One week after the attempted attack on Iraqi Kurdistan’s Asayish headquarters in the semi-autonomous region’s capital, Erbil, it was announced that all of the attackers were Arabs. Apparently no Kurdish individuals were involved. As a result of this, security on the borders of the region, which has its own parliament, military and legislation, was tightened.
The Sept. 29 attack was the first such attack to have succeeded – even partially –in over six years and resulted in the deaths of seven security staff and the six assailants, as well as wounding as many as 72 others. Masrour Barzani, who heads the Iraqi Kurdish Security Council, announced that the attackers and their accomplices were all Arabs who are thought to have made their way into the Iraqi Kurdistan via the nearby city of Mosul. An affiliate of Al Qaeda claimed responsibility for the attack; Mosul is considered by many to be the headquarters of the extremist Sunni Muslim group in Iraq.
Even before the announcement was made though, border security was being stepped up and Arabs coming into the region from Iraq were being subjected to special scrutiny. Many who had planned to come into Iraqi Kurdistan were denied entry and made to turn back.
One of these was Haider Qasim, 20, from the Diyala province. He and three friends wanted to holiday in the Iraqi Kurdish city of Sulaymaniyah. However border security turned them away, sending them home.
Qasim was angry and upset at his ruined holiday and felt that such behaviour would worsen the sometimes troubled but mostly positive relationship between Iraq’s Arabs and Kurds.
“Even if Arabs were behind this attack in Erbil, that doesn’t mean that all the Arabs of Iraq are terrorists,” Qasim argued. “If a Kurd does something wrong, we don’t blame every other Kurd for that deed.”
Husam Allawi and his wife, Fatima Haider, also fell out with border security. They did eventually manage to get to Erbil but they say that at every checkpoint they had to debate the issue with security forces.
“We did know about the bombing before the trip,” Allawi admitted to NIQASH. “And we were saddened at the thought that innocent people may have died. But we were still determined to travel. We never thought the incident would close the region’s borders like this. Terrorists attack the security forces in Iraqi Kurdistan but it is the ordinary citizen who pays the price,” Allawi concluded.
The aim of the tighter security is to increase control over border areas and to prevent terrorists from getting into the region, Ashti Majid, the spokesperson for the Iraqi Kurdish security forces known as the Asayish, explained. “We didn’t completely close the doors to any families coming from central or southern Iraq,” Majid told NIQASH. “We just made our procedures tougher.”
Those who suffered most from that were young, single men, Majid explained. These were most likely to be suspected as terrorists. “But anyone who had a profession, or who had a residency permit for the region, was allowed in.”
Additionally the local security was going to re-examine all of the files on foreigners living in the region. Anyone who didn’t have a job or who didn’t have a file at the Asayish would be expelled from Iraqi Kurdistan.
Also affected were the region’s tourism operators. Tourism department spokesperson Nadir Rosti told NIQASH that visitor numbers were down by an estimated 10 percent, compared to the same time last year. Rosti believed this was due to the stricter security measures. And although that didn’t sound like a lot, the head of Kurdistan\'s Association for Hotels and Restaurants, Hersh Ahmad told NIQASH that his members had already noticed a drop in earnings.
As a result of all of this, Rosti thought that the tourism operators would be looking to appeal to groups of potential customers other than Arabs from Iraq – for example, tourists from Europe, the US, Turkey, Iran and other Arab nations.
The stricter security may also jeopardise future plans for tourism in the region. Erbil was named the Tourism Capital of the region for 2014 by the Arab Council of Tourism and authorities had hoped to attract up to 5 million tourists – last year, 2 million came to the region.
Local economist Khaled Haidar said the potential decrease in tourism could prove problematic for the region’s economy. Along with the oil industry, tourism was one of Iraqi Kurdistan’s biggest earners. “But while the revenues from tourism go directly to citizens and to the private sector, oil revenues go straight to the government,” Haider explained. “So the decrease in the number of tourists will affect the ordinary Kurdish people the most.”