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
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
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
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