These days, it seems like there are two Iraqs.
There's the Iraq that we know, where Baghdad is the capital, and where low-level bombings and political infighting are the norm.
And then there's a place that tour groups are calling "the other Iraq": the semi-autonomous region of Kurdistan. There, the economy is booming, people are using iPhones, and violence is down. But at what cost?
'Heaven Compared To The Rest Of Iraq'
To know the other Iraq is to start in the city of Irbil. Literally many millennia old, it's modernizing fast.
The latest development is the Irbil International Airport: It's clean. Flights are taking off and landing on time. There's cappuccino. On a recent day, people from probably a dozen different countries are arriving and departing.
One of the recent arrivals is Wassim Sh'eir, a Lebanese-American.
"I came here through a construction company, and they want to open a franchise here," he says.
Wassim says Irbil was tough to take at first, with its shoddy construction and intermittent electricity. But compared to the rest of Iraq?
"Heaven," he says. "Irbil is heaven compared to the rest of Iraq."
Even though he eventually wants to invest elsewhere in the country, Wassim says Irbil is fine for now.
"Irbil is definitely the starting point," he says. "They say Irbil is the gateway to the rest of Iraq."
A Myth Of Opportunity?
The Kurds of northern Iraq have long struggled with the Arabs of the rest of Iraq, especially during the rule of Saddam Hussein.
After the first Gulf War, the United States and its allies provided the Kurds some protection by way of a no-fly zone. When Saddam fell in 2003, the oil-rich region reasserted its autonomy.
Two main Kurdish parties, led by two charismatic men, claim credit for this victory. But many Kurds say these men are now no better than dictators themselves — that much of Kurdistan's newfound wealth is being concentrated in the hands of a few.
Amid recent protests that were part of a larger wave of demonstrations around Iraq and the region, intellectuals like Farouk Rafiq said the Kurdish success story is a myth.
"This is a myth that there is economical opportunity. You know why? Because political parties, they captured the market," he said. "They have their own companies — for themselves, for politicians, for [those] who are on the top."
Boosting Economic Strength
So far, those politicians don't show any signs of relinquishing power. In fact, it's support from the Kurds that helped Iraq's incumbent prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, recently secure a second term.
In exchange for this support, the federal government in Baghdad recently agreed to let Kurdistan proceed with agreements to pump and sell its own oil.
Now, says analyst Jutiar Adel, the Kurdish leaders see economic growth as a way to continue asserting their autonomy.
"The economical presence, the economical strength is very important, and they
want to guarantee that there is an economical power for Kurdistan," he says through an interpreter.
That means in addition to ignoring protesters' demands for a bigger piece of the economic pie, other issues might be on the back burner — like who will control the area around the city of Kirkuk, where Kurds were the majority until Saddam sent Arabs to settle there.
At a recent conference, Kurdish President Massoud Barzani told followers it's likely his grandson will still be fighting for Kirkuk.
Reading between the lines, analysts suggested Barzani might be preparing his people to let go of their immediate claims to the region.
But Kurds in a village just outside the Kirkuk city limits don't want to hear that. While many parts of Kurdistan are booming, they are barely getting by.
The village appears to have no paved roads; sewer water pours out into the street and into a central ditch.
The Kurdish villagers were deported by Saddam back in the 1980s. When the dictator fell in 2003, they returned. But they're still not legal residents, say Ali Hussein Assaf and his aging father.
They say they have lived under these conditions for seven years, and they don't know what their fate will be. But Kirkuk is their city, they say, and they are not going to give it up.
Mahmoud Othman, a Kurdish member of Iraq's Parliament, says issues like Kirkuk and ending corruption are emotional for the Kurds.
"You can't get rid of it. It's something which — you are a hostage to it," Othman says. "That's why the economy is very important, maybe quite important. But it's not — it couldn't be a substitute for that."
Othman says Kirkuk and corruption are problems that are not likely to be solved in the short term, no matter how prosperous "the other Iraq" becomes. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.