01/08/2015, 00.00
IRAQ
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From Erbil to Dohuk, Iraqi Kurdistan between autonomist ambitions and Islamist dangers

by Dario Salvi
Travelling in the region highlights ancient divisions, hiding new contradictions. A place that is undergoing major economic and social development to free itself from Baghdad has to guard against extremist infiltration. Police checkpoints are a reminder that, a few tens of kilometres away, lies the threat of the Islamic State.

Dohuk (AsiaNews) - Erbil and Dohuk are two of the most important cities in Iraqi Kurdistan. They are also sheltering hundreds of thousands of Christians and others, who fled areas under the control of the Islamic State (IS) group.

The highway that links the two is full of surprises: narrow, bumpy sections that sometimes open up into two lanes where lorries and cars can try to outrun each other mercilessly; vast arid expanses suddenly give way to green coloured patches; rivulets and pools alternate with long stretches of desert. And behind 'dem hills, a few tens of kilometres away, lies Mosul, the Caliphate's most important city for the past few months.

This stretch of road is a picture of a society and an economy in constant expansion, but mired in conflicts and distant contradictions that are re-emerging under new guises: open warfare against Islamist fighters, tensions with Iraq's central government, a religiously tainted conflict as well as a decade-old gap between local and central authorities over Erbil's drive for autonomy.

Several checkpoints dot the route between the two cities. Manning every important junction, police and soldiers peer inside cars, checking ID papers and asking where travellers are from. Infiltration by Islamic militants or a push eastward by their forces are a real possibility.

Talking with Kurds, one can feel such tensions. For them, Christians are "friends", but Arab Muslims are the "enemy", foreigners to hunt down and fight.

In a land soaked with the blood shed by Saddam Hussein's regime and now threatened by Islamist axes, nationalist, pro-independence moves are developing, seeking freedom from Baghdad's yoke. However, Jihadists have begun infiltrating the separatist struggle, with followers in Erbil and among Muslim Kurds.

In view of this, many people want to live far away from swords, memorised Qur'anic verses, violence and terror. For now though, a handful of fighters (Peshmerga) and a defensive barrier, a wall separating Iraqi Kurdistan from Mosul and the jihadist-held Nineveh Plain, are protecting them.

At present, the balance of power between the two sides seems to be holding. However, as evidenced by last summer's events, this balance is delicate and could suddenly collapse under the pressure of internal and external forces.

Here conflicting - in some cases converging - interests are being played out, those of the United States, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Qatar, and Iran.

Whatever the case, the clash is likely to pave the way for hundreds of thousands of new refugees, Christian families - but also Muslims, Yazidis, and others - forced to abandon in a hurry their land and personal property, because they to choose between conversion or death.

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