The way forward
At the Iraq Commission yesterday, two inspirational Kurds took the floor and presented their hopes for a democratic, federal and plural Iraq.
Thursday at the Iraq Commission came to belong to the Kurds, but started with a heavy dose of frontline experience from Dr Ali Allawi, until recently an adviser to the prime minister of Iraq but now very much out of love with the current government. Allawi was questioned for an hour and his politeness was slightly disconcerting, especially at the end. Paddy Ashdown's style as chair is rather different to Margaret Jay or Tom King - he likes to sum up the evidence.
The only problem is that his disarming "now I don't want to put words in your mouth" often means that is exactly what he is about to do. A couple of witnesses have shot back, with: "That is not what I am saying at all." Dr Allawi simply agreed. The summary is important because Allawi's evidence was multidimensional and not reducible to a simple headline.
What will be reported is Allawi's support for the notion that foreign troops are no longer serving a useful political purpose but rather hindering the development of the Iraqi political process. What might be lost is the sense that the withdrawal of foreign troops has to be linked to a change of policy. That change of policy must be the abandonment by the Americans of the emphasis on a strong central government and a revision of the constitution and an embrace of the existing constitution and the regional solution based on subsidarity. This regional solution, retaining a unified Iraq but with a weaker central government, has to be underpinned by regional powers' endorsement. The alternative is the sectarian seizure of control in the separate regions, something more likely to lead to partition.
To an extent this became the theme for the rest of the day because the two most powerful, inspiring and moving witnesses of the day, if not of the commission so far, were both talking about Kurdistan. Tom Hardie Forsyth had just flown in from Kurdistan were he is an adviser to the Kurdistan regional government (KRG). He was obviously partisan and directly passionate. He began with a visit to the history of Iraq - a history filled with very deep wounds. He quoted Bomber Harris celebrating British Imperial campaigns from the air against "tribesmen". The history lesson was going on a bit for Paddy and he moved things along. Tom came back, the sweat now gathering across his forehead, with five specific suggestions for the commission:
1) The UK should get behind the existing constitution.
2) We should do more to understand the deep and embedded nature of the insurgency and its relation to the residual operations of the Ba'th party.
3) The media should tell more positive stories about Iraq.
4) Encourage regional players to perform a positive role and discourage regional players' ambitions.
5) There should be a link between the government of Iraq and the Nato/Mediterranean dialogue.
He was also clear our military should withdraw when the Iraqis ask us to go and not before. Then the mantra - the Kurds believe in a democratic, federal and plural Iraq. They have no ambitions for independence. With candour he admitted the Kurds would be "morons" not to want national self-determination as the largest nation on earth without homeland. But they are also realists.
Then came Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman, the high representative of the KRG in London. Softly spoken and direct, Bayan began by inviting the commission to Kurdistan and thanking the British people and armed forces for liberating the Iraqi people from a genocidal dictator. Coming from someone who had lost both her father, Sami Abdul Rahman, formerly deputy prime minister of Kurdistan, and her brother to a suicide bombing, this gratitude was extremely moving.
The substance of her talk was also direct and relevant. Her message was that we should not take for granted the relative success story that Kurdistan represents and that the rest of Iraq can learn from some of the things that have been achieved. Again she stressed that Kurds want a Federal, democratic and plural Iraq, that they believe in making the existing constitution work but she also made specific requests, as Tom had done. Capacity building for a free press and good governance. Investment by British companies to match that of the Austrians and Italians. Links between British Universities and Iraqi ones, like the link between the University of Kurdistan, which teaches entirely in English and the University of Bradford. A direct flight from Heathrow to Kurdistan. Economic development in the region, spreading out to the rest of Iraq, political structures in the KRG being the basis for regional structures in the south, centre and a Baghdad federal region. Also, in contrast to a very badly informed witness from Tuesday, (Houzan Mahmoud, see here if you think me unfair) Bayan stressed the KRG condemnation of honour killings and promotion of women's rights.
Actually it is worth pausing on Mahmoud's evidence because it was not challenged on the day. The Kurdish region, as these witnesses made clear, does not have its own constitution and its regional laws are not anti-women. It was not clear what agenda Mahmoud was pursuing, but it doesn't seem to have been accuracy.
This was a great shame because the thrust of the evidence from her co-speaker in that session, Zainab Salbi, was crucially important. It was echoed by the other witnesses today from the Overseas Development Institute - economic development is vital and women are a central feature of reconstruction and post-conflict society. The point about economic development was well made by the ODI speakers but their presentation was somewhat surreal. Their written evidence stated that "access to water is now better than pre-conflict" their oral evidence was the water situation was one of the core problems. But best of all they stated at the beginning of their evidence that none of them were experts on Iraq - might have been a better idea to send your Iraq experts!
The day belonged to Tom and Bayan from Kurdistan. Tom flew from Iraq to make his points. Bayan buried a father and a brother in Iraq yet was calm, balanced and dignified in her simple message - give the constitution a chance to work, do not take the success of the north for granted and engage with Kurdistan on the political, educational and economic spheres because the better Kurdistan gets the better chance there is of a federal, democratic and plural Iraq emerging.