Enjoying the Relative Peace of Northern Iraq

Nizar Hana dreams big. Really big. Eleven million square feet, 8,000 shops and 4,000 offices, all in one complex. In Iraq.

His friends back in Beirut, where he lives, initially thought he was crazy. But the first phase of his Nishtiman complex has been completed. It opened in February in the predominantly Kurdish northern city of Irbil, and nobody is laughing at him anymore. "Some of them decided to come in, too," Hana says , laughing .

Hana is an Iraqi Christian originally from the city of Kirkuk. He and his two brothers ran a successful trading company in Baghdad until 1993, when Saddam Hussein executed 43 private traders on dubious charges. The Hana brothers fled the country, fearing they would be killed. They set up in Turkey, Paris and Greece and began doing business with the former Soviet bloc states, trading and building hotels and cigarette factories.

They always wanted to return to Iraq. Once Saddam fell, they moved to the relatively peaceful Kurdish north to make their initial investment and wait for the rest of the country to become peaceful, too.

The Nishtiman complex opened 800 stores in its first phase. The Hanas had leased 200 stores even before the launch. The complex is built across from the old bazaar, a warren of narrow alleys and old-fashioned stalls that is quaint but decidedly not modern. Hana is betting many of the stall holders will move across to his giant mall.

"The old bazaar is full of rubbish. I believe they will change their habits being here," he says.

The entire project is scheduled to be done by 2010. By then, he figures, 50,000 people will work in his building. He claims it is the biggest single development in the Middle East.

"I'm very optimistic really of the future of Iraq," Hana says. Twenty years ago, he says, Iraq was more advanced than surrounding countries. He says it won't take long for the country to regain its old pre-eminence -- once there is political peace in Baghdad.

"I believe that a lot of people will come back, and we will be able to do something," he says.

How long before there is peace? "Ah, I am a businessman — that is a question for the politicians," he says, stepping into his shiny black, 7-series BMW and driving off into rush-hour traffic.