There’s also a strong undercurrent of discontent, amid concerns about the concentration of power in the hands of a few. Opposition activists complain of official corruption, and the international group Human Rights Watch said security forces arbitrarily detained 50 journalists, activists and opposition figures in 2012.
The region’s parliament ‘‘is weak and cannot effectively question the (Kurdish) government,’’ said Abdullah Mala-Nouri of the opposition Gorran party.
Iraq’s central government strongly opposes the Kurds’ quest for full-blown independence.
Iraqi leaders bristle at Kurdish efforts to forge an independent foreign policy, and the two sides disagree over control of disputed areas along their shared internal border. In November, Kurdish fighters and the Iraqi army were engaged in a military standoff, and tensions remain high.
Oil is at the root of those disputes.
Iraq sits atop the world’s fourth largest reserves of conventional crude, or about 143 billion barrels, and oil revenues make up 95 percent of the state budget. Kurdish officials claim their region holds 45 billion barrels, though that figure cannot be confirmed independently.
The central government claims sole decision-making rights over oil and demands that all exports go through state-run pipelines. The Kurds say they have the right to develop their own energy policy and accuse the government of stalling on negotiating a new deal on sharing oil revenues.
The Kurds have also passed their own energy law and signed more than 50 deals with foreign oil companies, offering more generous terms than Baghdad.
An oil company doing business in the region, Genel Energy, began shipping Kurdish oil by truck to Turkey in January.
The planned direct export pipeline is of strategic importance, said Ali Balo, a senior Kurdish oil official. ‘‘Why are we building it? Because we always have problems with Baghdad.’’
The project also highlights Turkey’s growing involvement in the region, a marked change from just a few years ago when ties were strained over Ankara’s battle against Kurdish insurgents seeking self-rule in Turkey.
Mutual need forged the new relationship.
Turkey, part of the region’s Sunni Muslim camp, needs more oil to fuel its expanding economy. It prefers to buy from the Kurds rather than the Shiite-led government in Baghdad, seen as a member of the region’s rival Iranian-influenced axis. The Kurds, also predominantly Sunni, need Turkey not just as a gateway for oil exports but also as a business partner.
Almost half of nearly 1,900 foreign companies operating here are Turkish, government officials say. Seventy percent of Turkey’s annual $15 billion Iraq trade is with the Kurdish region.
In a sign of the times, Turkish and English are the languages of instruction at a top private school in Irbil. During music class at the Bilkent school, third-graders sitting cross-legged on a large carpet sang ‘‘Twinkle, twinkle, little star’’ in Turkish, followed by ‘‘London Bridge’’ in English.
The 351 students start studying Kurdish, the native language of most, in third grade. Arabic is introduced last, in fourth grade.
The curriculum reflects the priorities of the school’s founder, a member of Iraq’s ethnic Turkmen minority. But it also suits Kurdish parents who believe their children’s future is tied to Turkey.
Oddly, Turkish-Kurdish ties are flourishing at a time of continued cross-border violence.
Turkish warplanes routinely strike bases of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, a Turkish rebel group operating from the Qandil mountains of Iraq’s Kurdish region. The PKK launches raids into Turkey from its mountain hideouts.
Both sides are simply keeping the two issues separate.
Turkey has stopped linking improved ties with Irbil to resolving Turkey’s conflict with the PKK, a fight which has claimed thousands of lives since 1984. The Kurds keep quiet about Turkish airstrikes on their territory.
As problems with Baghdad fester, Kurdish officials say their region’s departure from Iraq is inevitable. Many here dream of an independent Kurdistan, made up of parts of Syria, Turkey, Iran and Iraq, home to more than 25 million Kurds.
‘‘As a people, we deserve that,’’ said Bakir, the foreign policy official. ‘‘We want to see that in our lifetime.’’
But with key allies such as the U.S. and Turkey opposed to splitting up Iraq, the Kurds say they won’t act with haste or force.
Asked if the Kurdish region would declare independence once it can export oil directly, Bakir said: ‘‘We will cross that bridge when we get there. At this time, we are still committed to a democratic, federal, pluralistic Iraq.’’
Associated Press writer Mohammed Jambaz in Irbil contributed.