Geography and column inches

The Kurdistan Region in Iraq inevitably faces problems arising from its geography and related political pathologies because it nestles between Turkey, Iran, Arab Iraq, and Syria. Kurds in four enclaves are widely related but the Kurdistan Region is the only internationally recognised autonomous region in this “tough neighbourhood,” as its leaders regularly describe it to visitors. Their leaders do their best to amplify Kurdistani conundrums and aspirations with international media coverage being vital to its successes or failures.

Few British people have yet visited Iraqi Kurdistan but public opinion here has occasionally boosted its existence, and underpins the UK’s popularity there. The public outrage over Saddam Hussein’s suppression of the Kurds in 1991 was one such moment. President Bush senior encouraged the Kurds, and Shias in the south, to rise up after Saddam’s defeat in Kuwait. When the Baathist regime turned on them, two million fled to the mountains on the borders with Iran and Turkey where many froze to death. Public opinion was shocked and many people contributed food and blankets. My first connection to the Kurds was persuading Iran to supply a 747 to carry donations to the Kurds.

The then Prime Minister, Sir John Major answered the outrage by initiating the no-fly zone that provided a safe haven, policed every day by Western jets, that prevented further genocide and attacks until Saddam was overthrown in 2003.

In the Red House in the middle of Slemani, once a notorious torture centre, you can watch a short video of moving reports from Charles Wheeler, Boris Johnson’s former father-in law as it happens, exposing the misery faced by the Kurds and their pleas for help. The bleak bullet-pocked building is now a museum dedicated to Saddam’s crimes, the history of the Peshmerga, and the war with Daesh including the genocide against the Yezedis. In 2006, I remember the powerfully poignant sight of museum guards watching the live trial of Saddam Hussein.

After taking Mosul, Daesh turned on Kurdistan in August 2014. The then Mayor of London, one Boris Johnson, travelled to Erbil in January 2015 and cradled an AK47 alongside a Peshmerga. The picture was wired around the world and was worth a million words.

The defeat of Daesh as a territorial entity meant that the story slipped from the main news as a job done, although it is far from finished: four Kurdistani security officers were recently killed. Slipping from public view was to have unfortunate consequences.

Following the referendum on independence from Iraq in September 2017, Iran, for its own strategic reasons, bolstered Iraqi attempts to diminish the territory and powers of the Kurdistan Region.

Baghdad’s backlash was sadly obscured in the column inches by a referendum in a better known place: the bid by Catalonia for statehood and the consequent crackdown by Madrid. This allowed Baghdad to seize Kirkuk with little coverage and therefore potentially decisive external intervention. The dearth of hard information made it difficult to persuade senior MPs to make statements because they had so little to go on.

Iraq taking control of Kirkuk and other disputed territories was wrongly seen as a routine adjustment, although it caused the deaths of about 100 Peshmerga. Kirkuk and the other disputed territories could have been under KRG, federal government or joint control pending the long delayed finalization of their status via mechanisms in the 2005 Iraqi constitution.

Sparse coverage emboldened Iraq to press its hand and to seek to invade undisputed Kurdistan and taking the main airport. The Peshmerga resisted and Baghdad failed. New governments in Baghdad and in Erbil are now resetting their relations.

And then something else makes the news – the recent assassination of a Turkish diplomat in the capital, Erbil by those who appear to be from an external force. News is the deviation from the norm and coverage was completely correct because the murder of diplomats breaks a basic rule of international relations and Erbil has long been an oasis of security and stability.

I feared the news would chill the fresh start that requires investors and tourists to boost economic prospects but it has been absorbed by those who understand that the Kurdistan Region has long proved resilient in keeping the show on the road. And the Kurdistan authorities were quick off the mark in capturing the alleged perpetrators.

The Kurds in Iraq have developed the knack of surviving and thriving but the hard truth, as other countries know, is that a few column inches can make all the difference.

Gary Kent is the Secretary of the APPG on the Kurdistan Region in Iraq, a visiting professor at Soran University, and has visited the Kurdistan Region 29 times since 2006. He writes in a personal capacity.

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