Iraqi Kurds deserve better neighbours

New Statesman column by Gary Kent
Published 28 February 2008
There is obvious fellow feeling between Kurds in Iraq, Turkey, Iran and Syria, but PKK actions do the Kurds no favours
“The PKK is the result of and not the reason for Turkish actions,” was the curt message from the president of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), Masoud Barzani, when a British parliamentary delegation visited him shortly before Turkish troops crossed into Iraq late on Thursday 21 February. For decades, Turkish governments have denied the rights of the country’s Kurds. This more than anything has fuelled the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
Addressing that issue would surely be better than infringing the sovereignty of the most successful part of Iraq. Besides, the PKK is based mainly inside Turkey, which has failed to deal with the problem for more than 24 years. Some PKK guerrillas are perched in the largely inaccessible Qandil mountains on the border between the two countries but have proved impossible to dislodge. Barzani should know: he co-operated several times with the Turks to try to do just that. Some fear al-Qaeda could take over Qandil.
In fact, the Kurdistan Regional Government strongly opposes the PKK. There is obvious fellow feeling between Kurds in Iraq, Turkey, Iran and Syria, but the PKK’s actions do the Kurds no favours. KRG ministers believe Turkey is using the PKK as a pretext to constrain Iraqi Kurdistan.
Fears for the future of the region centre on Kir kuk, the Iraqi Kurds’ historic capital, which was forcibly settled by Saddam Hussein’s “10,000-dinar Arabs” in the 1970s. The new Iraqi constitution promised a referendum by the end of last year on whether the oil-rich city should be part of the KRG. The vote would almost certainly be in favour of that result.
The Kirkuk question mainly concerns oil, but that is an oversimplification. Whether Kirkuk is formally part of the region or not, oil revenues accrue to Baghdad and are then shared out proportionately. If the KRG region became larger that would, of course, increase the Kurdish share. But Turkey fears that Kirkuk’s oil could come to provide the material basis for an independent Kurdistan, even though KRG leaders have long opted for autonomy within a
democratic Iraq. The KRG understands the glaring political reality that Kurdish independence is a non-starter.
So we have a Mexican stand-off between two moderate and non-Arab Islamic entities that theoretically have much in common. Ankara refuses to deal directly with the KRG, which urges multilateral diplomatic action.
But although politics is in deep-freeze, trade is red-hot. Turkish companies are the main drivers of the region’s rapid construction boom, nowhere more so than at the British-designed, multimillion-pound mega-airport in Erbil, where Turkish contractors proudly showed us the planet’s fifth-longest runway. Historically, Iraqi Kurds say they have “no friends but the mountains”, but they will soon have a political and commercial bridge to the world and possibly a railroad to
Kurdish leaders are playing a major role in building a federal Iraq – for example, as president and foreign minister. Yet there is a pervasive sense of limbo in the region and less optimism than in the first flush of “liberation” after 2003. The Iraqi parliament was slow to agree an oil law. Small oil companies have set up shop, but big players are nervous. The KRG desperately needs investment to maximise revenue from oil, gas, agriculture and tourism – yes, tourism.
Kurdistan is moving from a bloody past to an uncertain future. It has history in abundance: 182,000 Kurds died and 4,000 villages were razed in Saddam’s genocidal Anfal campaign. Children are still being born with deformities caused by his chemical weapons. All this weighs heavily on the small, landlocked region, but there are signs of hope blowing in the wind, literally.
For Iraqi Kurds, the Iraqi flag was tainted by Saddam’s totalitarian legacy and has long been banned. Now it has been redesigned and has been unfurled over the Kurdistan National Assembly beside KRG colours. The mostly secure and secular Kurdistan could yet be a model for the rest of Iraq, and the wider Middle East. It deserves better friends and neighbours.
Gary Kent visited Iraqi Kurdistan with the UK all-party parliamentary group on the region

