Erbil, Iraq. In the lobby of a certain hotel in the Kurdish city of Erbil, you find the familiar row of wall clocks indicating current time in various metropolitan hubs. Only something breaks your heart a little about the local twist put on this fixture of jet-set urbanity. Between clocks whose faces have been factory-stamped Istanbul or New York or Madrid, you see one displaying local time, and it looks like the others except for a single, small anomaly. The Erbil hasn’t been emblazoned onto the clock face by a manufacturer’s machine. It’s been printed out, in ordinary bold font, onto computer paper; cut down to a word-sized rectangle; and glued over the name of some other magnificent city.

The Kurds of the area known as the Kurdish Regional Government want to secure a free, democratic, and thriving Kurdistan. They are on their way to pulling it off. Personal safety here (where I am a guest of the KRG) is a given, so that most of the time, you forget you’re in Iraq. Parts of Erbil resemble Miami, Florida. There are rows of manicured palm trees, bustling retail strips, car dealerships, and everywhere the organized rubble of construction.

Other parts look more like the average Westerner’s conception of a Middle Eastern country: flat, dusty, and monochrome. In any case, the accomplishments go beyond the realm of the commercial or the aesthetic. The KRG is a free land. If you are an Iraqi Kurd, you don’t have to do what your leader orders. In fact, your leader does not order you to do anything. Nor do you have to do as your cleric says. In this corner of “the Muslim world,” liquor flows freely, journalists quote Tocqueville in conversation, and praise for Israel is easy to come by.

Praise for America is ubiquitous. The Kurdish foreign minister told my group matter-of-factly, “It was your men and women, in uniform who shed blood, who overthrew Saddam.” I heard a group of smart Kurdish students cite chapter and verse on American exceptionalism.

The Kurdish nation is bound to America like few others. Kurdish hopes for autonomy — after a history of being the victims of ethnic cleansing and mass slaughter — first became a precarious reality when George H.W. Bush instituted the northern no-fly zone over Iraq in 1991, three years after Saddam Hussein’s Anfal campaign wiped out up to 100,000 Kurds with chemical weapons. With American protection in place, the Kurds began building infrastructure and honing their political vision. When George W. Bush toppled Saddam’s regime in 2003, the Kurds, who make up about 20 percent of the Iraqi population, began building what they promote as “the other Iraq” in earnest.

Kurdish identity is largely built on the Kurds’ long and heroic struggle for survival. KRG President, Massoud Barzani, is a national hero. So, too, was his late father, Mustafa Barzani, who preceded him as leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP). Both were Peshmerga warriors from a proud tribe who spent their lives fighting for Kurdish self-determination. An uncompromising career enemy of Saddam Hussein, President Barzani is as much a symbol of Kurdish pride as he is leader.

Iraqi President Jalal Talabani is also a Kurdish icon. Talabani, like Barzani, comes from a prominent tribe and was also Peshmerga. In the 1970s, his Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) split off from, and fought against, the KDP. But the PUK now peacefully constitutes the other half of Kurdish party politics. The KRG and PUK share influence, and images of Barzani and Talabani are simply found everywhere in the region.

Kurdistan is bursting with everything the liberation of Iraq was intended to set free: pluralism, democracy, opportunity, and goodwill toward the U.S. But political realities in Iraq and America are bringing the first post-success phase of a free Iraq to an end. The future hangs on a few critical upcoming decisions in Baghdad, Kurdistan, and Washington.

The official outcome of Iraq’s March 7 elections is still on hold. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is showing the tell-tale signs of a Middle East strongman. After his State of Law Party lost out to the largely secular Al Iraqiya coalition, he’s pulled underhanded tricks to hang on to power. Maliki first used retroactive de-Baathification of candidates to dismiss the competition and narrow the race. Now he is stalling for time and, worse, has reached out to secure a bloc with Iranian-backed Sadrists. This new Shiite coalition is now four votes short of forming a government. The Sadrists, if unchecked, could become the equivalent of Hezbollah in Iraq. Aside from the cascade of tragedy this would visit on Iraq, it would solidify Iran’s uncontested regional hegemony.

The Kurds are being courted by both Al-Iraqiya and Maliki’s Shiite coalition. The former is a mixed bag, but on the whole, far closer to the Kurds’ centrist point of view. What’s more, they don’t pose the naked threat to stability that the Shiites do. Al-Iraqiya would seem like an obvious Kurdish choice.

