SULAIMANI, Iraq -- It's 6:30 a.m. An icy wind howls down from the Zagros Mountains, scattering snow and dust across the lavishly landscaped front yard of the compound where I live.
My Kurdish driver -- we'll call him Khalif to protect his identity -- waits for me in the van. He's a big, burly guy with thick, black hair, a mustache, a ready smile and the darkest eyes I've ever seen.
This morning I notice those dark eyes are brimming with tears.
"Things are bad in my country," he explains in halting English. "So very, very bad."
Khalif does not like to talk politics. He has a good job and fears that if he criticizes or says too much, powerful forces inside the government could get him fired.
But this morning, he wants to talk.
"I AM AFRAID," he continues, as he starts up the engine to drive me to the university where I teach two miles away, "that my country is going to lose everything -- what it has taken us so long to build up peacefully, we will lose everything in all this unrest."
The "unrest" he refers to are the demonstrations that have swept across the Middle East in recent weeks -- Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Algeria, Bahrain, Iran and elsewhere. Now that unrest has finally erupted here on the streets of Sulaimani, the second-largest city in Kurdistan, home of the American University of Iraq-Sulaimani, where I work.
Normally, Sulaimani is a peaceful city -- a beautiful city, inhabited by prosperous and hard-working Kurds. Since the fall of Saddam Hussein, Sulaimanites have accomplished nothing less than a miracle rebuilding this booming metropolis in the Kurdistan Regional Government.
But on Feb. 17 things turned violent -- deadly violent -- when mobs of protesters took to the streets to voice complaints against corruption at the highest levels of government. When a crowd of several hundred demonstrators tried to storm the headquarters of one of the two leading political parties in the Kurdistan region, they were fired on by elite security forces -- the legendary Peshmerga -- with machine guns and automatic rifles.
At least three young men were killed and dozens injured in the bloody confrontation that started peacefully until agitators -- who some now claim were Iranian plants -- started taunting police and urging protesters to "send them a message."
The "massacre," as the incident is being called here, has had a chilling effect on this historically calm and industrious region. Since its liberation by Coalition Forces in 2003, Kurdistan has been regarded as one of the safest and most democratic corners in the Middle East.
LIKE KHALIF, however, many Kurds now worry the "bad" days before Saddam Hussein was overthrown might return.
Two of my students -- whom I will keep anonymous -- agree that much of the unrest is being caused by outsiders.
"All these problems are not being caused by Kurds, but by people from outside the region," explains the first student, a young man who loves cars and mechanical work, and wants to be an engineer after graduation. "I have seen many people taking part in the demonstrations here in Sulaimani who are not Kurds."
He thinks Iranian "thugs" from Tehran are being sent here and elsewhere throughout Kurdistan to stir up trouble among the Kurds.
"They would like nothing more than to see Kurdistan destroyed," adds the second student, an international studies major who enjoys studying American history. "They want to tear down what we have spent almost two decades building up."
SOME CRITICS, however, think the time is ripe for a complete change in government here in Kurdistan. One who believes that is another student, who thinks the current regime in Kurdistan has not fulfilled its promise to create jobs and provide clean water and enough electrical power.
"The government is corrupt and only wants money," this student notes. "All the money that comes up from Baghdad -- some of it money from the U.S. -- winds up in the hands and pockets of these greedy leaders."
The leaders he is referring to are Jalal Talabani and Massoud Barzani, who have ruled the two leading political parties -- the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan -- for almost two decades. Supporters hail the two men as almost untouchable -- godlike figures whose tribal roots and close relations with Western powers give them a unique edge in ruling over this largely mountainous region bordering Iran, Turkey and Syria.
But Rafez, a young taxi driver who spent time running a car wash in London, says, "No, no, no -- Talabani and Barzani are no good."
Rafez, who knows the side streets of Sulaimani like the back of his hand and can get you where you want to go in a hurry, insists that the main opposition party -- called Gorran (Change) -- holds the answer to Kurdistan's woes.
"I am a supporter of Nawshirwan Mustafa (Gorran's head)," he yells, pounding his fist on the dash of his taxi. "Mustafa is our answer. Mustafa is the best!"
YOU LEARN A LOT about Kurdish realpolitik talking to taxi drivers. A few days ago, a young driver who supports a family in Kirkuk tells me that what Kurds want most is for Kurdistan to be more like America.
"America is wonderful," he says. "In America you have clean water and the electricity does not go off every half-hour. We love George Bush for what he did to help Kurdistan."
And while many Kurds support the current crop of protestors, few approve of their methods.
"We do not want violence," Khalif, my Kurdish taxi driver, laments. "All we want is peace."
Khalif reminds me it took the United States 200 years to become a strong, stable democracy.
"We are less than 20 years old," he says. "We need a little more time. For example, we must take baby steps now before we can truly be free and democratic."
His biggest fear is that, if Kurdistan continues to deteriorate, it will be his children who suffer the most.
"It will be like the old days with me growing up under Saddam," he says. "No jobs, no construction, no foreign companies and investments here. It will be a sad time, the end of Kurdistan."
(The writer is the author of more than 15 books and a former history professor at Augusta State University. He resides in Kurdistan, where he is a professor of history at the American University of Iraq-Sulaimani, and is working on several new books.)