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10 Years After US Invasion, Kurds Look To The West

The SUV-driving elites have moved into townhouses in new communities with grand names like "The English Village." Irbil's shiny glass-and-steel airport puts Baghdad's to shame.

The number of cars registered in the province of Irbil â¿¿ one of three in the Kurdish region â¿¿ jumped from 4,000 in 2003 to half a million today and the number of hotels from a handful to 234, said provincial governor Nawzad Mawlood.

Planning Minister Ali Sindi took pride in a sharp drop in illiteracy, poverty and unemployment in recent years.

But the Kurds have a lot more work cut out for them. The region needs to spend more than $30 billion on highways, schools and other basic infrastructure in the next decade, Sindi said. A housing shortage and a high annual population growth rate of almost 4 percent have created demand for 70,000 new apartments a year.

There's also a strong undercurrent of discontent, amid concerns about the concentration of power in the hands of a few. Opposition activists complain of official corruption, and the international group Human Rights Watch said security forces arbitrarily detained 50 journalists, activists and opposition figures in 2012.

The region's parliament "is weak and cannot effectively question the (Kurdish) government," said Abdullah Mala-Nouri of the opposition Gorran party.

Iraq's central government strongly opposes the Kurds' quest for full-blown independence.

Iraqi leaders bristle at Kurdish efforts to forge an independent foreign policy, and the two sides disagree over control of disputed areas along their shared internal border. In November, Kurdish fighters and the Iraqi army were engaged in a military standoff, and tensions remain high.

Oil is at the root of those disputes.

Iraq sits atop the world's fourth largest reserves of conventional crude, or about 143 billion barrels, and oil revenues make up 95 percent of the state budget. Kurdish officials claim their region holds 45 billion barrels, though that figure cannot be confirmed independently.

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