Democracy in the cradle of civilisation

I’ve had a couple of weeks to reflect on the short time I spent in northern Iraq. I am one of those many Labour party members who backed Tony Blair over Iraq. In retrospect, I can see what all the intelligence agencies and governments of the world couldn’t see at the time, that Saddam Hussein did not have stockpiles of chemical or radiological weapons at the time of the invasion. But I don’t care. In 1988 I was handed a leaflet outside the Salford University Students Union by a Kurdish student depicted a mother and baby dead on the ground. They had been killed, along with about 5,000 other civilians, by a combination of VX, sarin and mustard gas, dropped on Saddam’s orders on his own citizens in Halabja, northern Iraq. It was one of many uses of what came to be known as ‘weapons of mass destruction’ by Saddam. So the answer to those who say ‘he didn’t have WMD’ is ‘yes he did, and he used them to kill thousands of his own civilians.’

The people of Erbil, where I was staying, certainly agree with that statement. When Saddam was deposed in 2003, the citizens of Erbil took to the streets and celebrated into the night. Their lives now are immeasurably better than during the Ba’ath regime. Erbil stands on the route between Baghdad and Mosul. It has been continuously inhabited for over 8,000 years, by Babylonians, Assyrians, Romans, Persians, Arabs and Ottomans. It makes Cambridge or Canterbury feel like a Barrett estate. You can’t help but feel connected to ancient civilisations. Colonel Tim Collins’ famous speech was in my mind as I arrived. Iraq, he told his (presumably somewhat bemused) squaddies on the eve of the invasion, is ‘the site of the Garden of Eden, of the Great Flood and the birthplace of Abraham.’ It is the cradle of civilisation. Ironic, then, that I spent most of my time in either a brand new international airport, or a brand new five star hotel. Everywhere the builders are constructing the new housing developments, hotels and conference centres which will characterise the next stage in this ancient city’s life. The main employment for young men is on building sites.

I was also struck by the historical footnote that Clement Attlee had fought his way through Iraq in 1917. Having survived the fiasco in the Dardanelles, Attlee took part in the Mesopotamian campaign. Attlee was the last-but-one soldier to be evacuated from Suvla Bay in Gallipoli. The last was General Maude. I imagine a rather English scene with one gentleman offering the place in the rowing boat to the other in the black of night, with Turkish shells landing all around. The two were reunited in Mesopotamia (modern Iraq). Major Attlee was wounded commanding Indian troops at the battle of Hannah. Maude, the commander-in-chief, caught cholera and died. Even if Attlee had gone home in 1918 and tended his garden, his life would have been remarkable. His brother Tom was a conscientious objector, and I’ve always thought the tension between them would make a rather good drama.

Back in modern Iraq, I spent time with a group of 11 MPs, conducting a fairly standard media interviews training course (albeit in Arabic). They reflected the diversity of the country: more women than men, Kurds, western dress and traditional Arab robes. One MP spent his youth in the mountains of Kurdistan fighting Saddam’s forces. Then he lived in London for 10 years, and still has a house in Hayes. From freedom fighter in the mountains to catching the bus and going shopping Middlesex is quite a journey. He is one of three members of the Iraqi parliament who hold British passports. The MPs were like British MPs. They spent their breaks from my training course gossiping and plotting. They were passionate about their constituents and their country. They wanted to learn new skills. They were proud of what they have achieved. Imagine Stella Creasy in a hijab, or Rachel Reeves speaking Kurdish. That’s what the women were like. It was a privilege to spend time with them.

I am in no doubt that democracy in Iraq is genuine, vibrant and will develop and grow. I know the depth of feeling that Britain’s involvement in Iraq generated among Labour people. But I cannot understand how anyone can doubt a democracy, which is what Iraq now is, is not better than a dictatorship, which is what the people suffered for decades. Surely the job of progressives now is to develop links with the trade unions, women’s groups, civil rights organisations and democratic parties, to help democracy flourish, and to bring Iraq into the mainstream of modern states? Raking over old ground, or endlessly apologising, helps no one, and certainly not the people of Iraq.


Paul Richards writes a weekly column for Progress, Paul’s week in politics. He tweets @LabourPaul

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