Northern Iraq: An Unusual Reminder of Freedom

In a grand acclamation of basic American freedom, Ronald Reagan declared that, "Only when the human spirit is allowed to invent and create, only when individuals are given a personal stake in deciding economic policies and benefiting from their success – only then can societies remain economically alive, dynamic, progressive, and free." It is these principles that the American free market is founded on, and it is these principles that make our country the greatest and freest in the world.

Stay Engaged

Receive our weekly emails!

However, on the opposite side of the world – and the political spectrum – lies Iraq, one of the most feared, fascist regimes on the planet. The term "free market" is as alien to the citizens of Iraq as the concept of liberty; the First Amendment rights that we Americans use every day are unknown to the majority of Iraqis, including political freedom, religious freedom, and freedom of the press.

Representative government elected by the people is yet another right that Iraqi citizens are not afforded. Saddam Hussein’s idea of an election is a ballot that asks whether he should remain in office – one simple yes or no question. The last election was held in October 2002, with the Iraqi government reporting a 100% "yes" vote (Hussein ran unopposed).

Yet, there is a part of Iraq that refuses to adhere to these arcane, unjust rules, bringing together the culture and history of an ancient Middle Eastern sect and the social and economic freedoms associated with the United States. Northern Iraq, home almost entirely to Kurds that fled Southern Iraq after the Gulf War, has shunned the Iraqi government and created a system of economic and relative political freedom – one that the majority of Middle Eastern citizenry can only dream about.

Completely isolated from mainstream Iraqi government and culture, the Kurds have been able to establish this quasi-state without interference; the mountainous terrain from the South makes it all but impossible to reach Northern Iraq by land, and its NATO-enforced no-fly zone keeps the Iraqi army from decimating the North by air. Their currency is the decade-old dinar that is out of circulation in lower Iraq, for the Kurds refuse to use the new dinar with Saddam’s face printed on the bills.

The prosperity of the Kurdish North is astounding. Cities thrive with supermarkets, restaurants, entertainment venues, even an amusement park. Internet cafes are constantly full with standing-room-only crowds, and high-tech goods such as high-definition plasma televisions are sold regularly in cities like Duhok, which is roughly 40 miles south of Iraq’s border with Turkey.

Reagan’s statement underscores the inevitability of the Kurds’ move to a democracy: the free-market is what gives people a sense of legitimacy in their own country. This moves them towards a government in which they have a say – something that is simply impossible in the economically binding systems of socialism and communism.

The Kurdish system hasn’t been perfected or institutionalized yet; the area is still separated into east and west, which are ruled by separate quasi-governments of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and the Kurdish Democratic Party, respectively. The parties are living under a mutual peace agreement; the United States is working with the parties to resolve their differences, and their rivalry is expected to soon end. Already the two sides have implemented an elected common parliament. The Kurds are moving towards a federalist system (as opposed to a republic like that in the U.S.) in hopes that a friendlier and more democratic central authority in Baghdad will evolve after Saddam’s reign ends. In terms of progress, Mohammad Sabir, the head PUK representative in Washington, D.C. said at a conference that "We are, I think, only 150 years behind the United States" (

Dr. Mohammed M. A. Ahmed of wrote in an August article ( that, "having succeeded in establishing and running a Kurdish de-facto democratic state with an open market economy in the Kurdish region, the Kurds are in a relatively strong position to push their demand for the creation of a federal state of government in Iraq." This is a fundamental understanding of the concept of a free society – that a free market leads to a free government.

It is apparent that the people of Northern Iraq have greatly benefited from their freedom from the Iraqi regime. Our country’s leaders should heed this lesson learned from the Kurd’s success: that the foundation of democracy relies and thrives on a free, private market. In fact, Milton Friedman, in his book Capitalism and Freedom, stated that a free market "is a necessary condition for political freedom." The Kurds should be applauded for what they have accomplished and lauded for their strive for greatest achievement – freedom.

# # #

Neil Block is a research intern at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy.