By John Drake
LONDON: Two attempted suicide bombings have hit Iraqi Kurdistan in just over a month but, amid a spate of violence across Iraq, including an attack on a church with repercussions in Egypt, both of these attacks were barely noticed: visitors and businesses still need safety measures in Kurdistan but the generally peaceful reality belies the overall risk rating for Iraq.
Kurdish security forces — the Peshmerga — killed a would-be suicide bomber as he tried to enter Arbil on Nov. 1. He was traveling in a car laden with explosives from Kirkuk, a much more hazardous city to the south. On Sept. 29 a suicide bomber attacked a Peshmerga checkpoint in Sulaymaniyah province but was shot before he got close enough to cause any casualties when the explosives strapped to his body detonated. The two incidents highlight the intent of radical Islamists to strike in Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) territory.
The attacks, however, also demonstrate that the Kurdish security forces are vigilant. In both instances the Peshmerga spotted the approaching threat and killed the assailants before they reached their target, preventing potentially high casualties.
Foreign personnel and companies operating in the region should not be overly alarmed. There have been no foreign fatalities from violence in the three Kurdish provinces of Arbil, Dahuk and Sulaymaniyah since the 2003 invasion. There is a growing number of foreign firms with good experiences of doing business in the area — not least from Turkey, the biggest investor in the province, accounting for half all foreign firms there. Oil and gas in particular have grown well over recent years.
Indeed, many investors view the area as a safe location for doing business and a potential stepping stone to the rest of Iraq when conditions improve further south.
Security is needed but varies widely. Some companies use high-profile heavily-armored vehicles, traveling in convoy. This may mitigate the risk in most cases but it could also be excessive — and expensive — for a region which gets fewer terrorist attacks than Turkey. Such measure can even be offensive or at least ridiculous to local partners.
On the other hand, many companies operate without any security at all, given the lack of violent incidents, but there are dangers ranging from unexploded ordnance to traffic accidents.
Many security advisers recommend low-profile measures and emphasize training their staff for work in hostile regions , getting regular intelligence and having a security consultant (ideally medically trained). These measures, plus insurance which includes crisis back-up, will provide company employees with protection and care without highly visible protection (such as guards) which could attract unwanted attention. This training and intelligence — and intelligent behavior — also reassure employees (and their families) that Kurdistan is far safer than the rest of Iraq.
All this needs to be backed up by well-rehearsed procedures, well publicized among staff, for dealing with crises. The experience and knowledge provided by hostile-regions training will allow employees to make their own safety decisions on the ground. A firm will then be able to rely on its own staff, instead of external security companies or the local authorities.
At 166th out of 183 countries in the World Bank’s Doing Business index (yes, there are worse), with no government eight months after elections and with constant terrorism, Iraq still looks very threatening. But, like many dangerous places, it is important to understand the different risks in different areas: with the right preparation and information, you can do business in Iraqi Kurdistan.
John Drake is a Senior Risk Analyst, based in Baghdad and London, for AKE, an international security and intelligence firm based in the UK.