IPO Iraq News Analysis

By Yasser Alaskary
Jan 30, 2008
Changing Politics
Politicians and analysts interested in Iraq saw the passing of the Accountability and Justice Act, which largely reversed the more extreme elements of de-Baathification, as a sign of some positive progress, but most have failed to recognise the sea-change occuring in Iraq’s political landscape.
Since the handover of power in 2004, Iraq’s political arena has been divided across sectarian lines, with the Shia coalition at its centre, and a Kurdish and a Sunni coalitions. With the sustained improvement in security over the last few months, these divisions have largely melted away.
Fed up with the Shia coalition’s reluctance to cede more power to the regions, especially with regards to the power of provinces to sign oil deals, the Kurdish coalition, represented by their two leaders – President Jalal Talabani and Masoud Barazani – signed a pact with the Sunni Iraqi Islamic Party – the latter had decided it would be in favour of less power centred in Baghdad.
The Shia coalition, which had already fractured months ago, saw certain groups such as the Fadhila Party, which has long wanted greater power for Basra where many of its constituents are, quickly indicated its willingness to join the new coalition.
This has had the effect of pushing parties from the Sunni coalition, other than the Iraqi Islamic Party, closer to the Dawa-SIIC alliance which makes the backbone of the current government, and rejecting the pact signed by the Islamic Party.
It seems that Iraqi politics is gradually no longer being defined by sect, but more and more by a debate of where ultimate power should lie – in a federal Iraq with a strong central government or in a union with strong provincial governments and a weak centre.
Whatever the outcome, this development is surely more representative of national reconciliation than any “reconciliation” benchmarks.
News Analysis brought to you by the Iraqi Prospect Organisation –
The Iraqi Prospect Organisation is an Iraqi-based network of young men and women promoting democratic values.

Troops out how?

Harry Barnes examines how it might be done, starting with this useful quote from Mother Jones
… its not just the administration that has its head in the sand; to varying degrees, we all do. For those of us who argued against invading, it is tempting to simply demand an end to “Bush’s War” and wash our hands of it. But as General Anthony Zinni, former head of U.S. forces in the Middle East, told us, “Your conscience is not clean just because you’re a peace demonstrator.” In other words, just because you weren’t in favor of going in doesn’t mean you’re not responsible for what happens when we pull out…
Yes, Bush, a leader with all the impulse control of a petulant three-year-old, “broke” Iraq. But we own it now. Time to get ready with the apology, the checkbook, and whatever else is required.

