Sunday, February 6, 2011

Back on the map

By Nadhim Zahawi MP

I left Iraq for Britain in the 1970s. My father is Kurdish and faced prison or death. I first returned after the 1991 Kurdish uprising against Saddam. We were visiting refugee camps one night when Iraqi tanks suddenly loomed, our drivers extinguished the lights and sped perilously but unseen along a river bank. Our guide was to become the Iraqi Foreign Minister.

Hundreds of thousands were forced to make an almost biblical trek into the mountains to escape Saddam's gunships. John Major prevented further slaughter by securing a no-fly zone and Saddam's forces retreated. Kurdistan was nearly wiped from the map by Saddam's dictatorship which murdered nearly 200,000 Kurds and completely demolished 4,500 villages.

On a recent all-party trip, we visited Halabja where over 5,000 were slaughtered by poison gas in 1988. It was deeply moving and at the Memorial we pledged to tell the world that Saddam's "Anfal" campaign should be recognised internationally as genocide, as it has been by the Iraqi parliament and supreme court.

But the Kurds refuse to be beaten down by this tragic history and display great gusto. Each time I return I find a dynamic society in positive flux with new buildings, ambitious plans to lift the condition of the people and a determination to end their isolation by hoovering up external expertise and investment.

The Kurdistan Region could become one of the wealthiest parts of the Middle East.There is a deep affection and respect for the British and the heroic contributions of John Major and Tony Blair. They consider themselves, as a secular Muslim democracy, as our allies. Britain's parliamentary democracy is deeply admired.

The Speaker of the Kurdistan Parliament, who hosted our visit, openly discussed their heated debates which, together with the emergence of an Opposition, illustrate that its fledgling democracy is thriving.

They don't understand why we aren't capitalising on our position with greater trade and investment. They need it and so do we. Countries which opposed the 2003 intervention are getting stuck in.

Our APPG persuaded the UK to send its first official trade mission last year, however. Obstacles to trade are falling and it's increasingly recognised that Kurdistan could be a gateway to the rest of Iraq as it stabilises.

We met top leaders for open discussion about these prospects and continuing problems. There are, for example, high levels of female genital mutilation and domestic violence but the government is clearly combating these and women play a more prominent role than elsewhere in the Middle East. They are also leading the way in protecting Christians.

President Barzani told us that the Kurds will stay in Iraq provided they retain autonomy and the country remains democratic. He was decisive in brokering the deal to form a new government in Baghdad after months of haggling. The big issue now is to implement that deal and make federalism work.

Relations with Turkey were dire but their Consul told us that full economic integration between Turkey and Iraq is on the cards. PM Barham Salih said that trade makes friends. I hope that this boosts Turkey's case for joining the European Union when the Kurds will become our neighbours.

Iraqi Kurdistan is back on the map with a great future, at last.

Nadhim Zahawi is Conservative MP for Stratford-on-Avon, and is the first British MP of Kurdish origin.

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