of the Iraqi budget.
Sabir wants to see that budget more equitably distributed. "I am not sure this vote is going to get us that. Everybody wants an independent Kurdistan, but this vote is only to solidify the Kurdish strength in the Iraqi parliament. For me it won't mean much," he said.
Indeed both Barzdinji and Jalal noted that aside from securing Kurdish power in the Iraqi parliament, the December 15 elections mean little.
That's because most Kurds, Sabir and Salar included, don't want to be part of Iraq. "We want independence," said Salar. In last year's elections, Kurdish exit polls showed that 98% of voters preferred to see an independent Kurdistan.
The Kurds, the world's largest stateless people, have aspired for statehood for more than a century. Their mistrust of their neighbors is legendary.
At a barbershop downtown, first-time voter Farman Namatullah, 19, waited his turn. The place hummed with the sound of electric clippers. Like the rest of his friends, he would vote for the KDP and PUK coalition.
There isn't much choice. "No one is happy about living with Iraq. No Arabs like Kurds and eventually they will all do the same as Saddam [persecute the Kurds]. That's why we want our freedom," he said.
Asked what else he wants, Namatullah, now in the barber's chair, added, "We also want our politicians to keep their promises."
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