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Erbil, Iraq goes from backwater to big city

With this blog entry, Mideast bureau chief Patrick Martin returns to Iraq for the fourth time to begin a series of reports, blogs and audio diaries from a country emerging from war.

Erbil, Iraq - Riding into Erbil from the airport Tuesday, I was reminded of the first time I entered the city.

It was November, 1992, and Saddam Hussein was still very much in command of most of Iraq, except for the three northern-most provinces that formed the independent enclave of Kurdistan. For more than a year, the enclave had survived under the watchful eye and protective no-fly zone of the Americans.

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Saddam's forces had been confined to points south of what would become known as the Green Line, and the Kurds would be given a chance to create what they had long dreamed of: a relatively safe place of their own.

The Kurdish movements - the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP), led by Massoud Barzani, and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) of Jalal Talabani - put aside most of their differences and worked together to make a go of independence.

By late 1992, a parliament building already had risen and was nearing completion.

After three back-breaking days bouncing through the mountains from the Turkish border, fording rivers on rafts of oil-drums (Saddam had bombed the bridges) and avoiding Iraqi snipers on the hills to the South, my PUK interpreter, my Peshmerga fighter/driver and I had finally reached the emerging "capital" of Kurdistan.

Of course there were no airports, few decent roads, and very little trade in the territory that stretched from the Syrian border, along the Turkish frontier to the edge of Iran.

The major source of income came from the taxes levied on goods transported south from Turkey, across Kurdistan to Iraq, and levied on oil being trucked back north to Turkey in violation of the United Nations embargo.

(One sensed the Americans didn't move to plug this leak because the Kurds needed the revenue from their "taxes" to survive.) As we wheeled into town that bright November day we encountered our first taste of the new order in the form of a policeman directing traffic at the city's main intersection. The poor fellow signalled us to stop as he bade the cross traffic to proceed.

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Rather than slowing down, however, my Peshmerga driver sped up, insisting he wouldn't take orders from a member of the KDP. Straight through the intersection we went, causing several other cars to brake hard or swerve to avoid us.

Fortunately, there weren't that many cars in those days - in fact, I'm told that in 1992 there were only 16,000 cars registered in the area.

Today, it's vastly different. There's been no recent census but officials say there are more than a million souls in the capital and hundreds of thousands of vehicles. The city has a ring-road, complete with underpasses and overpasses, and a rush hour that ties up traffic from about 4 to 6 each working day.

Most of the people appear to live outside the ring-road in communities of modern apartment blocks and single family dwellings.

Between the city centre and the airport, are being built the most lavish of those communities: two gated neighbourhoods of about 100 villas each, still mostly under construction. One of the communities is called American Village.

The two-three storey palatial homes include many with long gracefully curved walls, tall pillars and broad archways.

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A new German hotel is being built across the road, just north of the swank new sports club.

Affluence, it seems, has begun to arrive in Kurdistan, based mostly on the prospect of vast amounts of oil and gas being developed, and on the assumption that the Kurdish authority will preside over that development.

A modern new airport is nearing completion, and it boasts of having the world's longest runway, "long enough to land the space shuttle on," a Western aid official told me.

If they're ever called on to land it.

There still are traffic police at most of Erbil's major intersections, but these days, they're obeyed.

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