LFIQ replies to Seumas Milne

From our work with Iraqi trade unionists over the last few years, including a top-level meeting with their leadership in Iraq, we agree with Seumas Milne (Those who talk democracy should listen to Iraqs people, 9 January) that the withdrawal of foreign troops is vital to national reconciliation in Iraq. This is a far cry from previous calls for immediate withdrawal of those troops before the elected Iraqi government has established its own security capacity to avoid a
devastatingly dangerous security vacuum. As we have often heard from our Iraqi comrades, their intervention wasn’t negotiated but their withdrawal must be.
It’s astonishing, however, that an article which focuses on reconciliation fails, as is sadly typical of a strain of left thinking, to mention either the emergence of a non-sectarian movement of trade unions or the efforts of the mainstream parties and the Kurds to help bolster a federal, pluralist and democratic Iraq, after several blood-drenched decades of fascist-type rule under the Ba’ath party.
Things have clearly improved on the ground though each needless death remains a tragedy but those who are concerned with enabling Iraqis to make their own future should always seek out natural allies such as the new and independent labour movement, and other democratic forces, and assist them to stand on their own two feet.
Dave Anderson MP and Gary Kent
Labour Friends of Iraq
Seumas Milne
Wednesday January 9, 2008
The Guardian
Who would have believed it? When George Bush arrives in Jerusalem today to salvage something from the wreckage of his attempt to impose a new pax Americana on the Middle East, there will at least be one ray of sunshine in an otherwise grim presidential vista. Iran may be resurgent, Hizbullah unbroken, the prospect of an Israel-Palestine peace settlement more remote than ever. But, as far as the US administration is concerned, things are at last coming good in Iraq.
Its people are “reclaiming a normal society”, Bush has declared, a theme echoed enthusiastically across the US and wider western media. American casualties are down, economic growth is up, refugees are returning home, and people can once again walk the streets of Baghdad in safety, the story goes.
“We are out of the woods,” Muwaffaq al-Rubaie, the Iraqi government’s national security adviser, insisted last month. And however such claims are regarded in Iraq, they are certainly having an impact on the US presidential elections. The Iraq war is still top of American voters’ concerns, but it now jostles with the economy, immigration and healthcare and, while a clear majority want troops withdrawn, a record 40% believe the past year’s troop surge is making things better. The result is that the leading Democratic candidates are hedging their
bets on troop withdrawal – Barack Obama would keep trainers and special forces, Hillary Clinton is only committed to pulling most troops out by 2013.
Meanwhile, the glad tidings from Iraq means pro-war Republicans are once again in with a fighting chance.
The one part of this tale that is true is that the level of violence has dropped sharply in the past three months, both involving Iraqis, and US and British occupation troops. The monthly average of US soldiers killed between October and December was 33, compared with 110 in April to June, and the number of Iraqi civilians reported killed in December was 902, according to Iraq Body Count, compared with 2,731 in May. Any reduction in the suffering of Iraqis in particular, who have certainly endured hundreds of thousands of deaths as a result of the invasion of their country, must obviously be welcome. But if that dip
in violence is misinterpreted as reflecting the beginning of a successful stabilisation and reduces the pressure to end the occupation, it will only prolong that agony into the future.
The fact is that 2007 was the deadliest year for US troops, with 901 killed; and the second bloodiest for Iraq as a whole, with at least 22,586 civilian deaths. The level of resistance attacks on US forces is still running at 2,000 a month, and the level of violence is back to roughly where it was in 2004-05 – seen as disastrous at the time.
The reasons for that drop are mostly not disputed. The first is the creation of “awakening councils”, in effect US-backed Sunni militias, to police areas that have been at the heart of the resistance campaign.
Then there is the six-month ceasefire called by Moqtada al-Sadr’s anti-occupation Mahdi army, the most powerful Shia militia in the country. And lastly, there has been the impact of the surge in US troop numbers and the change of tactics orchestrated by its architect, General Petraeus, including the carving up of cities such as Baghdad into ethnically cleansed security zones behind Israeli-style walls, barriers and checkpoints. Iraqis also report that US troops have sharply reduced their patrols and operations in the last couple of
months in Baghdad and elsewhere, with fewer clashes as a result.
But already, the upsurge in bombings, assassinations and attacks on US forces in the last couple of weeks – including the first killing of American troops by an Iraqi soldier – should be a warning to those now talking up the success of the surge. Here are four reasons why the lull in violence is highly unlikely to hold. First, the occupation-funded awakening councils, which are now getting on for
80,000-strong, are an unstable mishmash of groups with different agendas, created in the teeth of opposition from the supposedly sovereign Iraqi government, which have already been drawn into sectarian clashes with Shia militias. To solve one problem, the US has created another.
Second, the surge was only ever a temporary fix, and US troop numbers are already being reduced. Third, violence has been increasing in Shia areas and is likely to continue to do so, both as militias vie for power and as they come into conflict with US forces now tilting towards Sunni interests – or as a result of the clash between the US and Iran. But perhaps most important, there hasn’t been the slightest move to a political settlement for which the surge was meant to buy
time. The government barely exists, parliament rarely manages a quorum, and there has been no change in the fundamental issue which drives armed resistance: the foreign occupation of the country against the will of its people.
The reality of the surge is this: the number of people displaced from their homes has quadrupled to over 2 million, and detention without trial has risen dramatically (the US alone holds 25,000 prisoners).
Another 2 million have fled the country since the occupation began – and about 30,000 have returned, mostly because of lack of cash and visa restrictions. In oil-rich Iraq, electricity is now available in Baghdad for only eight hours a day, half the level before the invasion; unemployment is over 60%; food rations are being cut; corruption is rampant; and 43% of the population now lives on less
than a dollar a day.
The surge has bought time for the US but achieved nothing to prepare the way for an end to the occupation. On the contrary, Bush recently signed an agreement with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki for a long-term presence in the country. On Monday, a spokesman for what is regarded as the largest Sunni-based resistance group in Iraq, the Islamic Army, rejected any cooperation with the awakening councils and pledged to “resist the US forces as long as they are in Iraq”.
Meanwhile, focus-group surveys carried out for Petraeus in five Iraqi cities last month found that all sectarian and ethnic groups believe the US invasion is the primary cause of violence in the country and regard the withdrawal of all occupying forces as the key to national reconciliation. Those who preach democracy for Iraq should listen to its people.

