Red kite mark

Iraqi civil society is on the up. It can soar once more, says Gary Kent at Progress
11 August 2008
The reintroduction of the beautiful red kite bird in Blaydon and the revival of Iraq may seem distant but the possible link illustrates how Iraq is changing for the better.
The analogy arises from a recent trip to the north-east by Iraqis representing the Kurdistan Regional Government and the Islamic Dawa party of the Iraqi PM, Nourial-Maliki. They were guests of Dave Anderson, the local MP and joint president of LFIQ. We spent hours spotting kites and learning how a highly successful ecological project enthusiastically connected children, schools, businesses and public opinion to kites as a symbol of our relationship with the environment.
We discussed how such a project could work in Iraq. Should the equivalent of the kite be the eagle or the Ibex mountain goat. The point is that rapid change in Iraq allows discussions that go beyond mere survival towards how, in the cradle of civilisation, to build a new, more green society.
The dinar is dropping, so to speak – Iraq is on the mend. The Kurdistan Region is fairly autonomous, mostly peaceful and attracting investment. In February, an all-party parliamentary group visited the new airport which will have the fifth largest runway in the world and provide this landlocked region, surrounded by sometimes hostile neighbours, with a commercial bridge to the world.
A LFIQ report resulting from the trip honestly examines the region’s many achievements but also problems with women’s rights, corruption as well as disputes over the status of Kirkuk and oil production. Some problems can be overcome as government and civil society build their capacity, drawing on external experience and personnel, and some will best be resolved when security throughout Iraq is established.
And that is now being done. The insurgencies are being broken. Iraqis have drawn back from the civil war that nearly engulfed the country two years ago. Sunnis have turned on Al-Qaeda and are buying into the federal government.
Iraqis liberated Basra in March and ended the sectarian militias’ reign of terror against women and the activities of oil and arms smugglers. MPs proudly showed us plans to turn Basra into the biggest container port in the Middle East employing 500,000 people.
As part of a dialogue with the Islamic Dawa party, a LFIQ delegation visited the PM and others in May in the green zone. Our first day was accompanied by regular mortar attacks but that day turned out to be the last day on which militias lobbed missiles into the zone because the Iraqi army took back Sadr City and is now dealing with Sunni insurgents elsewhere. The Iraqi security forces are increasingly confident and capable. They now alone control over half the country and aim to have total control by the end of this year.
It’s wise to be cautious. Crowded markets are easy targets and Iraq’s neighbours have been deeply hostile to a revived Iraq. An Iraqi MP told us that their neighbours prefer Iraq to be a consumer rather than producer. The country’s rich geology – agriculture, oil, gas and other minerals – could make it a rich and powerful competitor.
Support for Iraqi trade unions movement is a key LFIQ aim. The movement was liquidated by Saddam and is rebuilding itself as a non-sectarian force which promotes women’s rights and contributes to a new democratic and federal settlement. It remains stymied by continuing bans and frozen funds (these rules aren’t applied in Kurdistan, where unions are social partners).
We met union leaders and then raised these restrictions directly with the PM who promised progress on which we hope to report soon. A strong labour movement can ensure that prosperity is infused with social justice, unlike other rich but soulless countries in the region.
However, all this is just the start. An adviser to the PM said that it took former Soviet bloc countries a decade to overcome Stalinism before anything else. The physical and psychological legacy of Ba’athist totalitarianism is arguably worse. And politics, civil society, the economy are all starting from scratch. This also enables Iraqis to find, for example, their equivalent of the red kite as part of rehabilitating Iraq and reintegrating it into the world community. Iraq used to be toxic in the region and a four letter word here. But we should be doing much more to assist them to stand on their own two feet, which is what they want, so Iraq can soar once more.
Gary Kent is director of Labour Friends of Iraq and has visited Iraq three times in the last two years.