2003 wasn’t year zero for Iraq

This year marks the tenth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq. This often astonishes people because it remains very vivid and even vicious in British politics. The usual historical perspective about past events hasn’t yet overcome often hysterical arguments about this intervention. Expect a vitriolic avalanche of polemic because Iraq remains a four letter word in Britain.

Few partisans have changed their minds and the default position here, if not in Iraq, is that intervention was based on deceit, caused (vastly exaggerated) numbers of deaths and that Iraq is barely better or even worse than under Saddam Hussein.

Most agree though that the Pentagon made a lash of the occupation, exacerbated sectarian tensions and unwittingly facilitated the insurgency.

Supporters of liberation from fascism have the hardest case because we can now never use the road not travelled. It is possible if improbable that Saddam’s Republic of Fear would have collapsed internally.

However, Saddam was the great survivor whose calculation that the west and the UN were paper tigers was vindicated for a decade after his defeat in Kuwait in 1991. The sanctions regime was falling apart and increasing revenue streams could have sustained Saddam. The succession could then have gone to one of his psychopathic sons and Iraq would have returned as an active canker in the region.

Many papers and pundits will soon audit the consequences of the invasion for good and for bad but some need reminding that March 2003 was not year zero. The invasion followed many years of brutality, which has been lost or obscured by new generations who see Iraq mainly through the prism of the 2003 invasion and “Bliarism” – that Tony Blair lied to secure a dishonourable objective.

My hope is that the looming media coverage will also focus, for instance, on this year’s other major milestone – the 25th anniversary of the chemical attack on Halabja on 16 March 1988 and the wider genocide against the Kurds.

One criticism of the campaign for the UK and others to formally recognise the genocide is that it is backward-looking. But its impact remains red raw in Kurdistan where almost every family has direct experience. Morally, in any case, genocides should always be recognised.

The campaign has done much to raise awareness. Over 21,000 British residents have backed Nadhim Zahawi’s e petition so far – a very good tally and one of the highest for a foreign issue.

Sadly, this anniversary is far more than academic given the dangerous impasse between Baghdad and Erbil which reminds me of two old tunes by Jim Reeves and Neil Sedaka, “(I hear the sound of) distant drums” and “breaking up is hard to do.”

The drums have been beating ever louder since the withdrawal in December 2011 of US troops, which had played an important stabilising role. The lack of American oomph makes it easier for Baghdad to indulge its baser reflexes. The illness of President Talabani undermines another moderating influence.

Remembering the genocide provides a good context for understanding today’s disputes between Baghdad and Erbil. Given the history, the Kurds are understandably wary of Baghdad’s motivations and plans given that some in the Arab south seem keen to put Kurds in their supposedly rightful place. Others seem content for the Kurds to wave farewell and “good riddance” as one recently put it on television.

The anniversaries provide the hook for taking Iraqi Kurdistan’s case to a wider audience. Kurdistan is not the problem in Iraq. Its services, safety and stability are in stark contrast to continued dysfunctionality down south. The Kurdistan Region could be a model and the gateway for foreign investment in the bigger Iraqi market when it is ready. Yet Baghdad’s blundering and aggression could deter investment and trade.

The Kurds can only be expected to continue their substantial contribution to Iraq if the federal deal made in 2005 and enshrined in the constitution is honoured. Federalism and democracy would ensure that the dark days of genocide and sabotage are over. All these issues should be part of the debate this year.

Fortunately, there are now many more British parliamentarians with a good and growing understanding of the Kurdistan Region and its relations with the rest of Iraq and the neighbours. These parliamentarians include those who thought that the Iraq war was one of necessity and those who thought it was a war of choice. They have put their differences to one side in order to focus on advancing British interests and helping the Kurdistan Region.

My hunch is that much of the coverage of these anniversaries will generate more heat than light but I hope that the KRG UK and the all-party group can follow the wise words of another old crooner, Bing Crosby – accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative.

* Gary Kent is the Administrator of the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG). He writes this column for Rudaw in a personal capacity.


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