On the road to the other Iraq

While the rest of Iraq suffers from the rise of the brutal insurgent group Islamic State, Iraqi Kurdistan is experiencing an economic boom. Danish expertise is contributing by helping make the roads safer with longer-lasting road markings

Imagine a slalom race, except you’re not on skis. You’re on a road in Iraqi Kurdistan, and the markers aren’t red and blue flags, but docile white sheep. Zigzagging through moving obstacles and potholes in a car without seatbelts is the norm when driving outside cities. But main roads paved with high-quality asphalt are also dangerous, even without sheep, because they often lack road markings.

But Danish expertise is helping to make these roads safer. In an Italian restaurant in Sulaimaniyah, one of the region’s largest cities, The Murmur met Jesper Isaksen, Lars Frandsen and Johan Musak, three Danish workers from the road surface marking company LKF Vejmarkering, which has marked roads in Denmark and abroad for more than 50 years. They primarily use a thermoplastic material that is melted and extruded onto the road and which lasts four to eight times longer than regular paint. Its longevity makes it popular across Europe, but it has yet to be used in Kurdistan – until now.

“We produce a large amount of striping material on the island of Langeland, and have many years’ experience. But they don’t have the know-how here; otherwise I think someone would be doing it. It would have saved them a lot of money if they had,” Isaksen says.

“We’re welcomed down here, and they’re grateful for our work,” Musak adds.

Their expertise is much appreciated. Three million (mostly Iraqi) tourists visited the region last year, but Iraqi Kurdistan’s tourism board hopes seven million tourists will visit annually by 2025. To reach the target, they need to attract more foreign visitors, which they expect to draw mostly from Europe and the Gulf states.

The Danish workers bringing longer-lasting road line technology to Kurdistan (Photo: Malene Ørsted)

The Danish workers bringing longer-lasting road line technology to Kurdistan (Photo: Malene Ørsted)

The new Dubai
Iraqi Kurdistan is Iraq’s northern region, and is controlled by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). Comprising the provinces of Sulaimaniyah, Erbil and Duhok, it has been hailed as the “New Dubai” and the “Other Iraq” thanks to its booming construction and oil industries and high level of safety.

The Kurdish people are spread across the borderlands of Turkey, Iraq and Iran, but have never had their own state. Despite being granted formal autonomy in Iraq in 1970, they remained in conflict with Saddam Hussein’s regime. In the final years of the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s, thousands were killed in poison gas attacks.

Following Hussein’s defeat in the First Gulf War, they were offered protection in the form of a northern no-fly zone, enforced by the UK, US and France. It became a de-facto autonomous region following the withdrawal of Hussein’s troops, and the first elections for the Kurdistan Regional Government were held in 1992. The region’s autonomy was further strengthened following the US-led invasion in 2003. Its Peshmerga troops, which co-operated with US forces, are now responsible for maintaining stability in the region and holding back the Islamist group IS – the Islamic State – which has taken control of large swathes of Iraq and Syria.

“Kurdistan is acknowledged as safe and strong, and that’s why [US Secretary of State] Kerry on his visit some weeks ago shared his hopes of Kurdistan staying with Iraq so that it could help the other regions,” says Beri Shalmashi, a filmmaker of Kurdish heritage who was brought up in the Netherlands.

“But our President rejects that idea. He thinks Kurdistan doesn’t benefit from being connected to a region that is still such a mess,” says Shalmashi, who recently moved to the region.

Sheep roam free on the mountains in Iraqi Kurdistan (Photo: Malene Ørsted)

Sheep roam free on the mountains in Iraqi Kurdistan (Photo: Malene Ørsted)

Relative peace
Kurdistan’s stability seems to be paving the way to eventual independence, which Shalmashi supports, arguing that Kurdistan and Iraq were hardly a match made in heaven.

“The issue dates back to the First World War … Iraq is a state drawn with straight lines on a map. The idea of Kurdistan as a separate country was wiped away in a single meeting. It has never been a question of whether, but only how long, Iraq could stay together,” she says.

Due to the current threat posed by IS, Peshmerga forces have been stationed in areas disputed by Iraq and the KRG, far beyond Kurdish borders. And so far, they have been effective at keeping IS out of Kurdistan.

“The conflict in the rest of Iraq is a Shia-Sunni conflict between Arabs, and therefore has no relation to the Kurdish area. Iraq was never a natural state to begin with,” Shalmashi says.

Inside the restaurant, the three Danes are drinking beers and smoking.

They were originally concerned about going to Kurdistan, but have been pleasantly surprised by the kind and accommodating people, the availability of bacon cheeseburgers and alcohol in the bigger cities, and of course, the high level of safety.

“The Kurds are very vigilant. They have metal detectors at the entrance to supermarkets, for example, and there are plenty of checkpoints manned by armed guards. So I haven’t been afraid down here,” says Frandsen, and the two others agree.

“One night I discovered that I had lost my phone by the side of the road, but it was still there when we came back the next morning. That would never have happened in Denmark. Somebody would have taken it,” says Isaksen.

Their stay in Sulaimaniyah ended in May, but they all said they would return to the region to work. The Foreign Ministry advises Danes to avoid all non-essential travel to Kurdistan, however, so LKF is currently trying to secure insurance for its employees.

“I think it is a mistake. I don’t really think that the Foreign Ministry knows anything about the situation. I can’t be certain, but I can’t see that there is anything wrong down here. If I were asked to work here again, I would be more than happy to come back,” says Isaksen.

It might be a few years before they would consider visiting the country as tourists, however. Despite the fact that the people are pleasant and the infrastructure is undergoing a rapid transformation, other issues – such as a poor level of English – mean it can be difficult to get around and communicate, especially outside the bigger cities.

But while hotels are being built, roads painted, and traffic safety improved, younger generations of Kurds are learning English in school. Who knows, maybe the sheep will even learn to stay outside the stripes. M


By Malene Ørsted

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