In 1998 I was barred from obtaining a graduate degree in Iraq because I refused to join Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath Party. Luckily, a prestigious British scholarship program allowed me to leave Erbil, the capital of the Kurdistan region of Iraq, and attend the University of Bath in England to get a degree in Development Studies. I’ve always found that rather ironic — not Ba’ath, but Bath.
Last week I again left Erbil, but this time as a member of the Iraqi delegation to the 62nd United Nations General Assembly. In the past two decades I have gone from being a member of a marginalized and oppressed group within Iraq to helping represent it to the outside world. While the news from Iraq may be dominated by terrorism and violence in a society that seems irrevocably split by ethnic and sectarian divisions, my being a member of this delegation showed another side to the story: Kurds and Arabsworking together to make Iraq’s case to the United Nations.
My presence in New York is also a tribute to the leadership of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), the resilience of the people of our region and the sacrifice of those who died unable to imagine that a day like this would ever come. And it will be proof positive that rather than let violence rip us apart, we in the Kurdistan region are dedicated to attaining a free, democratic, federal and pluralistic Iraq.
Some have criticized the KRG’s commitment to federalism as a sign of Kurdish separatism or a long-term plan to “partition” Iraq. But this misreads Iraqi and Kurdish history. The Kurdistan region had been a de facto autonomous state since 1991, with the advent of Operations Provide Comfort and Northern Watch, the no-fly zone enforced by the United States, Britain and France following the 1991 Gulf War. It was the voluntary decision of the KRG to rejoin the rest of the country and participate in building an independent, federal and free Iraq for all of its people.
The Kurdistan Regional Government has shown itself to be a model for the democratic transition in Iraq. Not a single coalition soldier has been killed, our markets are vibrant and our people are relatively free of the terrorism inflicted on the rest of the country. We are not perfect, but we are getting things right. Our regional parliament has passed important legislation such as the Investment Law, which allows foreign companies the right of full property ownership, tax and customs-duty exemptions, repatriation of capital and the Kurdistan region’s oil and gas law. Some in Baghdad have reacted negatively to this law, with arguments that smack of the overly centralized period of Saddam’s autocracy. Our oil and gas law conforms totally with the Iraqi Constitution’s approach to federalism and the management of Iraq’s energy resources.
Because of a favorable and welcoming investment climate, the KRG should be understood by the international community as the gateway to the rest of Iraq. Our commitments to the rule of law, security, democracy and tolerance are sources of strength, not division, for Iraq. The Kurdish ministers and members of parliament in the Iraqi government are internationally recognized for their competence and commitment to a democratic, federal and secular Iraq. We are on the side of freedom and democracy.
My personal commitments to both the Kurdistan region and a free, federal Iraq blend easily in my mind. After so much suffering under one of the worst dictatorships in modern history, the Iraqi people deserve a chance for a normal life — none more so than the Kurds, who were victims of a genocidal campaign and chemical-weapons attacks by Saddam’s regime. I will do all I can to make sure that when the time comes, my children will be able to attend a university in their own country, and that their acceptance will not be dependent on membership in a political party.
When I left Erbil for the United Kingdom, I was going to a country unsullied by the violence and suppression I knew at home. Today, all Iraqi people dream of an end to the violence in Iraq. We dream of a federal country where democracy and human rights are upheld, where people are free to worship as they see fit, where one’s ethnicity is irrelevant and where outside investment helps fuel a developing economy and benefits our infrastructure. But we don’t only dream. The Kurdistan Regional Government of Iraq is working hard to make that future a reality for its people.
Falah Mustafa Bakir is head of the Department of Foreign Relations in the Kurdistan Regional Government of Iraq.
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