by Jamal Hashim
ARBIL, Iraq, Sept. 22 (Xinhua) -- While much of Iraq grapples with increasing violence and power struggle, raising fears that the country could slide into civil war, the northern Kurdistan Region is enjoying an economic boom in an oasis of peace.
Violence in Iraq outside the autonomous Kurdish region has been growing high as the country is witnessing its worst eruption in recent years, which raises fears that the country is sliding back to full-blown civil conflict that peaked in 2006 and 2007, when monthly death toll sometimes exceeded 3,000.
On Saturday, a wave of violence left at least 86 people killed and more than 150 wounded in the Iraqi capital of Baghdad and central Saladin province.
Unlike the situation in the rest of the country, the Kurdistan autonomous region was calm on Saturday and voters flocked to polling stations to elect their new parliament with the hope for a better future.
About 2.8 million people in the Kurdish region were eligible to vote in the parliamentary elections, the fourth such polls since Iraqi Kurds established the autonomous region in 1991, as 1,129 candidates were vying for the 111 seats in the regional legislature.
At the end of the day, the Iraqi electoral commission said that the Kurds made a turnout of 73 percent and described the voting process a success. The election process came to boost the aspirations of the Kurdish people who are living in a tangible prosperity, compared to the rest of troubled country, as Kurdistan's economy booms thanks to the oil wealth and foreign investment.
In Kurdistan, cranes scattered across the skylines of major cities like Arbil and Sulaymaniyah as many luxury hotels and skyscrapers were being built.
The region's capital city of Arbil, or "New Dubai" as some Kurds like to name it, is considered to be one of the most promising growth markets in the Middle East, with one luxury project after another being launched in the city.
By 2015, eight luxurious five-star hotels will be built in the city, among them the international chains of Marriott, Hilton and Sheraton.
The opening of many Western-style shopping malls in Arbil, carrying goods of many international brands that entered the country for the first time, is set to turn the city into a main shopping market for Iraqis.
Kurdistan's regional investment commission claimed that the Kurdish region is projected to enjoy a economic growth of 12 percent in 2013, while the growth rate of Iraq as a whole is anticipated to expand by nine percent this year, according to the International Monetary Fund.
Ali Qaradaghi, a Kurdish economy expert, told Xinhua that the Kurdistan Region has attracted over 17 billion U.S. dollars in foreign investment during the past five years.
"The majority of over 1,900 foreign firms investing in Kurdistan are from neighboring Turkey, Iran and Lebanon. Those companies were mainly encouraged by the investment law that was enacted in 2006," Qaradaghi said.
Under the investment law, the firms are exempted from taxes on imports and profits for their first 10 years.
The law also does not oblige the companies to hire local workers, partners or investors, and they have the right to send home their profits, Qaradaghi added.
A major difference between the investment law in Kurdistan and the rest of Iraq is that the region allows owing land for investment, whereas the national investment law outside the region only allows leases of up to 50 years that can be extended, Qaradaghi said.
Over the past 22 years since the establishment of no-fly zone over the region to keep out former president Saddam Hussein's forces, the Kurdish region witnessed relative peace and increasingly distanced itself from the central government.
Iraq, whose crude oil revenues make up 95 percent of its budget, has announced in 2010 that its proven crude oil reserves had reached 143 billion barrels.
Kurdish officials currently claim that their region holds proven oil reserves of around 45 billion barrels, or about a third of Iraq's total oil reserves, though such figure could not be confirmed independently.
The Kurds annually receive 17 percent of Iraq's total oil export revenues, including Kurdistan's share of money paid by Baghdad for providing subsidized food staples for the people in the region.
However, the prosperity of the region comes despite a long- standing row between Baghdad and Arbil.
The feuds have long been focused on land, power sharing and the right of exploiting the oil fields in the autonomous region, as Baghdad stresses that the region's oil deals with foreign oil firms are illegal because they must be struck by the federal government.
Meanwhile, the drafting of the country's oil law has been stalled for years by the Iraqi parliament due to profound differences among political factions over the sharing of revenues from Iraq's crude.
In fact, the Kurds have passed their own regional energy law and signed more than 50 deals with foreign oil companies. The regional law allowed the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) to offer production-sharing contracts, which are a lot more lucrative for foreign oil firms than the service contracts signed earlier by the Iraqi government in Baghdad.