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U.S. Scholar Shares His Views of Life in Northern Iraq

(Interview with Professor Michael Rubin)

By Vicki Silverman
Washington File Staff Writer


August 20, 2002


Washington -- From September 2000 until June 2001, Michael Rubin taught and traveled throughout northern Iraq. He says the rule of law and civic participation in government have taken hold this area of Iraq not controlled by Saddam Hussein to the degree that "people are buying land, not gold."

Michael Rubin is currently a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. In 2002-2003 he will serve as an International Affairs Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. Rubin shared his rare, first-hand impressions of the region with the Washington File on August 15.

"Northern Iraq’s economic development over the past five years has been amazing," Rubin said. "Under not just the government of Saddam Hussein, but governments going back to the monarchy, the north was more or less ignored," he said. Development was slowed, he said, by civil conflict in the region, and by the Iraqi regime’s 1988 Anfal campaign that destroyed 4,000 out of 4,600 villages in the three northern provinces.

"Once the regime lost control of the three northern provinces. They have been governing themselves since 1991, under the same economic sanctions as the rest of Iraq. But while the regime says sanctions have hurt children in Baghdad, Basra, and Mosul, fertility has increased in northern Iraq and infant mortality has decreased. Most of the villages have been rebuilt and instead of people from northern Iraq going to Baghdad to go shopping, now it’s the other way around," Rubin said.

The shopping areas of Dohuk resemble those of Washington, New York or London, from the well-stocked shelves to bar-coded inventory and checkout, he said.

"And you have to remember that this shopping area and the university next door were built on a former Ba’th party military base. What they have done in the north is take land, prime land that used to be used only by the Iraqi army, and instead of giving it to an army, they have given it to the people for something they can use. The same thing is true in Sulaymaniyah where a huge park, called ‘Azadi Park (Freedom Park),’ has been built on the Republican Guard base in the center of the city," Rubin noted.


"One indicator of people’s optimism for the future is how they invest their money. Traditionally, Kurds and Arabs have said, ‘If we have extra money, we buy gold for our wives.’ Now what people are doing is buying land," he said.

One of the greatest differences between those areas controlled by the Iraq regime and the area controlled by others, according to Rubin, is the rule of law. " It is well established, even publicized in Iraqi newspapers, that Saddam Hussein will take the land away from people and give it to political favorites. In the north people are buying land because people are not afraid that the government is going to steal their property."

Rubin also described the development of independent civil society and human rights groups in northern Iraq and an independent judiciary, something he believes has been key in boosting investment. "These developments have evolved not through some new Kurdish law. Courts are basing their decision on existing Iraqi code. They are following the Iraqi constitution," he said.


Rubin estimated he interacted with over 500 undergraduates during his nine-month stay, teaching 13 university classes focused on English and history.

He taught at Sulaymani University in Sulaymaniyah; Salahuddin University in Erbil; and Dohuk University in Dohuk. Dohuk University was founded in 1992. The combined enrollment at these institutions exceeds 15,000 students. All three universities receive assistance through the Oil-for-Food program for specific projects.

"My students were really quite diverse. Some were from quite wealthy families; some where basically refugees who had been expelled from cities that were under Saddam Hussein’s control," Rubin said.

Rubin explained that, as the regime continues to expel the local population from areas like Kirkuk, he would see five to six new families arriving in the northern cities each day. "Some of my students were the children of families who would come to Sulaymaniyah with little more than the clothes on their backs," he said.

The university campuses were also ethnically diverse. "The north was not just Kurdish, but also there are Turkmen and Assyrians and many Arabs that don’t want to live under Saddam Hussein and have taken the opportunity to flee," Rubin said.

"I shared a house with a former professor from Baghdad University who is an ethnic Arab teacher. He had been one of those who helped organize ‘spontaneous demonstrations’ in Baghdad before he fled." He then explained that, "What happens at the university, according to people who were there, is that a professor might be teaching a class and on that day the order will come from above that they are to take their class, forget the exams, forget the labs, and board the buses outside. The teacher is to take down the names of any student who doesn’t go so that they can be dealt with later."

Rubin said he admires the dedication of the colleagues and students he encountered, but he also spoke of the challenges in education confronting many in the Middle East.

"As technology improves, as education advances and modernizes, there is a shift from teaching by rote to teaching critical thinking and analysis. What the students in northern Iraq are starting to practice is being able to read a book and interpret what it means rather than listen to what the professor says and give it back, word-for-word on the exam," he said.

Turning to a photo of prosthetic limbs, including some for children, Rubin commented that northern Iraq has been described as the most heavily mined area of the world.

"Most of the mines are along the mountainous Iranian border area, from the 1980-88 war. The regime in Baghdad has declared that only the United Nations is allowed to remove the mines within five kilometers of the border, but the regime has refused to give U.N. personnel visas to conduct de-mining activities near the border. There are three international non-governmental organizations helping local groups clear mines where they can. Paths have been cleared so that children can go to school, but in this very mountains region, rains wash the mines down from the border into areas previously cleared. Children walking on the paths have been seriously injured and some killed by these mines," Rubin said.

A selection of Rubin’s photographs taken in northern Iraq between September 2000-June 2001 may be viewed on the IIP website "Iraq Update."







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