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Instability in Iraq: a historical tragedy

Over the last eleven years, the largely stable Kurdistan Region has been welcoming many tens of thousands of Iraqi Christians and Yezidis fleeing extremists, particularly around Mosul.

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This article is solely designed as an overview of Iraq’s tumultuous history over the last few decades and the intent is not meant to pore over every major historical event. Instead, it seeks to provide a broad contextual outline in highlighting key points in time that have shown Iraq cannot be portrayed as a stable nation-state, and certainly not one inclusive of its largest minority, its Kurdish population. 

In 1932 Great Britain ceded independence to the newly formed Republic of Iraq after ruling it by Mandate with the assistance of the Hashemite King Feisal since 1921. Since then, Baghdad has seen an incredible amount political turmoil and unrest, experiencing numerous coups d’état as well as attempted coups and military-led regimes (1932, 1941, 1947, 1958, and 1963). When Iraq’s most (in)famous leader, Saddam Hussein, came to power in 1979, he shortly thereafter initiated war with the nascent Iranian theocracy of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, which lasted roughly eight years and cost hundreds of billions of dollars and at least one million lives on both sides.

Toward the last few years of that extraordinarily terrible war, ostensibly because Saddam saw the Kurdish populous agitating for greater rights and autonomy in Northern Iraq, Saddam and his fascist Ba’ath regime destroyed hundreds of Kurdish villages, killing over 180,000 Kurds in the process. This included chemically gassing over 5,000 civilians in the small town of Halabja as well as other nearby villages. This brutal campaign is presently known as “al-Anfal,” the Spoils of war, which was taken from the eighth chapter of the Qu’ran itself, Surat Al-Anfal. Since then, Kurds and their supporters have been lobbying the international community to recognize this calculated, systematic ethnic cleansing and murder as a genocide. Additionally, it would be disingenuous and negligent to omit the stark historical evidence that Saddam imprisoned, tortured, and killed hundreds of thousands of other Iraqis during his rule: political prisoners, people he did not like, members of religious and ethnic minorities such as Christians and Yezidis as well as their villages.

“Stability” is a word the international community utilizes so they do not have to think about what happens inside borders; they are mainly concerned with the erroneously so-called sacrosanct belief that there cannot maps that will have their borders redrawn. For them it is inconceivable to change this reality of the state in its present form; the modern state needs to remain as it is, and as it will be — defined by its borders at the very least.

This line of reasoning continues thusly: when the borders are threatened the international community will become concerned; however, if the borders are deemed stable, then what happens inside the country is an internal, domestic affair and the collective hands of the international community can and will be limited and more measured in its response, “Responsibility to Protect” (R2P) and international sanctioned and ratified Geneva Conventions notwithstanding.

Americans acutely remember when Iraq invaded and subsequently annexed its southern neighbor, Kuwait, in August 1990, but it is a lesser-known ‘detail’ that the following year, with the stated support of US President George H.W. Bush,’s administration, Shi’a and Kurds rebelled against the regime, but ultimately failed – in part due to lack of tangible Western support. Whole populations throughout the country were massacred by the tens of thousands. For many in the international community, this was a red line, and in 1992 two separate UN-No Fly Zones (UNSR 688) were established and implemented predominately by the United States, United Kingdom, and France in Northern and Southern Iraq, respectively.

In Spring 2003, President George W. Bush, with the help of several coalition partners invaded Iraq with the help of Kurdish forces  (peshmerga). From 2003-2011, 4,487 US soldiers lost their lives in Iraq, yet not one lost their life in the Kurdistan Region.

Over the last eleven years, the largely stable Kurdistan Region has been welcoming many tens of thousands of Iraqi Christians and Yezidis fleeing extremists, particularly around Mosul, the country’s second largest city. The KRG has additionally hosted Iraqi politicians and businessmen, who deem Iraq proper too unstable to conduct meetings and regular business in other parts of the country. During this latest crisis this previous summer, many foreign embassies and international organizations have transferred staff to the Kurdistan Region.  One sees much foreign investment being invested over the last decade in this Region as well and this has been augmented by the fact that over twenty-five countries hold political representation there. The additional increase in foreign tourism in conjunction with business ventures  can only lead to one answer: stability.

The marked success and stability of the Kurdistan Region model, largely based on the principles of Federalism outlined in the most recent Iraqi constitution (2005) should be implemented by other governorates (provinces) in Iraq, such as Anbar and Basra, for example. Moreover, states such as the USA, the UK, France, and Germany (also Federal states) should help promote in earnest such a model that is designed to ultimately provide agency for local power-brokers, tribal leadership, and reflect the will of the people within these governorates, districts and sub-districts. It is important to note that several governorates have made overtures to establish themselves in a similar manner to that of the Kurdistan Region, most notably Ninawa (Mosul), alongside their own flag, parliament, executive council, and constitution. Further moving away from Centralist tendencies genuinely promotes stability on all major fronts such as security, budget allocations, and political power-sharing. The question remaining now is: is there a will for even Federalism in Iraq? Do politicians have the will and the backing to support genuine inclusion of all parties or will we continue to see chauvinism, tribalism, and sectarianism?

While Western governments, the media, and concerned citizens continue to wring their hands in frustration about the best approach in dealing with the current IS terror reign one consistent aspect rings true about the current Republic of Iraq: it was not truly stable before 2003, and it is was not truly stable in 1932. Now, more than ever before is the time to reassess these imposed and anachronistic notions about maintaining or securing a peaceful solitary Iraq. As Masrour Barzani,  KRG intelligence chief discussed with Dexter Filkins in a recent New Yorker article,  “Iraq exists only in the minds of people in the White House…we need our own laws…our own country, and we are going to get them.”

Benjamin Kweskin is a senior research fellow at Kurdish Policy Foundation. He holds two Master degrees one in International Relations and another one  in Political Science.

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