Remembering the Kurdish part of Iraq

We hear all the time about terrible things continuing to take place in Iraq and the frustrations of governing this difficult country. But one part of the nation – the Kurds in the north – is making real progress, as explained by my friend Gary Kent.

Imagine a place where shopkeepers leave their stock on the street unguarded overnight without a second thought. Such small details speak volumes. This isn’t 1950s Britain but part of the reality of a peaceful, progressive and vibrant part of Iraq – its Kurdistan Region.

After six hectic days criss-crossing the vast, fertile and panoramic plains amid majestic mountains between its three cities I have ever higher hopes they can overcome their history, live with their geography and exploit their geology – oil, gas, agriculture and water.

It was my fifth trip in as many years and each time I see evidence of a booming economy, fast growing living standards and political progress.

The skyline parades new hotels for Arab Iraqis who enjoy its cooler climate and safety. Fewer people in that time have been victims of terrorism than many places – about 100 in the last seven years and most of those on one tragic day in 2004.

Al Qaeda have recently slaughtered Christians elsewhere in Iraq but thousands have fled to Kurdistan where the President has offered them safe haven and universities have embraced them. Religious figures praised the Kurdish record in our discussions.

The Kurds understand about being a persecuted minority. Saddam Hussein tried to liquidate them, demolished 4,500 villages and murdered nearly 200,000 people. We visited Halabja, near Iran, where Saddam’s chemical weapons killed 5,000 people in 1988 and which is a haunting international symbol of this genocide.

Next stop was the Red House, a torture centre where women were systematically raped and babies tossed into incinerators. Thousands were executed. It is now a museum but blood spatters the floors along with childish drawings on the cell walls of 15 year olds waiting for the noose once they turned 16.

The Kurds rose up twenty years ago and Saddam retreated. They started rebuilding a dirt-poor and traumatised society from scratch with an elected Parliament and new universities but only felt safe with Saddam’s demise in 2003 – they all call it liberation.

The Kurds seek a modern, connected and just society with their natural resources. Oil and gas dominate but they could make a mint from their massive agricultural resources. Stunning scenery and ancient history could also attract tourists. Top Gear visited last year. Richard Hammond described it as movingly and stunningly beautiful whilst Jeremy Clarkson said it was safer than Cheltenham.

The Kurds admire the UK’s expertise, services and goods. They don’t understand why we lag behind countries that opposed liberation in these stakes. We are losing vital business and cultural connections and UK ministers should trumpet Iraqi Kurdistan’s business-friendly environment.

Kurdistan is a rare secular Muslim democracy with a formal opposition. Women play a bigger role in public life and provide half its students. The Women’s Union, however, told us about alarming levels of female genital mutilation and “honour” killings. These practices are strongly opposed by political leaders but ending them requires concerted pressure.

Relations with Turkey were awful but hundreds of its companies now trade there. The Turkish Consul said relations had reached a turning point whilst Prime Minister Barham Salih said that “when people make money barriers come down.”

Relations with Baghdad have been strained but the Kurdistan Region’s President Barzani outlined how he brokered the deal to form the new government in Baghdad. This provides momentum to make the federal settlement agreed in a referendum work for all of Iraq.

Iraqi Kurdistan is not perfect but it is plucky. It could be a magnet for investment and a gateway to the rest of Iraq as its security improves. Success could galvanise the whole of Iraq which is itself central to modernising the troubled Middle East. The geopolitical stakes are huge and Kurdistan is the hinge. Then the survivors of the Halabja atrocity could make the good life for themselves and their children. And their success would be in all our interests.

Gary Kent, who works for three North East MPs, is the Administrator of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on the Kurdistan Region and writes in a personal capacity.


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