More than half the region's 5.3 million people were born after 1991, when a Western-enforced no-fly zone made Kurdish self-rule possible for the first time by shielding the region against Saddam Hussein. In the preceding years, Saddam's forces had destroyed most Kurdish villages, killing tens of thousands and displacing many more.
Students at Irbil's private Cihan University say they feel Kurdish, not Iraqi, and that Iraq's widespread corruption, sectarian violence and political deadlock are holding their region back.
"I want to see an independent Kurdistan, and I don't want to be part of Iraq," said Bilend Azad, 20, an architectural engineering student walking with a group of friends along the landscaped campus. "Kurdistan is better than other parts of Iraq. If we stay with them, we will be bad like them, and we won't be free."
Kurds are among the main beneficiaries of the March 20, 2003 U.S.-led invasion that ousted Saddam, and sympathy for America still runs strong here.Rebaz Zedbagi, a partner in the Senk Group, a road construction and real estate investment company with an annual turnover of $100 million, said his success would have been unthinkable without the war. The 28-year-old said he won't do business in the rest of Iraq, citing bureaucracy and frequent attacks by insurgents, but said opportunities in the relatively stable Kurdish region are boundless. "I believe Kurdistan is like a baby tiger," said Zedbagi, sipping a latte in a Western-style espresso bar in the Family Mall, Irbil's largest shopping center. "I believe it will be very powerful in the Middle East." The Kurdish region has undergone a dramatic transformation in the past decade. Its capital, Irbil, once had the ambiance of a large village. It has grown into a city of 1.3 million people, with the beginnings of a skyline, several five-star hotels and construction cranes dotting the horizon.