Kurdistan’s message of hope for Iraq

Iraq could work if the steady success of its Kurdistan Region is supported and spreads throughout the country. GARY KENT reports from a fact-finding mission

The Kurdistan region of Iraq enjoyed a head start over the rest of the country. Its 1991 uprising ousted Saddam’s genocidal forces which had murdered nearly 200,000 Kurds at Halabja and elsewhere. Its leaders started to build universities and lay down democratic foundations but it also endured a bloody civil war whose divisions are now healing.

Security is tight although there have ‘only’ been about 120 terrorist killings since 2003, 100 of these in early 2004, and overseas business people and diplomats rarely take special measures. Crime is very low.

There’s also been a development boom with homes and big infrastructure projects built in recent years. Workers don’t pay tax and work six hours a day. Unions are social partners and back the call for full union rights in the rest of Iraq, where they are restricted.

Iraq has the world’s third largest oil reserves but is only the 11th biggest producer. Kurdistan has plentiful supplies. Oil and gas provide virtually all Iraq’s revenues and diversification is vital. Agriculture was born in Kurdistan but liquidated by Saddam who razed thousands of villages and herded people into cities. Kurds have lost farming skills and its young people are not accustomed to rural life. Most food is imported although Kurdistan could become self-sufficient by modernising its methods through foreign investment. Tourism is another growth area.

Kurdish leaders seek UK investment and trade and are mystified that there has been no official ministerial trade mission while other European countries are making a beeline to the region. Britain is losing business opportunities. Direct flights to the UK and a wider visa scheme would boost commerce.

Kurdistan is wrongly overlooked in case UK engagement upsets Arab Iraq. This is not, however, a zero sum game. Kurdistan is open to business which is currently less feasible elsewhere. Kurdistan could become the gateway to the whole country and companies could expand as security permits.

Kurdistan’s leaders are open to international best practice. They don’t want to reinvent every wheel and have contracted British institutions to help them tackle corruption and administrative inexperience.

Secular opposition

Their Speaker asked us to outline the British political system and more than half their 111 MPs enthusiastically participated in two lively sessions. They were keen to understand our Official Opposition system. They now have one – Gorran (the Change). This breakaway from the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) took 25% of the seats in last year’s elections. The split is very bitter and Gorran has yet to find its feet. The emergence of a secular opposition is an important example for the Middle East.

Iraq has become a cold house for Christians but many have fled to Kurdistan and senior Christian leaders praised the government for building churches and protecting Christian villages.

Discussion in landlocked Kurdistan always turns to the neighbours. The good news is that frosty relations with Turkey have thawed massively in the last year, partly driven by extensive trading. However, Turkey and Iran are manipulating water supplies and one leading politician told us directly that Iran is not a neighbour but controls Shia Iraq.

The bad news is that relations between Iraqi Kurds and some Arabs have worsened considerably. This dangerous gap involves cultural and ethnic differences, resentment and fear and has come close to a shooting war. The Kurds suffered genocide directed from Baghdad but now embrace a federal and democratic Iraq. An independent Kurdistan including parts of Turkey, Iran and Syria is a popular dream but would almost certainly cause conflagration and is not on the agenda.

Kurds fear that Baghdad is building a centralised rather than federal state and it constantly delays implementing agreed constitutional provisions to solve problems. These include making Kirkuk and other disputed territories part of the Region, and establishing a reliable regime for oil production and sharing revenues.

Neutral statistics should underpin political representation and planning but they are not available in Kurdistan because the last census was in 1957. The Prime Minister, a Labour supporter-in-exile, Cardiff Barham Salih, told us they need UK technical assistance.

Improving Kurdish-Arab relations depends on the Iraqi parliamentary elections in March which could bring a new Iraqi PM with Kurdish support and reshaped cross-community alliances.

Iraqi Kurdistan has come a long way quickly but governance and human rights need improving. Its leaders and people most clearly desire deeper and wider political and commercial engagement by the UK, and others. It is in everyone’s interests that Kurdistan achieves its full potential within and for Iraq. The whole country would then stand a much better chance of working for its long-suffering people.

Gary Kent’s sixth fact-finding visit to Iraq, his fourth to Kurdistan since 2006, was with Meg Munn MP for the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Kurdistan. They were guests of the Kurdistan parliament. In five days they met the President, Speaker, Prime Minister, Interior Minister, other ministers, unions, women activists, Gorran, Christian leaders, plus British and Kurdish business leaders.

Labour Friends of Iraq