Groups of dishevelled men eyed us suspiciously at a hastily built and bleak reception camp fifteen miles from Mosul to accommodate thousands fleeing to the Kurdistan Region. The Peshmerga General escorting our cross-party team of British MPs mentioned that most people there supported the so-called Islamic State (IS). We moved nearer our armed protection officers.
We then toured a Christian village recently liberated in a bloody battle nearer Mosul. Iraqi commanders told us over chai how they and the Peshmerga are co-operating in an unprecedented manner. A generation ago they were fighting each other while Iraqi soldiers methodically razed thousands of villages and used chemical weapons in a genocidal campaign against the Kurds.
IS will soon be defeated on the battlefield but in camps across Kurdistan we heard harrowing tales of the huge human cost of this two-year war. One group singled out for extermination was the Yezedis whose religion predates Islam and Christianity. Men were immediately slaughtered along with women IS considered too old to be enslaved. Younger women were gang-raped and then repeatedly sold as chattel – boys and girls were also repeatedly raped. Some horrors are too graphic to describe. Families were thrown to the winds and survivors suffer constant flashbacks.
Rebuilding villages is relatively easy if expensive but rebuilding trust so displaced people can, as one weeping mother told us, go “home, sweet home” is harder. They cannot forget how close neighbours ratted on them or seized their possessions. Daily nightmares will take ages to manage although those caring for them are doing their utmost. The influx of two million people into the normally five million strong Kurdistan Region has also stretched its water and electricity supplies and swamped its hospitals and schools.
IS will fail but the root cause of its rise cannot be ignored or a new and maybe even more violent version will evolve. The minority Sunnis once dominated Iraq but were replaced in Baghdad by leaders from the Shia majority some of whom turned violently on them. Many Sunnis calculated that even IS was better than Baghdad. Long-term solutions that allow peoples to co-exist should be an international priority once Mosul falls. The Kurds insist the overthrow of Saddam was a liberation and tried to make Iraq work but Baghdad failed to honour the federalism agreed by a popular vote of all Iraqis. The Kurds have begun negotiations for an amicable divorce from Iraq.
Having taken many MPs and writers on a dozen trips to Kurdistan in ten years, I know how surprised and impressed they are by its hospitality, and the beauty of its mountains, plains and ancient sites which could underpin more tourism – it’s already a major destination in the Middle East. Energy resources are huge if worth less now but a balanced economy requires diverse revenues and they can make a go of reviving their agriculture – the bread basket of Iraq before Saddam destroyed it.
The Kurds chose democracy when they ejected Saddam in the safe haven afforded by the British-initiated no-fly zone in the 90s and are pro-Western and particularly pro-British. Deep economic crisis has chilled democratic progress in the last year but that must be revived after Mosul. Religious tolerance is another feather in the Kurdish cap and minorities feel safer in this moderate and secular Muslim country.
Kurdish leaders need more help to boost their military heft and care for wounded Peshmerga, and we visited some in hospital to thank them for defending their country and therefore us against a vile fascism. MPs say the government should supply beds for the most seriously injured Peshmerga in our specialist hospital in Birmingham.
Finally, we saw a flashy Jaguar showroom, which sold many cars before the war and can do so again when peace comes. Kurdistan needs assiduous Western political support and investment to prosper and make a positive difference in the troubled Middle East.
Gary Kent is the Director of the all-party parliamentary group on the Kurdistan Region and has visited Kurdistan and Iraq 25 times in the last ten years. He writes in a personal capacity. @garykent
This articles appeared in the Newcastle Journal on 19 November 2016.