(Newcastle Journal today)
Should I Stay Or Should I Go by the Clash topped the charts in March 1991. Three thousand miles away the free world had won the clash with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq to liberate Kuwait. British and American troops understandably wanted to go.
But humanity desperately asked that some stayed. The defeat of Saddam prompted a wave of popular rebellions across his “Republic of Fear.” The Americans, keen to go but not leave behind a disintegrating and even more dangerous country, urged a palace coup but the Shias in the south and the Kurdistanis in the north revolted against repression. Saddam lost control of 14 of 18 provinces.
The top American General made a fateful mistake in conceding that Saddam could deploy helicopters because roads and bridges had been knocked out. Saddam quickly exploited this error and brutally crushed the Shia rebellion before turning on the Kurdistanis, a term they use to underline their mixture of religious and ethnic groups.
Two million Kurdistanis joined an almost biblical exodus to the freezing mountains bordering Iran and Turkey, with many entering those countries. They all feared further genocide by Saddam. I use the term carefully as one that means an intentional effort to partially or entirely eliminate a people.
Saddam had deployed industrial-scale genocide against the Kurdistanis just three years before when 200,000 Kurdistanis were murdered, the town of Halabja was bombed with chemical weapons, and thousands of villages were deliberately demolished brick by brick. The UK Parliament later formally recognised it as genocide.
That genocide was barely covered by the media. This time, the miserable scenes of death and horror in the mountains moved those who watched it and encouraged MPs of all parties to demand action.
The British people’s tremendous generosity gathered 1,100 tonnes of provisions for the Kurdistanis. I helped British Aid for the Kurds secure an Iranian 747 to take some to the mountains.
Conservative MEP Paul Howell visited refugee camps and said: ”On television, you only see the faces, you don’t see the ground. There you see human faeces, diarrhoea, sheep’s heads and entrails, it’s as close to hell as you can think of.”
Labour’s Ann Clwyd mesmerised the Commons with her eye-witness account of five days with the Kurdistanis. They were, she said, freezing by night and bitterly cold by day in the clothes they were wearing when they fled and in makeshift tents like the thin plastic laundries use. She concluded that “Saddam Hussein is still killing, killing, killing, in Iraq. This is genocide, and it calls for an international response.”
The routine diplomatic response was to say that this was an internal affair while the UN passed vacuous resolutions. But the new Prime Minister, John Major, rejected such hand-wringing.
Four hundred people gathered in Glasgow where the organiser read a message from Major: “…my thoughts will be with you and the people of Iraq who have fled to escape the brutality of their own government.” Conservative Prime Ministers don’t usually send messages to demonstrations.
Major took the issue to his Cabinet on 21 March, incidentally Kurdish New Year, and through a series of canny, innovative, and morally courageous moves persuaded the Europeans and then the Americans to stay rather than go.
He proposed a safe haven and no-fly zone. He writes in his autobiography that “failure would simply have been a political embarrassment; for the Kurds, it would have meant almost certain death for tens of thousands. I never had a shred of doubt that it was right to proceed.”
The safe haven was policed for 12 years by US and UK forces, with the French at the beginning. Without that, Kurdistanis would have been exterminated.
We would not now have a decent Kurdistan Region in Iraq as a safe haven for Christians and other minorities. The Kurdistanis would not have accelerated Iraq’s transition from dictatorship to democracy after the invasion of 2003, though there is a long way yet to go.
Nor would Britain have allies in the Kurdistani Army, the Peshmerga, that repelled the so-called Islamic State (Isis) when it sought to capture Iraq and Syria. If the Kurdistanis hadn’t resisted them, with the support of the RAF, Isis could have had captured Iraq’s oil and arms. They would now be stronger and there would be more terrorist murders on our streets.
I started working in the Commons in 1987 on the Labour side and, as a former British Rail manager opposed his rail privatisation, but respected John Major for his brave work on Northern Ireland on which I was heavily involved.
I have backed the Kurdistanis since the overthrow of Saddam and, looking back, I recognise how well Major used persuasive diplomacy to do the right thing. Those few hectic weeks 30 years ago of rebellion, lobbying by Kurdistanis including Nadhim Zahawi (who escaped Iraq with his family in 1967), and Major’s statesmanship certainly saved the Kurdistanis.
The clash between Saddam and millions of Kurdistanis was won by their efforts with the RAF and the British Army staying the course rather than going. It is something we can all celebrate.
Gary Kent has been the Secretary of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on the Kurdistan Region in Iraq since 2007.