By Robert Halfon MP
You can argue about dodgy dossiers, you can disagree over United Nations resolutions, you can debate until the next Millennium as to whether the Iraq war was justified. One matter that cannot be disputed however, is that the removal of Saddam Hussein not only saved the Kurdish nation from being destroyed by genocide, but also brought about an independent, progressive, free nation in the shape of Kurdistan.
Autonomous Kurdistan was established only in 2003. Whilst an important part of Iraq, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), makes its own laws, controls its own army, and decides its own pace of economic development. In contrast to most other parts of Iraq, KRG is relatively terrorist-free, although there are continuous threats from Al Qaeda, and a spate of suicide bombings in recent years. Altogether, there have been five: two in 2004 in which 98 were murdered, two suicide bombers blew themselves up at our hotel (Hotel Erbil) in Sully in 2004 and 2007, and a truck bomb which killed one in 2008.
Moreover, a real democracy has been created: one with property rights, religious tolerance, the rule of law with proper justice and courts, a free press, and a vigorous political opposition. The economy is booming, with commercial relations strengthened with a number of countries, most notably neighbouring Turkey (this is all the more remarkable given the history between Kurds in both Iraq and Turkey). Universities too are flourishing, with new ones being built. Education is seen as the root to all success.
I witnessed this all first hand during my visit to Kurdistan last week, as a member of the All-Party Parliamentary Kurdistan Region in Iraq Group (as a guest of the Kurdistan Parliament). I was there with Nadhim Zahawi MP, Lord Clement-Jones, Telegraph journalist John McTernan, Blair Special Adviser Matthew Doyle and organiser Gary Kent.
I was astounded by the levels of religious tolerance in particular. Whilst Christians are being murdered and persecuted across Iraq – the October Church massacre in which 44 Christians died, being the most recent tragic example – in Kurdistan they are welcomed and supported. The Kurdish President has invited Christian refugees to take up safe haven in his region.
Wherever we went, we met Christian Kurds – including the Bishop of Erbil – who acknowledged the decency in which Christians were treated. I had not known that Iraqi Kurdistan once had a Jewish population of 17% and came across an old Jewish Quarter in the major City of Sulemaniya, which was under a Government preservation order to protect its heritage.
Indeed, in a meeting with President Barzani, he said that – if he was not constrained by the Iraqi Government, and if their policy changed – he would invite the Israelis to open a Consulate, the very next day. How many other Muslim states across the Middle East would preserve their Jewish heritage in this way, let alone openly state they would like good relations with Israel?
Our Group visited not just businesses, cultural and political institutions, and universities but saw the tragedy of the genocide too. The story of the genocide was a reminder of how the Kurdish story could have all been so different:
A day in Halabja Memorial Centre and Garden showed all too clearly, the Saddamite Baathist Regime’s determination to murder all Iraqi Kurds. Starting in the 1970s, over a million Kurds were killed in over twenty years. In classic genocide practice, Kurds in Saddam’s Iraq, were first marginalised, then demonised, before being destroyed.
On March 16th 1988, Saddam sent planes over the Kurdish City of Halabja to drop mustard gas over the population. Tragically, some of the citizens had an inkling of what was going to happen as all the Baathists had left the City some days before. Some of the Kurds left, but returned a few days later, as they thought nothing was going to happen. The mustard gas killed over 5,000 Kurds. In order to achieve maximum effect, the pilots first dropped bombs in order to smash the windows of buildings, so that few would be able to escape the effects of the chemical weapons.
Had Saddam stayed in power, it is likely that at some point, the rest of Kurdistan would have been covered with mustard gas – were it not for the first Iraq war and the creation of the Kurdish Safe Havens in 1991-2. Some perpetrators of the genocide are thought to be living in Europe, possibly even in England, having claimed asylum. Inexplicably, the genocide of the Kurds is not recognised as a genocide by the International Community, most notably the United Nations.
If the Halabja Memorial Centre was a remembrance of genocide, it was arriving at a former Baathist Torture Chamber, known as the “Red House”, that was a reminder of Saddam’s brutality to the Kurds. Blood still on the floors, hooks on the walls where people were hung by their skin, torture instruments on tables. Worst of all was a section known as “the Party Room”. It was an open area, next to a women's cell. It was here that Kurdish women were taken daily, to be raped and assaulted by the Guards. Pregnant women had their babies and foetuses literally thrown on to a burning incinerator just nearby. Outside, there was both a shooting gallery, and a place for hanging prisoners – who were either shot or hung by the noose.
I thought both of both Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia. Hitler because of the incinerator, Stalin because of the paranoia. All the cells were wired, so that the conversations Baathist Guards were having with prisoners could be overheard. The objective was to listen to the Guards, not the prisoners. In all sections of the prison, there were two huge metal double doors. One door would be opened by one Guard, the prisoner let through. The first door shut, then the second door would be opened. The aim was to ensure that the guards in the different sections did not interact with each other, in case any tried to help a prisoner or speak with their family.
With all this suffering, it would have been so easy for Iraqi Kurds to draw in amongst themselves, blame the world for their woes (there would be some justification), and even resort to terrorism. In Iraqi Kurdistan, the opposite has been the case. This is despite some significant problems. The region remains deeply conservative. Whilst polygamy has recently de facto been outlawed, female genital mutilation remains at disturbing levels. Although the progressive Kurdish Womens Union suggested to us that it might be as high as 64%, other figures put it between 20-40%. Illiteracy remains high. There is desperate need for a better health system. We were told by the Health Minsiter that the KRG could not even get proper medicines into the country because they were compelled by the Iraqi Government to buy specialised medicines via a particular “medical agent”, who happened to be a senior former Baathist supporter.
The penal system too, is in need of great repair. In Saddam’s time, there were just a couple of prisons in the whole country (one of which was Abu Graib). As a result, there are real pressures on dealing with prisoners in Kurdistan. We visited one in Erbil (a former British built railway station), which was desperately overcrowded. Taken to a smallish room, we saw over one hundred and twenty inmates, many sleeping on the floor. To the Prison Warders and Governors credit, they took us voluntarily to see these prison cells. They were campaigning too for better jails, and asked us to take their message to the authorities.
Whatever these problems, in all our meetings with Government and Parliamentarians, everyone showed a recognition of the difficulties Kurdistan faced. None were afraid to face up to the challenges. The reason for this is clear. Despite being surrounded by hostile neighbours, threatened by terrorism, challenged by Islamist extremists and Arab nationalism, Kurdistan remains an Open Society. Her determination to learn from the past – rather than live in it – and become the Hong Kong of the Middle East is not a distant dream, but something really tangible. It's amazing to think what real democracy and a free economy can achieve – even in just seven years.