In 1977, after the Iraqi Army first attacked his home village of Gullan in the Kurdish north, Askendar Mohammed went to live deep in the mountains of Iraqi Kurdistan, where he served as a peshmerga—a term used to describe Kurdish fighters, meaning “those who confront death.” He fought for more than two decades, even as Saddam Hussein dropped chemical weapons on Kurdish towns and villages, murdering thousands.
An uprising in 1991 ultimately failed to depose Saddam. But after U.S. forces set up a no-fly zone over much of the north, Iraqi Kurdistan began to wrest itself from decades of fighting and move toward autonomy. For his valor in the uprising, Mohammed was elected the mukhtar, or village head, of Gullan, and gradually memories of war became eclipsed by promises of wealth and independence. Today, Mohammed, the aging peshmerga, has settled into a new life of calm; the shotgun tucked into his pants is more an accessory than a tool of the trade.
Underwriting Iraqi Kurdistan’s bright future is oil
But underwriting Iraqi Kurdistan’s bright future is oil—an estimated 45 billion barrels are waiting to be exploited in the most secure part of the world’s fifth-largest oil economy, much of it in the mountainous regions around Gullan. The village’s peshmerga are revered and laid-back in their retirement, but since last summer Gullan has faced a new adversary, one for which decades of firing kalashnikovs in the mountains hadn’t prepared the fighters. Exxon Mobil won the contract from the Kurdistan Regional Government to explore near Gullan, and the oil behemoth has already begun digging holes in the mountains. The villagers are on edge.