ERBIL, Iraq — The United States on Sunday opened its first ever consulate in Iraq's semi-autonomous Kurdistan region, a symbol of the normalization of U.S.-Iraqi relations as U.S. military forces withdraw, as well as a recognition of the dynamic growth of the Kurdish economy.
At the second such event in less than a week, following dedication of a similar mission in Basra, the southern oil hub, U.S. Ambassador James Jeffrey said America's "fondest wish" is that a "strong and vibrant Kurdistan region" within a democratic and federal Iraq "arise from the tragic history of this region."
He was referring to years of suppression of Kurdish culture, the gassing of thousands of Kurds and the wholesale displacement of Kurds from traditional lands by the Saddam Hussein regime, which the U.S. overthrew in the 2003 invasion.
Earlier, Ed Fuller, the president of Marriott hotels international lodging, signed a deal to manage a 200-room upscale hotel and a 75-room executive apartments complex being built by a Kurdish partner. The complex, which is already rising close to Erbil airport, also marked a vote of confidence by a top U.S. business that the Kurdistan region, with its oil wealth, its openness to the world and overall security, is heading for a major boom.
Never miss a local story.
Unlike Basra, where the new Consulate General is housed in a highly fortified military base, away from the town and able to provide emergency services only for the time being, the new consulate in Erbil is in a suburb close to the city's airport in a compound of at least two dozen private homes, which the U.S. government is leasing to provide working space and housing for at least 15 diplomats.
The dedication was at points a highly emotional event, particularly for the Kurds, who to some extent owe the survival of their political aspirations and current prosperity to U.S. backing at key moments in their recent history.
Kurdistan President Massoud Barzani said that Kurds "will never forget" U.S. support going back to the Kurdish uprising in 1991, at the time of the first Gulf war, when the United States and Britain established no-fly zones over the ethnic Kurdish region. This provided "a sort of safe haven" for Kurds, he said, "and we were able to benefit from that opportunity to work on a reconstruction of our country and building institutions here in the region."
Then in 2003, the Kurdish Peshmerga militia took part in the U.S.-led assault to overthrow Saddam. "With your assistance, we were able to topple the dictatorial regime in Iraq ... to provide the golden opportunity for the people of Iraq to build a democratic country," Barzani said.
Thomas Nides, the visiting U.S. deputy secretary of state, spoke of a "20-year friendship" with Kurds, one that "was forged in the hardships of the first Gulf war, and that continued through the liberation of Iraq from Saddam Hussein, and all the difficulties that followed, and one that's thriving today."
Nides has described the current U.S. transition from conquest and occupation to friendship and alliance as the biggest U.S.-run transition since the Marshall plan was devised to help post-World War II Europe get back on its feet.
"We are definitely normalizing our relations, with the government, people, all forces in this country," Jeffrey later told reporters. But he noted a major exception, an insurgency that seeks to oust the U.S. from the region. He said extremists were trying "every means — political, protest, intimidation and vicious mass violence to drive America out of here and then ... to create we don't' know quite what kind of government." He said the opening of the consulate showed that the U.S. was here to stay.
The United States maintained an active and large regional reconstruction team in Kurdistan until now, and its local staff and U.S. diplomats will transfer to the new Consulate General. But it's somewhat behind other major regional and foreign powers in setting up a formal diplomatic presence, following Britain, France, Germany, Iran, Kuwait, Russia and Turkey, among others.
Kurdistan's economy, supported by the sale of oil, is thriving and expanding rapidly, compared to the overall Iraqi economy. The skyline in Erbil, the capital of the Kurdistan region, indicates what an enormous building boom is now under way.
Jeffrey, at the signing of the hotel agreement earlier in the afternoon, took note of Kurdistan's rapid growth in comparison to the rest of the country. "Our motto," he said, "is today, Erbil, tomorrow, all of Iraq."
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY