Senate debates

Wednesday, 13 September 2006



6:55 pm

Photo of Ross LightfootRoss Lightfoot (WA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

We can only see what is occurring in Iraq by that which the Australian and international media chooses to report. Their decision to constantly convey the negative issues, such as the bombings and other appalling problems facing Iraq—and there are many appalling killings by these crazed murderers, particularly in and around Baghdad—does not give a full indication of what is occurring in other regions in that nation. At a time when so many negative aspects of Iraq are reported in the media—bad news is good news—it is important that we acknowledge the many positive events that have occurred in a land that gave birth to civilisation over 10,000 years ago. Kurdistan, in the northern part of the Republic of Iraq, is often overlooked and ignored, receiving very little or no coverage in the mainstream media. Yet it is progressing at a rapid speed in developing its land.

For many decades the Kurds faced persecution, torture and death. In 1974 the Iraqi government began a new offensive against the Kurds and pushed them close to the border with Iran, into the Zagros Mountains that gave them protection from Saddam’s killers. The Iraqi regime informed Tehran that it was willing to satisfy other Iranian demands in return for an end to its aid to the Kurds. The Algiers Pact, an agreement between Iraq and Iran, with mediation from the then Algerian President Houari Boumedienne, was agreed in March 1975. The agreement left the Kurds helpless and the Shah of Iran ordered that supplies to the Kurdish movement be cut, causing the Kurdish leader General Barzani to flee across the border into Iran with many of his supporters. As a result the Iraqi government extended its control over the northern region after a 15-year absence and, in order to secure the dictator’s influence, started an Arabisation program by moving southern Arabs to the oil fields in Kurdistan, particularly the ones contiguous to Kirkuk, the main oil city in Iraq.

The repressive measures carried out by the Iraqi regime against Kurds after the agreement led to renewed clashes between the Iraqi army and the Kurdish guerrillas, known as Peshmerga, in 1977. As a result, in 1978 and 1979, 600 Kurdish villages were burnt and destroyed. Around 200,000 Kurds were forcibly relocated to other parts of the country and many started what was to become a diaspora of Kurds around the globe. During the Iran-Iraq War of the eighties, the Iraqi regime implemented anti-Kurdish policies and a civil war broke out. Saddam was widely condemned by the international community but was never seriously punished until 1991 for his oppressive measures, including the use of chemical weapons against the Kurds—particularly in Halabja, a town I have visited in north-eastern Iraq, which resulted in the deaths of thousands of men; women, some pregnant; and babies and children of all ages.

For two years, between 29 March 1987 and 23 April 1989, the Iraqi army continued the genocidal campaign against Kurds—and indeed against Arab Iraqis too, especially the Shiites. It is estimated that—as a result of the widespread use of chemical weapons, some bought from Europe—there was the complete destruction of some 2,000 villages, and mass murder saw around 50,000 Kurds lose their lives. These are just some examples of the atrocities and inhumane acts that the Kurds had to face at the hands of the brutal former Iraqi dictatorship. Yet, despite these unimaginable events, the Kurds have maintained their honour and their dignity. They are an outstanding group of people whom I am privileged to support in many ways. The Kurdistan region’s economy is dominated by the oil sector, augmented by agriculture and tourism. Due to relative peace in the northern region, it has a more developed and diverse economy in comparison to other parts of Iraq. The stability of the Kurdistan region has allowed it, through the democratically elected Kurdistan Regional Government, to achieve a higher level of development than other regions in Iraq. In 2004 the per capita income was 25 per cent higher than the average of the rest of the nation.

The Kurdistan region is rapidly developing and the Kurdistan Regional Government has undertaken a major program to attract foreign investment in the region from Europe, South Korea, Turkey, Russia, the Middle East and the United States. Some examples of development and progress being made in Kurdistan include the following. Firstly, the new Iraqi constitution for a federal Iraq means that Kurdistan is now in a position to validate its own regional constitution, one that will provide the framework for a society in which human rights, including women’s rights, are upheld, the business environment is regulated and the rule of law—not Sharia law—is supreme. Secondly, a new investment law has been passed by the Kurdistan National Assembly and is awaiting ratification by the President of the Kurdistan Regional Government, His Excellency Massoud Barzani. Investors will have a legal, secure and business-friendly constitutional environment that is designed to encourage inward investment. An innovative two million square metre industrial city, Arat, is planned 25 kilometres outside the national regional capital of Erbil and will be open to foreign investment.

Erbil International and Suleimani airports are almost fully operational and are receiving regular direct flights from neighbouring countries, Dubai and Europe. When the region opened its first international airport a year ago, planners expected one arrival and departure a week. Now, they see about 65 to 70 flights a week to a dozen or more destinations. You can fly directly to Frankfurt, Stockholm, Copenhagen, Vienna, Athens, Istanbul, Amman, Tehran and Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. The new Erbil International Hotel enjoys maximum occupancy with mainly visiting foreign press and business delegations.

Two thousand eight hundred Korean troops and fewer than 1,000 US troops augment the local Pershmerga and are stationed in the Kurdistan region to assist in rehabilitating infrastructure such as water supply, sewerage, roads, schools and the renovation and construction of town halls. A new, modern conference centre is set to open in Erbil which will attract more and more industry conferences, exhibitions and high-level trade and political delegations. Foreign governments have been in the process of opening representative and commercial offices in Erbil, including Austria, the Czech Republic, Russia and the United Kingdom. Shaqlawa is in Kurdistan, a fertile region of northern Iraq that was once the target of Saddam Hussein’s chemical attacks—yet this tiny town had 1.2 million visitors last summer, mostly from other parts of Iraq. The fact that the region is peaceful and relatively safe, with minimal infighting, has encouraged tourism within Iraq.

The clearest sign of the new boom in Kurdistan is the increase in salaries. Before the fall of Saddam Hussein a white-collar worker earned 22,000 Iraqi dinar per month. That is around $148. But, according to the Ministry of Finance, today it is 158,000 Iraqi dinar—a 750 per cent increase. Since the Gulf War, Kurdistan has been largely on its own. Iraq’s new constitution gives the region partial independence, in which the Kurds are wanting to encourage foreign investment. In a recent interview, the British Prime Minister, the Rt Hon. Tony Blair MP said:

Look, one of the interesting things about Kurdistan is that there, because there has been the opportunity for people to live and work in peace, that region is so much stronger. It is economically stronger, it is stronger in terms of the living standards of its people and what it shows is what Iraq itself could be like …

With the US intervention in Iraq in 2003, Kurdish fighters joined the US forces and Australians to topple Saddam. Today they tightly control their own regional borders with their own army, supported by some foreign assistance, keeping out foreign terrorists who can more easily penetrate Iraq’s large and porous borders and make their way to Baghdad to continue to wreak havoc.

The potential for the Kurdistan region is vast and there are no limits to what can be achieved. Kurdistan has proven reserves of oil and gas, which are only now being developed by Norwegian, Turkish, British and Australian firms. There is no Kurd who would argue against the changes that have occurred since the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein has ended and, for the first time for many years in their long history, the people of Kurdistan can lead a peaceful life without fear of persecution, violence or summary execution. They are most grateful for the assistance given to them by Australians for their freedom, after generations of unbelievable atrocities committed against them. I have great affection for the Kurds and will always offer them my support and encouragement.