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Last week, I flew in to Erbil in northern Iraq, on a trip with the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Kurdistan. Erbil is a small city, of 1.3 million people, near to the Iranian, Turkish, and Syrian borders. It is moderate, with women in positions of power; tolerance of Christians and Jews; alcohol on sale; and respect for property rights. It is also the oldest continuously inhabited city on earth.

Before I travelled, I had three assumptions about Iraq:

1. that it was a desert wasteland, without rain;
2. that it was inhabited only by terrorists, military contractors, and oil-sheiks;
3. that ordinary working Iraqis would hate British imperialist infidels, like me.

Of course, I was wrong. It’s not the first time I’ve been wrong. But in this case I was really spectacularly, breathtakingly mistaken. There are grounds for optimism, in the Kurdish provinces in the north of Iraq. Their national GDP grew over 10% last year, for example. Contrast this with the crushing slow-down in the decades under Saddam Hussein. Despite all its oil and mineral wealth, Iraqi GDP grew by just 2% in the entire decade of the 1980s, and when sanctions kicked in in the 1990s, Iraqi GDP shrank by 47%.

That is now changing, and fast. In the last year alone, the Iraqi growth rate has outperformed most of the OECD and the Western world. Not just in oil. A healthy services sector now accounts for a third of Iraq’s recovering economy, and agriculture accounts for one tenth. Since the Allies toppled Saddam Hussein, Iraqi GDP has rocketed by some 317% overall.

But, the APPG was not there to discuss economics, however encouraging the signs may be. We were travelling to a commemorate the horrific genocide in Iraq. 2013 marks the 25th anniversary of Saddam Hussein’s scientific massacre of the Kurds.

The story is depressingly familiar, and a parallel of other 20th century regimes with an over-mighty state: Stalinist Russia; Nazi Germany; Communist Cambodia; Communist Laos; Marxist Ethiopia… The list of regimes that have tried to exterminate part of their own people is not endless, but it is very long.

In Iraq, Saddam Hussein deliberately murdered 182,000 Kurdish people, in a systematic slaughter. Not because they had done something right or wrong. But simply because they were Kurdish. In his campaign, Saddam’s troops flattened 5,000 villages and forcibly moved the Kurdish people into new settlements, which the Ba’arthist Party called “victory cities”. These were concentration camps by another name. Millions were pushed into exile as refugees. Rape and brutal torture were used as weapons of war. Kurdish men were driven into the desert in trucks, shot in the head, and slung into mass graves. Civilian areas were repeatedly bombed with mustard gas and nerve gas.

Through the mid 1980s, the response of the free world was pathetic: almost a total silence and denial of the atrocities that were taking place. Hence the Kurdish saying, that the Zagros mountains are their only friends.

But, say what you like about the first and second Gulf Wars, they stopped this genocide in its tracks. Slowly, the world is waking up to what occurred. The UK Parliament has only in the last few weeks – thanks to the efforts of MPs like Robert Halfon, Nadhim Zahawi, and Dave Anderson, voted unanimously to formally recognise the suffering inflicted on Iraqi Kurds as a “genocide”. This is important as a mark of respect, but also because it builds the case for reparations. The Regional Kurdish Government are now asking – with some justification – who profited from the genocide? Which chemical and arms companies? Which Governments? Who took the blood money?

Inevitably, tensions have grown between the more moderate Kurdish north of Iraq, and the Arab-majority in Baghdad and the south. The USA are selling F16 fighterjets to Baghdad, for example, and after Saddam, that makes the Kurds understandably jumpy.

One survivor of a chemical weapons attack described his memories to us:

“We fought back against Saddam. But when the nerve gas and the mustard gas came, what could we do? You cannot fight that enemy. It is death you cannot see or touch. Only smell. I will never forget that smell. Our livestock perished. Even the birds dropped dead from the sky. My son died with blue lips, from the cyanide in the air. Then bulldozers came. My wife and our other children were arrested, and caged in the desert. Our whole nation was a prison camp. Arabs shot the Kurdish men and boys. When they fired, it hailed bullets. They missed me and I pretended to be dead, lying motionless among the corpses. I didn’t move for hours, until a truck started to unload heavy stones and earth over the bodies. So I leapt out of the trench and ran into the dark. At that time I had not eaten for three days.”

The story is painfully relevant, because just a few miles north of Erbil there are two million Syrian Kurds over the border, facing an uncertain future, cut off from help or aid. In recent months, Syrian Kurds have been persecuted, raped, had their property taken, their homes flattened. Thousands have lost their lives. Arguably, Al-Assad is exterminating his own people, just as Saddam tried to do in the 1980s.

In the last few days, William Hague has suggested that Britain might defy the Syria arms ban, and ship weapons to the rebels. Good for Mr Hague. He deserves our full-throated support. Iraqi Kurdistan is a beacon. Her capital Erbil is – quite literally – a city on a hill. It proves that the Middle East can be moderate; democratic; prosperous; and free, if only we help people to fight back against dictators. The Iraq war was a war. It had many failures and disappointments. But Britain should be proud of its role in averting genocide. We should do so wherever we can, whenever we can.#

By Paul Abbott. Follow Paul on Twitter.


Photo Credit: Safeen Ahmed.

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