December 8th, 2011
10:35 AM GMT
Editor's note: "Along the Silk Road" is a weekly segment on Global Exchange, that will explore the burgeoning trade and investment links from the Middle East to Asia. Watch Global Exchange, on CNN International, Sunday to Thursday 1100 ET, 1600 GMT and 1700 CET.
Erbil, northern Iraq (CNN) - In the Kurdistan region of northern Iraq, Erbil Citadel is thought to be the oldest continuously inhabited settlement in the world.
More than 7,000 years old, it is a reminder of a timeless past in a fast-changing present. Beneath it, the city of Erbil is undergoing rapid development, with five-star hotels and luxury housing complexes joining its skyline.
Liberated from Saddam Hussein's persecution, Iraq's Kurds are in the midst of an economic boom. Oil rigs dot the hills and foreign companies are coming to Kurdistan enticed by the black gold beneath the land.
But the deals being cut by the Kurdistan regional government are not going down well with Iraq's central government, which says it alone has authority to sign lucrative oil and gas deals.
The Kurds’ response? Not any more.
“There is no way that we will be dissuaded from our constitutional right to developing our resources and allow ourselves to ever again become hostages to the whims of some bureaucrats in Baghdad," says Barham Salih, Prime Minister of the Kurdistan Regional Government.
“We've been there before. Oil was used to strangle our people, to commit genocide,” he adds.
In the late 1980s Saddam Hussein led a vicious campaign against the Kurds, forcibly displacing them from their homes and replacing them with Arabs.
Entire villages were razed to the ground. Some, like Hajabja, were gassed with deadly chemical agents.
After the Kurds rose up against Saddam Hussein in 1991, the United States and allies came to their aid with a no-fly zone to keep Iraqi forces out. Kurdish militia - known as Peshmerga - joined American troops during the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.
Now the Kurds boast their region is "the other Iraq" - safe, peaceful, stable.
“I believe Kurdistan is now an important hub of economic activity, is an important market in its own right, but it is even more important when you think of it as a gateway to a larger Iraqi market,” says Salih.
“This is our vision. We want Kurdistan to be the indispensable link to trade and commerce, economic cooperation among our neighbors.”
Part of that vision is the American University of Iraq, in Sulaimaniya, where Salih chairs the board of trustees. Its mission is to train the next generation of Kurdish talent.
Azzam Alwash, executive secretary of the board of trustees, says: “We want to expand (the) free market and we think that our students who graduate knowing English will be the raw material from which the oil companies, the accounting companies, the engineering companies, will recruit.”
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