Twenty five years ago this month, Iraqi Kurds rose against Saddam Hussein and, for instance, captured the Red House in Slemani after days of fierce fighting. It was a vile torture centre where thousands were murdered, and women raped in a “party room” with incinerators outside for their babies. Today, the bullet-pocked building is a sombre museum where you can also climb on Saddam’s rusting tanks.
The uprising faltered because Saddam, despite his calamitous defeat in Kuwait, was allowed to use helicopter gunships to attack rebels. Two million Kurds fled to the mountains where many perished. One man and his children faced a terrible choice: stay and freeze, return and die, or jump several hundred feet down a mountain. Miraculously, they survived.
Such suffering filled our TV screens and British public reaction encouraged John Major to establish a no-fly zone which gave returning Kurds safe haven. Our jets patrolled it for twelve years and constantly faced Saddam’s anti-aircraft guns. But Kurdistan survived.
They began building democracy in tough times until Saddam’s overthrow in 2003 enabled a new start. They remarried Iraq and helped secure a federal and democratic constitution. As the safest part of Iraq, they attracted foreign investors, developed plentiful energy supplies, and overcame Turkey’s hostility. Living standards soared. They expanded education, and recruited more teachers – some used to ride donkeys between schools. But they didn’t reform their state-dominated economy and excessive employment rolls, used to reward political party supporters.
This mattered less when massive oil revenues rolled in but the oil price slump prevents that largesse. If that were the only problem it could be righted by ending unproductive “ghost working” and boosting private sector jobs. But the Kurds were then attacked by the so-called Islamic State – Daesh. They were repelled by the Peshmerga, with Western planes making a decisive difference. The KRG now has a 650 mile border with Daesh but has retrieved most lost territory.
The most tragic loss was Sinjar where Yezedis – an ancient religious group – were slaughtered, raped or kidnapped. Sherri Kraham Talabany, who runs the SEED Foundation that supports escapees, recently told me about “Runak,” one of almost 5,000 women and children captured by Daesh. She was repeatedly sold into slavery and nearly starved to death. Runak and others often stood in the open in the hope of being bombed by Western planes.
Runak is now one of nearly two million refugees from Syria and people displaced from the rest of Iraq. Kurdistan is normally five million strong, so public finances and services are strained to breaking point. Once continuous electricity is now six hours a day.
But the federal government in Baghdad arbitrarily stopped and then slashed constitutional budget payments to the Kurds, who now rely on oil exports for revenue that doesn’t cover spending and debts, let alone investment. They should reform their economy but that takes time. But most civil servants and the Peshmerga have not been paid for months, which understandably drives disaffection. Peshmerga are being spoon-fed heavy weapons or denied kit such as night vision goggles. Britain gifted fifty heavy machine guns but the rounds ran out months ago and replacing them seems controversial.
Great powers fear Kurdish independence in Iraq, difficult given it is landlocked. But the Sykes-Picot settlement of a century ago that helped create Iraq is bust. Their peoples probably cannot live in one state and new borders need negotiating. Unless Sunni alienation is addressed, a defeated Daesh could yet spawn son of Daesh.
The Peshmerga are the most efficient force fighting Daesh and will help liberate its capital, Mosul. Senior MPs visited Kurdistan last year and will shortly issue a report urging our government to do more. They need emergency loans that encourage reform and kick-start the economy. The Kurds endured worse before but we cannot let them go under as in defending themselves, they protect us too.
This personal view by Gary Kent appeared in the Newcastle Journal on 12 March