Inside Iraqi Kurdistan

It’s impossible to spend any time in Iraqi Kurdistan without understanding the scale of the physical and psychological violence inflicted on its people. The Iraqi Kurds, who are not Arabs but who are closer to the Persians, were corralled into Iraq in the 1920s and were Saddam’s chief victims for four decades. In the 1980s, nearly 200,000 men, women and children were slaughtered in Saddam’s genocidal “Anfal” campaign. Over 4,000 villages were razed and people herded into detention camps. However, KRG leaders have opted for democracy in Iraq and autonomy for the Kurds – figuring the two go together.

It is also impossible to miss the region’s tremendous economic and social opportunities. I spent a week there in 2006 and counted many new housing, hotel and retail developments since then.

The region is rich in natural resources and beauty. It has large reserves of oil, natural gas, minerals, and boasts fertile lowlands and stunning mountains, with powerful rivers and waterfalls. It could be self-sufficient in food and export its surpluses. Rural Kurdistan could attract tourists to enjoy the solitude of its unspoilt and largely unpolluted scenery as well as thousands of historic and archaeological sites.

However, the region is in both limbo and transition – a victim of its history and geography. A stable federal Iraq is still being negotiated. The Iraqi Parliament has just agreed a national budget of $48 billion from which the KRG receives a per capita portion of 17%. Ministers say that the central allocation of resources from Baghdad is unreliable with, for example, deliveries of medicines and food so old that they have to be burnt.

The major outstanding question is the status of disputed territories including troubled Kirkuk, which is the historic capital of Iraqi Kurdistan but which was forcibly Arabised in the 1970s. The Iraqi constitution, agreed by 80% of the people, promised a referendum by the end of 2007 on whether the city should revert to the KRG. This may take place this year but no one is holding their breath. The UN is involved in seeking fair ways of establishing who should vote in this referendum.

It’s often said that the Kirkuk question concerns oil but this is over-simplified. Whether Kirkuk is part of the region or not, the Kurds will still only receive a per capital share of the budget, albeit an increased one. But their neighbours fear that it could provide the material basis for an independent Kurdistan.

Most Kurds live in Turkey. Kurdish ministers argue that Turkish incursions into Iraq in hot pursuit of the Turkish-Kurdish separatist terrorist group, the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) which is mainly based within Turkey or in an inaccessible mountain range on the border – is a pretext to sap the strength of the Kurdish north. KRG President Barzani told us that the PKK, which his forces have fought, is the result of and not the reason for Turkish actions.

A more liberal regime for Turkish Kurds could undercut the PKK and bolster a political solution. The burgeoning trade between Turkey and the KRG could underpin better political relations. After all, these two secular and moderate Sunni countries have much in common, in principle.

It’s impossible to stay in this landlocked country without coming to understand that this small sliver of territory, about the size of Scotland, is in a tough neighbourhood. It explains the powerfully felt and experienced Kurdish saying that they have “no friends but the mountains.”

And airplanes. It is easy to understand the strategic importance of the new multi-million airport being built in Erbil. It will be the fifth largest runway in the world, allow the KRG a bridge to the world for the largest freight carriers and compete with Dubai as an east-west travel hub.

But the region, like the rest of Iraq, also faces a potentially painful transition from a war-ravaged, isolated and Soviet-style command economy to an open market economy with, hopefully, safeguards for working people.

The Kurdistan Region was cruelly disfigured by Saddam. Chemical weapons used in the Anfal still cause genetic deformities in new born children. The deliberate destruction of the rural economy continues to deprive the region of its own food, although production is increasing. After generations of crushing free thought, many students feel unable to give their opinions rather than what they think their teachers want to hear.

Women’s rights are more advanced here than the rest of the Middle East but so-called “honour” killings – which were pardonable under Saddam – still persist, as does some female genital mutilation. Whilst there is a growing professional female workforce it is highly noticeable that most women don’t work outside the home – all waiters, cleaners and cooks are men. But a prominent women’s rights activist notes the changes since returning home after 14 years teaching in London. Then, she said, women wearing trousers stood a good chance of having acid thrown over them. That is no longer the case. Women, she says, are “almost equal.” There is also a 25% quota for female representation in the National Assembly and three very prominent women ministers.

Ministers have close relations with the unions which were forged by fighting together against Saddam. However, with nearly two-thirds of the state budget going on salaries as well as food rations, the dependency culture is a major obstacle to reviving the economy. There will be tough decisions as, for instance, they reform its free but ineffective higher education system which attracts 60% of those with baccalaureates. Or as people have to pay for other public services and pay taxes. Such “tough love” will inevitably be painful but is vital to diversify the economy and prepare an economic future when oil and gas reserves run out.

Whilst there is a sense of purpose in many ministries and in the unions, the Kurds have been dealt a very difficult hand by history and geography. They do not want to remain victims of their past but understandably fear more betrayals in the future.

The Kurdistan Region, as part of the wider federal Iraq, aims to help fashion a peaceful, democratic and secular future. Its success is in the interests of a peaceful and stable Middle East. It’s perfectly feasible that the Kurdistan Region could become a moderate, liberal, secular, social democratic entity– one reason why it has so many potential enemies and deserves better friends.

Gary Kent visited Iraqi Kurdistan with the All-Party Parliamentary Group on the Kurdistan Region in Iraq

Gary Kent is a graduate of international relations. After spells in management in British Rail and the Co-Op he began work in parliament in 1987 where he was active for two decades on Anglo-Irish peace activity against terrorism and now as secretary of the all-party parliamentary group on the Kurdistan Region in Iraq, which he has visited 27 times since 2006. He used to be a columnist for Fortnight Magazine and writes a regular column for the Kurdish Rudaw outlet and many other publications.