SULAYMANIYAH, Northern Iraq – The bald eagle, Old Glory and the almighty dollar are king in this portion of Iraq, where ethnic Kurds don’t hide their affection for the U.S.
Shops peddle American flags, U.S. military gear is prized and the locals speak glowingly of the nation they credit with removing Saddam Hussein, the dictator whose heavy hand so often came down on the minority clustered in Iraq’s northern regions.
"Imagine if America didn't exist,” said Kurdo Amin Agha, an accountant whose home is adorned with Israeli, American and Kurdistan flags, and who wears a U.S. Army shirt and Navy SEAL watch. “Without America, the world would be run by China or Iran.
"America represents freedom," he added. "Our dream is to be eternally allied to America."
Throughout the region, a U.S. passport gets its bearer waved through security checkpoints, ushered through ministry doors and tea served with a broad smile of the manager when dining out.
The autonomous Kurdish region, run by the independent Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) and its President Masoud Barzani, as opposed to being under the complete thumb of the Iraqi Central Government, is home to around 6 million ethnic Kurds. It has long been marketed to the world as the "other Iraq" – a relatively safe and economically sound slice of the country which welcomes Westerners with open arms.
Everywhere you go a hint of red, white and blue can be bought and sold. One store tucked away in a local bazaar in this city, owned by a middle-aged man by the name of Zawzad, sells only pro-American merchandise and U.S. military-inspired clothing.
“It's just beautiful," Zawzad says softly, as he reverently unfolds a giant flag, holding it up with great respect.
Taxis are routinely adorned with seat covers starring the iconic bald eagle pattern, an array of household, electronic and fashion items from screwdrivers and pots and pans to guitars, phone covers, hats, shirts, shoes and bags are widely available in stars and stripes patterns.
Local police and military forces proudly sport American brand 5.11 Tactical gear and clothing – which can be found in both real and counterfeit varieties in scores of stores. An American flag patch is often sewn on.
It's not uncommon to have your drink served with a U.S. flag etched on the side of the glass, or to see American presidential memorabilia behind the workplace desk of a local Kurd. A significant number of official rooms display some sort of official certificate showing a connection between the Kurdish territory and the United States.
"Students used to have to learn Kurdish and Arabic," one local doctor explained. "Now they just want to learn Kurdish and English.”
Bordering Iran, Turkey, Syria and the Arab-dominated Republic of Iraq, the Kurdish-run region's resoluteness is embodied by its prominent military, the Peshmerga, which translates to "those who face death." The rugged army, battle-hardened from years of clashing with Hussein’s forces, has proven to be an able force in countering Islamic State.
Kurdish fighters clash continuously with Islamic State throughout northern Iraq and Syria, though the fiercest fighting takes place outside the territory under Kurdish control. Just 60 miles west of the region's capital, Erbil, an ancient city which was protected by American no-fly zones during Operation Iraqi Freedom, sits Mosul -- the country's second-largest city and now under ISIS control.
The roots of the Kurdish affection for America lie in the U.S.-led operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm. While the first, under President George H.W. Bush, did not topple the hated Hussein, it served notice that America was his enemy.
U.S. military forces ousted Hussein in 2003 and brought him to ultimate justice in 2006, when he was executed on orders of an Iraqi tribunal. Tens of thousands of Kurds were murdered, many with chemical weapons, on orders of the former Baath Party leader. Once Hussein was gone, the oil-rich Kurdish region began to prosper.
Kurds openly express their hope that the United States will help them become a completely independent country.
When the U.S.-led airstrikes to hamper ISIS were launched in August, entire Kurdish neighborhoods could be seen waving American flags in the streets, with many even marking American Veterans Day this past November.
"We follow American news," Agha said. "Like shootings and hurricanes. We care about what happens to the people of the United States."
Most Kurds show great respect for President Obama, but it’s the name Bush that generates a larger salute. Some are even preparing to get behind possible candidate Jeb Bush in the 2016 presidential elections.
"The first Bush made no secret that he hated Saddam, the second Bush finished him off," Agha added. "And the third will be the one to give Kurdistan its independence."
The very concept of an independent Kurdistan is extremely controversial. With an ethnic population spread across the territory of three other nations outside of Iraq – Turkey, Syria and Iran – the prospect of redrawing the borders of all four countries to create a new state seems to some an impossibly destabilizing idea. Even the notion of independence for just the Kurdish-administered area of Northern Iraq is opposed not just by neighboring countries but by the international community, including the Obama administration.
Nonetheless, many Kurds remain steadfastly pro-American. One local even noted Kurdish authorities "get scared" when they see an American passport. "Nobody wants to upset an American," the local explained. "They worry they might have said or done something wrong."
Kurds, who as a group are overwhelmingly Muslim, also portray themselves as more religiously tolerant. "Right now I am working with Muslims, Yazidi, Christians -- we're all working together,” said one high-ranking KRG official.
“They celebrate occasions together. It is something very beautiful. I have friends who pray and friends who don't, that is not my problem. That is their choice. That is how Kurdish people think about religion."
On the morning of Dec. 1, many Kurds were busy setting up and decorating Christmas trees. Whether it was the secular embrace of a foreign religious rite or simply done to make guests more comfortable wasn’t clear.
"We're still new to this," a Kurdish hotel employee said with a smile, amid bickering with a co-worker on how to decorate it. "But we love it."