Sulaimani is the most crowded, but important, city in the Kurdistan region – a semi-autonomous area in the country’s northeast – because it is the region’s cultural capital. As such it is home to many festivals and is a tourism hub.
There were 31,070 car accidents in Iraqi Kurdistan in 2012, in which 567 people died and 3,424 were injured, according to Qadir Sidiq, spokesman for the Kurdistan regional government’s Directorate of Transportation. Sidiq told a press conference earlier this year he was disappointed that the number of traffic deaths has increased significantly in recent years, particularly in Sulaimani province. Unlike region’s capital, Irbil, which has modern roads, transportation infrastructure in the city of Sulaimani has been poorly maintained.
A Sulaimani taxi driver who would only provide his first name, Ahmed, saw the results of the city’s congestion firsthand.
Before he drove a taxi, Ahmed drove an ambulance. One day in March 2012, he said, roads were so crowded that it took him an extra eight minutes to get a wounded man to the Sulaimani Public Hospital. Doctors, seeing the man’s injuries and noting the time lag, upbraided Ahmed upon arrival. Shaken by the incident, Ahmed resigned.
“My conscience forced me to quit,” he said, “I never want to take such responsibilities again.”
In the past decade, Kurdistan’s regional government has encouraged foreign and domestic investment in Sulaimani. Major shopping centers have been built. Sarchnar, an area that is now the center of Sulaimani nightlife, was a popular picnic spot before 2003. Two 4- and 5-star hotels have opened in the last six months.
In 2012, tourism to the region was up 70 percent, driven by eco-tourism and the region’s relative security. Population growth, however, has outpaced infrastructure construction and maintenance.
There are no lines marking lanes on the Kirkuk Highway, the main road in and out of Sulaimani.
Another road, Route 46, which runs southeast out of Sulaimani to Iran, is clogged by numerous oil trucks. “It can take 30 minutes to go 2 kilometers in the city,” said Christine van den Toorn, who teaches social sciences at the American University of Iraq in Sulaimani.
Many students claim they cannot be on time to class because of traffic jams.
“Because of the bottlenecks, I can seldom be punctual both in my college and in appointments with friends,” said Rezhna Saed, a college student at Sulaimani Public University.
Sulaimani is a largely commuter city. Hemin Khalaf, 25, lives in a nearby suburb but recently took a job in town.
“Sulaimani is growing fast, and it has a lot of well-paid jobs,” Khalaf said. “But the problem is that its public transportation really is pathetic and upsetting, so a lot of employees have their own cars.”
Alan Hiwa, 23, grew up in Sulaimani and recalls that cars were much less common in the past.
“When we were kids, my brother and I would stand on the roof of our house counting cars. They were few and rare,” he said.
Sidiq, the Transportation Directorate spokesman, said that the number of cars in the region has reached 1.84 million, mostly in Sulaimani.
The city is increasingly engulfed in car exhaust, for which there are no regulations.
“I have asthma and it becomes worse and worse every day because the air is heavy with car emissions. It is poisoning,” Hassan Issa, a 56-year-old shopkeeper, said.
Jawhar Jalal, 34, a taxi driver from Sulaimani, says the traffic problems are the result of poor city planning. “A decade ago, there were no huge buildings on the main streets and nowhere near the number of cars,” Jalal said. “Now this problem is unsolvable.
" The government, however, places blame on commuters. Barham A. Mahmoud, a Transportation Directorate administrative officer, said that many drivers are careless and do not follow traffic rules.
“Fast driving and speed bumps on main roads are some of major problems,” he said. “People drive very fast, so we have put three traffic surveillance cameras in the city that work around the clock to capture the traffic violators and to fine them.
“Over the past four years,” said van den Toorn, “I have had three friends and my mother come to visit. I see more and more tourists from Europe and the U.S. walking through streets of Sulaimani. The city really is becoming a metropolitan place. It should have had better roads.”