Ten years ago, I was utterly opposed to the invasion of Iraq. At the time I was President of Unison and sat on the TUC general council, so like a lot of others in the labour movement I did my bit to lobby against Western intervention, believing that the reasons given for invasion were not justified, that the argument about WMD was not proven and that inspections should have been given a chance to work.
But in the years since I have had to face new facts having been to Iraq to see things for myself. I now see that the international community should have toppled Saddam Hussein earlier, as my Kurdish comrades have told me in clear terms.
One benefit — one very close to my heart — of Saddam’s removal, was the re-emergence of a trade union movement which had been brutally suppressed by his regime. My union Unison decided to help workers by setting up a training scheme for shop stewards and I was really proud when we finally established a training school in Kurdistan in 2006.
Early in that year I joined a Labour Friends of Iraq delegation to Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan. I was struck by the attitude of the trade unionists: comrades and friends keen to develop their skills so that they could better stand up for working people.
The first thing that they said was, “We need your help. We need your Government to start investing in this country, because if they do not invest we will not have work, and without work we do not have a trade union movement.” That was a very simple equation.
The other thing they said, very clearly, was “We thank you, as a nation, for what you did for us in 1991, and we thank you even more for what you did for us in 2003, when you liberated us.” That was a shock for me. I saw 2003 as an invasion by an unwanted occupying power.
However, it was all very well for me, sitting in the comfort of Blaydon, to say that it was really, really wrong for the allied forces to invade. It was not me being wiped off the face of the earth by Saddam’s thugs. It was not my parents being buried alive. It was not my village being flattened.
It did not change my view that we invaded Iraq for the wrong reasons, but what became ever clearer to me was that we should have liberated Iraq many years earlier. If we had, we could have stopped genocide being unleashed against the Iraqi people.
In the 1980s, before Saddam overplayed his hand and invaded Kuwait, we were doing the bidding of Saddam Hussein by doing nothing to curb his murderous instincts. We sat on our hands, supporting Washington’s position, and watched while the Iranians and the Iraqis wiped out one million of their own citizens in their bloody, pointless eight-year war. And when Saddam, under the cover of war, launched a genocidal campaign against the Kurds, we ignored it. It was a price worth paying for Saddam to control the Ayatollah and his acolytes. Indeed, not only did we ignore such terrible bloodshed and repression, but we sold arms to both sides.
Many who have been to Kurdistan have, like me, visited the “Red House”, the torture chamber in the northern city of Sulaimani. It is a huge building in the main street. No attempt was made by the Baathist authorities to hide what went on there; indeed, every horror was documented in triplicate.
While I was there I saw some guards — Kurdish men — watching the trial of Saddam live on television. The juxtaposition was extraordinary — for those men, sitting in what had been one of Saddam’s torture chambers, the trial of the dictator being played out on the TV screen, this was life-changing: it would give them a chance to get their lives back. For people such as me who had not wanted this country to go into Iraq, it was a wake-up call that could not be ignored.
I visited villages where people saw their way of life terminated. Squads of Baathists snatched men from their homes and killed them. But they were not even give the quick death of a bullet in the brain; they were chucked in trenches and then bulldozers got to work, burying them alive.
I also visited a former concentration camp in Erbil. There we found the children and women who had been snatched from the countryside, once the bread basket of Iraq. All that they wanted to do was return home to their abandoned fields and farms. But they cannot because they know longer know how to farm — their fathers had been killed years before, so they have nobody to tell them how to do things.
A close friend of mine, Hangaw Khan, a Kurdish union leader, asked me to campaign to recognise the genocide against the Kurds — “in the name of our burned country, the pure pink blood of our genocide martyrs, buried alive innocent women and children, burned and drowned thousands Kurdish by chemical gas.”
His words should haunt all of us. The uncomfortable lesson I draw is that Britain could have stopped this. We, and the rest of the world, could have taken real action before Saddam’s genocide and repression became industrial. We could have, and should have, toppled Saddam years before we did.