Reflection on Kurdistani referendum a year on

A year ago today Kurds in Iraq went to the polls to vote on the principle of independence from Iraq and I saw their joy and determination in three cities there. Given they endured genocide by Saddam Hussein, it was no surprise that it was a whopping 93% for Yes.

A negotiated deal with Iraq should have been doable given how hard the Kurds worked to make Iraq work better after Saddam’s fall in 2003 and how the Peshmerga – those who face death – did so much to repulse the so-called Islamic State.

But Baghdad’s leaders opted to go for the Kurdistani jugular, closed its airports, made its economy scream, and tried to invade it. It was illegal but Prime Minister Abadi got it into his head that conquering Kurds would compensate for his losing Mosul and make him a nationalist hero in elections in May.

It didn’t work out that way. The Peshmerga resisted and great powers then told Baghdad they were out of order. The airports eventually re-opened and normal business has resumed.

Abadi lost support in the elections and probably won’t stay in Little Venice, his Baghdad residence while the Kurds will again take the Iraqi Presidency and could secure a deal with Baghdad.

Coincidentally, this crackdown on the Kurds by Baghdad was obscured by the referendum days later in Catalonia. Of course, many more of us have been to Barcelona than Erbil, the capital of Kurdistan, since you ask.

You can also ask, as many Brits do, why this affects us. I could wax lyrical about how they boost women’s rights and protect Christians and other minorities with gusto. And their hospitality, beautiful countryside, and tourist sites. One day, you may go there. Really.

But many are sceptical about our role in Iraq and wider intervention. One advantage of going back and forth to Kurdistan for over a decade is that I know that the Kurds respect us, relish our long-term engagement, and are firm allies against extremism.

The British link with the Kurds is crucial to our interests. The Middle East is where much of our civilisation began and we can thank them for algebra, for instance. Yes, it is also a vast reservoir of oil and gas, which all economies need, and on fairer terms than imperialism imposed in the bad old days.

But, sadly, the Middle East, and North Africa, also has the greatest concentration of a death cult that wishes us harm. Thanks to the Kurds, they have been defeated in Iraq but haven’t gone away, you know. And Iraq and Kurdistan are pivotal powers in the Middle East.

This is where the Kurds come into the British security equation. If they succeed in reforming their country further, they can show a positive example to the rest of Iraq and the Middle East. A more prosperous economy and pluralist politics can inspire the vast youth bump of highly qualified people with nowhere to go and prey to the false sirens of extremism.

And the Kurds are keen to learn from us. Britain is helping professionalise the Peshmerga. The boys (and girls) from the Thames, and the Mersey and the Tyne, to quote Elvis Costello’s Oliver’s Army, can teach them a thing or two about military matters. The Peshmerga may again have to fight terrorism on their borders.

Our model of online public service delivery also appeals to them. And their Parliament, which is 26 years old, wants our MPs from a Parliament dating back to 1215 to train them to be more efficient and proactive. We will also help increase the clout of youth and student groups.

Our Kurdistani allies and have been to hell and back since their referendum. Their cause matters to us, I argue, because our links help increase stability and inclusion across the Middle East and help halt further extremist atrocities on our streets.

Gary Kent is Secretary of the all-party parliamentary group on the Kurdistan Region in Iraq, has been there 29 times in 12 years, and writes in a personal capacity. @garykent

This article appears in the Newcastle Journal today.

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