Sunday, February 13, 2011

Kurdistan: triumph of democracy

By Robert Halfon, MP for Harlow

British MP for Harlow, Robert Halfon, has just returned from the Kurdistan Region where he was part of a UK Parliamentary delegation on a fact-finding trip to Kurdistan. While there he met the president and representatives of the Kurdistan Regional Government, visited an overcrowded prison and was shown one of Saddam Hussein’s torture chambers known as the Red House. This week, writing exclusively for the Star, he recounts his experiences of an open, democratic and progressive nation determined to emerge from the shadow of genocide.

Imagine if, God forbid, a deranged dictator dropped chemical weapons – mustard gas – over Harlow. Imagine if 5,000 people had died in just a few days. Imagine too that a million people from Essex had been murdered by the same dictator in just 20 years and the intent was to kill everyone with Essex connections.

Impossible? Thank goodness. Unthinkable even? Absolutely. Tragically, such a scenario was not so unthinkable or impossible in Iraq, where more then one million Kurds were murdered during the reign of Saddam Hussein.

That is why, earlier this month; I decided to visit northern Iraq as part of a Parliamentary delegation.

Autonomous Kurdistan was only established in 2003. Whilst an important part of Iraq, the Kurdistan Regional Government makes its own laws, controls its own army and decides its own pace of economic development.

In contrast to most other parts of Iraq, the Kurdistan Region is relatively terrorist-free, although there are continuous threats from Al-Qaeda. There have also been a number of suicide bombings in recent years – two in 2004 which claimed 98 lives, two at our hotel in Suleimaniah in 2004 and 2007 and a truck bomb which killed one person in 2008.

But 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.

Universities, too, are flourishing, with new ones being built. Education is seen as the root to all success.

I was astounded by the levels of religious tolerance. 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 safe haven in his region.

Wherever we went we met Christians– 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 per cent and came across an old Jewish quarter in the major city of Suleimaniah which was under a Government preservation order to protect its heritage.

But the genocide was a reminder of how the Kurdish story could have all been so different. A day spent at the Halabja Memorial Centre and Garden showed all too clearly the Saddam-led Baathist regime’s determination to wipe out Iraqi Kurds. Starting in the 1970’s, Kurds in Saddam’s Iraq were first marginalised and then demonised before being destroyed.

On March 16, 1988, Saddam ordered planes to drop mustard gas over the Kurdish city of Halabja. Some of the citizens had an inkling of what was going to happen as all the Ba’athists had left the city some days before. They, too, left but returned a few days late, as they thought nothing was going to happen.

The mustard gas killed more than 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 o 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. Yet inexplicably, the slaughter 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 rememberence of genocide, it was arriving at a former Ba’athist torture chamber known as the Red House that was a reminder of Saddam’s brutality. Blood still on the floors, hooks on the walls from which people were hung and torture instruments on tables.

Worst of all was a section known as the party room. It was an open area where Kurdish women were taken to be raped and assaulted by the guards. Outside, there was both a shooting gallery and a place for hanging prisoners. With all this suffering it would have been easy for Iraqi Kurds to draw in amongst themselves, blame the world for their woes and even resort to terrorism. But in Iraqi Kurdistan, the opposite has been the case, despite significant problems.

The region remains deeply conservative. Whilst polygamy has recently been outlawed de facto, female genital mutilation remains at disturbing levels. Although the progressive Kurdish Women’s Union suggested to us that it might be as high as 64 per cent, other figures put it at between 20 – 40 per cent. Illiteracy remains high and there is desperate need for a better health system. We were told by the health minister that the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) could not even got proper medicines into the country because they were compelled by the Iraqi government to buy specialised medicines via a particular agent, who happened to be a senior former Ba’athist supporter.

The penal system, too, is in need of great repair. During Saddam’s time there were just a couple of prisons in the whole country, one of which was Abu Ghraib. 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 more than 120 inmates, many sleeping on the floor. To the credit of the governor and prison warders, they took us voluntarily to see these prison cells. They were campaigning for better jails and asked us to take their message to the authorities.

Whatever these problems, in all our meetings with government officials and parliamentarians, everyone showed a recognition of the difficulties Kurdistan faces. 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. The determination to learn from the past rather than live in it is something tangible. It’s amazing to think what real democracy and a free economy can achieve in just seven years.

You can argue about the Labour Government’s dodgy dossiers, you can disagree over United Nations resolutions; you can debate until the next millennium as to whether the Iraq war was justified. What cannot be disputed, however, is that the removal of Saddam Hussein not only ended the genocide but also brought about an autonomous progressive, free nation in the shape of Kurdistan.

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