Saturday, January 21, 2006

Iraq's Future, Elections and Kurds

Since the first Gulf War in the early 1990s, Iraq has been a schizophrenic society with the majority of the country under Saddam's authority and a significant part of the north under Kurdish rule with British and US protection enforcing the "no-fly" zone (including one in the south). The second Gulf War and subsequent events have served to solidify the Kurdish idea of autonomy in northern Iraq.

In between the two Gulf Wars Iraqi Kurdistan has taken on a real personality. It has its own links with international organizations. Take, for example, Dr Dindar Zebari who is Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) Coordinator to the United Nations. He is one of the new Kurds who is internationalist in outlook and prepared to think deeply about Kurdistan and its future relationship to the new Iraq.

Dr Zebari, or Piris as I know him, came to the University of Westminster Law School when we started a new masters degree in dispute resolution in which I was teaching one of the core courses. About a third of the students were from outside the UK and non-native English speakers. They had to have a certain standard of English fluency, but not necessarily of technical language. Piris stood out early on in the class. He was always well-prepared, but his English was halting. He was a refugee from Iraq and had been granted asylum. I recall we told him that if he wanted to succeed he would have to work twice as hard as the others: he would have to work full-time on the subject and also full-time on his language. He did. And his dissertation on the legality and politics of the protected zone was very good. Piris graduated with a merit (=magna cum laude).

I expected to hear no more of him, but a while later he came to ask to do a PhD. We discussed the difficulties of advanced research, the demands, linguistic, financial, intellectual. Piris was determined. Several years later after a lot of hard work, setbacks, and revision after revision, Piris graduated with his PhD. It was a moment when I really was proud to be a teacher. I was never certain that he could make it. But he confounded us all. And I'm pleased to count Piris as a friend. In the last two years he's come into his own working with his government. No more secret trips to Iraq dodging Saddam's secret police; Piris is now a major diplomat in Iraq.

During his PhD we talked for hours about the future of Kurdistan and Iraq. In his heart Piris yearned for an independent, autonomous Kurdistan, free of Iraq. We knew the axis of allies would not permit it. So we would scour the world for alternative models of governance that would begin to satisfy these competing interests. In the end we decided a loose federation would represent the best mode of co-existence. And the preference was for confederation rather than closer federation. It would guarantee the integrity of Iraq and provide for the autonomy of the different groups. It was realpolitik.

Will it work? I don't know. But I watch the activities of Dr Dindar Zebari with great interest and affection as he circulates among the elites discussing, persuading, arguing, negotiating and adhering to values he has long subscribed to. Dr Zebari can now communicate these values in ways which are more effective than when he first came to us as a refugee back in the 1990s. It is through the dedication of people like him that Iraq will eventually prosper, not our actions.

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