UN to beef up Baghdad mission

Michael Howard in Baghdad reports that the UN is to renews mission to bring peace to Iraq
He writes that the United Nations is ready to help Iraq solve its most intractable political problems, including the future status of the contested northern city of Kirkuk, its top official in the country said yesterday.
Staffan de Mistura, Ban Ki-moon’s special representative for Iraq, told the Guardian that the UN was now beefing up its engagement with the country, four years after the bombing of the organisation’s compound in Baghdad that killed 22 UN staff. De Mistura’s predecessor Sergio Vieira de Mello was among the dead. Since then, the UN’s Iraq programme has been largely operating out of Jordan.

Australian Labor and Iraq

LFIQ Joint President Dave Anderson has tabled a Commons motion congratulating the Australian Labor Party on its victory and urging increased support for the Iraqi labour movement. Former Labour Party Chair Ian McCartney and SDLP Deputy Leader Alasdair McDonnell are amongst the initial supporters.
Gary Kent
That this House warmly congratulates the Australian Labor Party and its leader Kevin Rudd on a stunning election victory; wishes the Labor Party the very best in its goals of social justice; and hopes for its support in seeking to provide moral assistance and solidarity to the new Iraqi labour movement, not least its trade unions which are a beacon of non-sectarianism and part of wider Iraqi efforts to build a thriving, democratic and federal Iraq.

Packed classes hint at peace in battered Iraq

See this Observer report which begins thus: It begins and ends with the children. They stayed away from the al- Gazaly school in southern Baghdad when the streets were murderous – their parents moved out and their PE teacher was shot dead during the mundane act of having a haircut. Now, one by one, cautiously, determinedly, noisily, they are returning to their desks, bringing the school back from the brink. Their hopeful faces reflect, perhaps, the new and fragile optimism dawning in Iraq.

LFIQ meeting with representatives of the Iraqi Dawa Party

Joint President Dave Anderson MP and Director Gary Kent met a delegation from the Dawa party at the House of Commons on 18th October, at the request of the Dawa party.
The Dawa party was represented by MP Haider Al-Abadi, Chairman of the Iraqi Council of Representatives’s Economic Reconstruction Committee with his colleagues Munther Abadai and Montathar Najem.
Abdullah Muhsin, international representative of the General Federation of Iraqi Workers was unable to attend the meeting due to transport delays and sent his apologies.
The discussion initially centred around the continuing restrictions on Iraqi trade unions and the freezing of assets by the Iraqi government in 2005. Haider said that his personal view was that the freezing of assets had been a mistake but argued that it was understandable, due to concerns about the revival of Baathism, which necessitate laws on such organisations and that a new Labour code was at its First Reading stage but might take some time. He supports a free trade union movement but didn’t think there should just be one centre.
Dave and Gary replied that the Iraqi trade union movement best speak for itself but that the unions were committed to helping develop a federal and democratic Iraq and should be seen as enemies of Baathism and friends of the political process.
The UK has one centre, the TUC whilst, for example, France has several. Whether there is one or more is a political choice but the law should not lay down whether there is one or more but simply regulate the functioning of whatever union set-up is agreed by the unions themselves.
Haider emphasised the strategic importance of the oil industry to ensuring social benefits are delivered and improved and stressed the need for an oil law that would regulate foreign investment and internal distribution of oil revenues.
There was a discussion about the position of foreign troops in Iraq and the common view was that the precipitate withdrawal of such forces would create a dangerous vacuum.
Haider also emphasised the impact of Saudi interference in Iraq, including the fact that most suicide bombers have been Saudi nationals.
Dave argued that however we were in this position it was in the self-interest of the Iraqis and the British and other governments that the process of building Iraqi democracy succeeds and referred to discussions between LFIQ and Foreign Office Minister Kim Howells on the importance of economic reconstruction in the British area of operations in the South of Iraq. Gary stressed that too many on the left talked about Iraq but failed to listen to Iraqis themselves.
Haider agreed with this and outlined his party’s aim of defeating extremism. The two organisations agreed to continue discussions including possible collaboration with other Iraqi organisations and groups.