Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman: Time to grasp the opportunity in Iraqi Kurdistan
In 1991, Saddam Hussein’s troops, having been pushed out of Kuwait, turned their guns once again on the Kurdish people in northern Iraq and on the Shiite people in the south. The Kurds, having suffered genocide and chemical bombardment at the hands of the regime, fled to the mountains bordering Turkey and Iran. The humanitarian crisis that followed, as an estimated 2.5million people tramped through the mud and snow enduring starvation and death of their children and elderly, was broadcast on Britain’s televisions.
Thanks to Prime Minister John Major and others, Britain, France, Turkey and the United States established a no-fly-zone over Kurdistan and a safe-haven to which the millions of tired, bereaved and devastated families could return. The British armed forces intervened under the UN to establish camps to which the refugees could return before finally returning to their homes.
Those daring acts of compassion saved thousands of lives and the people of Kurdistan have never forgotten who it was that came to their aid. President Masoud Barzani, president of the Kurdistan Region, has personally thanked Sir John Major for the role he played in bringing about the safe haven.
Now, 18 years after those events, we find the Conservative party struggling to give voice to a meaningful policy towards the Kurdistan Region and Iraq as a whole. This may be due to concern that the party should distance itself from the mistakes that were made in Iraq after the war of 2003, which has left a bitter taste for those who supported the war and were horrified by the mistakes that ensued. While this is understandable – the Conservative party supported the invasion – is it not time for the party to move on and to tackle Iraq and engage with its people?
Surely it would be in the party’s and the UK’s interests for British politicians and the country as a whole to recognise that whatever views they may hold on the invasion or liberation, Iraq is an important strategic player in the Middle East and the world. The country is rich in oil, gas and other minerals. It has a large population compared with other states in the region and will in the future reclaim its place as a key policymaker and trade destination in the Middle East.
There have been some welcome developments recently within the Conservative Party. The Rt Hon William Hague has highlighted the Middle East as a key area of focus for British political, diplomatic and commercial relations and said that Iraq needs diplomatic support more than ever now that British troops have withdrawn and US troops are drawing down. British MPs and peers have also taken the step to engage with us through two All-Party Parliamentary Groups – on Iraq and Kurdistan Region.
The latter has visited the Kurdistan Region in 2008 and 2009 and may visit again this year. A report published after their most recent visit says:
“The UK, and wider the international community should play a bigger role in assisting the Region, along with the rest of Iraq, to tap its potential in all these areas. The Kurdistan Region is vital to the success of Iraq and to British foreign policy objectives.”
Recently, the Conservative Friends of Iraq was launched, while several British trade delegations have visited the Kurdistan Region and British companies, such as Sterling Energy, PriceWaterhouse Coopers and Scott Wilson, are working there.
All these steps are welcomed by Iraqi Kurds and Arabs and we look forward to further strengthening relations between Britain and the Kurdistan Region and Iraq as a whole. However, there is a perception that many Conservatives are afraid to broach the subject of Iraq for fear of antagonising those who were opposed to the war. The time has come to move on and to grasp the opportunity that presents itself today.