But survival isn’t always a straightforward affair. The Kurds are now looking into the long-term future and wondering what will come of siding against the Shia, who make up a powerful countrywide majority. Saddam had brutalized and killed the Shia en masse, but since his toppling, they’ve steadily lost their empathy for the Kurds. One of Maliki’s increasingly frequent displays of power found him sending tanks to hem in the Kurds in the disputed city of Khanaqin. The American response was nonexistent.

That brings us to Washington. Kurdish leaders are not enraged but rather baffled by America’s eagerness to wash its hands of the hard-won Iraq victory. As a senior PDK official explained it, Iraqi politics is a soccer match in which all Iraq’s meddling neighbors, from Turkey to Iran, are fielding teams. “Who’s the only one with no team?” he asked. “America.”

The Obama administration is anxious to make good on its promise to end the war. This has meant not only the scheduled pullout of all U.S. fighting forces by the end of 2011 but also Washington’s growing detachment from all matters Iraqi. The administration has mostly steered clear of the current parliamentary crisis. But if a power-infected Maliki soon rules Iraq with a Shia coalition containing Sadrists, the country could start to unravel. The U.S. must help shape the decisions coming out of Baghdad. This means exercising our unique leverage in Iraq.

Whether or not American officials are able to coax the formation of a moderate central government, the Kurds must be protected. As it stands, at the end of 2011, the U.S. will leave a slew of heavy weaponry to central Iraq, including tanks and F-16s. The Kurds will be left with their lightly armed Peshmerga. An American base of 5,000-10,000 soldiers in Kurdistan would ensure that those American weapons aren’t turned on America’s most loyal friends. This would entail the most minimal risk of American casualties and help see Iraq safely through its next phase of federal democracy.

The Kurds desperately want the base, but at the moment the chances seem slim. While the U.S. has built an enormous embassy here, there is not even an American consul where Kurds can apply for U.S. visas. In the meantime, Kurdistan hangs its hopes on a constitutional referendum that would de-Arabize contested Kurdish areas.

There are still problems in Kurdistan. A democratic dynasty is still a dynasty. And the protection of traditional dynasties can turn ugly. Recently, a young journalist named Zardasht Osman was kidnapped and found dead after writing an inflammatory column referring to President Barzani’s daughter. But Kurdistan’s once calcified two-family political system is already giving way to a more legitimate pluralism. It is a feature of successful democracies that they are self-correcting. The upcoming generation of Kurds doesn’t remember life under Saddam and does not behold Barzani and Talabani with the traditional sense of awe. A new opposition party has sprung up and gained traction, particularly among the young. The long-standing Kurdish folk identity built on opposition to Saddam and the bravery of the Peshmerga must be supplanted by a new infectious idea of Kurdish statehood.

Nor is the KDP trying to choke off the torrent of change. To the contrary, reform is well underway. The Kurdish government has just instituted an astounding $100 million annual scholarship program, which will send around 2,500 Kurdish students to Western universities every year. Kurdish universities are on a comprehensive fast-track to Western accreditation and have enacted short-term quotas for women to correct for the gross region-wide imbalance in the student population. Government ministries are cracking down on the long-standing problem of tribal cronyism.

In discussing the achievements of the Iraq war, those of us who support the Iraqi liberation have developed a journalistic tic whereby we must attach the disclaimers fragile and reversible to every positive development. This is probably wise, but in the effort to shed the “triumphalist” label, we’ve neglected to emphasize something else about achievements in Iraq. They are precious. Nowhere is this more achingly obvious than in Iraqi Kurdistan. There is a population of 4 million overwhelmingly Muslim, pro-American, pro-democracy political and cultural reformers in an oil-rich, strategically critical location in the Middle East. Somehow, the current U.S. administration sees no significant U.S. interest in this treasure, won with the blood of the American soldier. For a White House and a State Department that tout engagement as a panacea, the neglect to engage Baghdad leadership and keep the Iraqi experiment on a positive course is egregious.

The clock in the hotel lobby ticks down to the end of 2011. Under the present policy, our abandonment of the Kurds will be celebrated in America as a campaign promise made good. The Kurds know that that moment will be celebrated in other, less democratic precincts as well.

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