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Ringing the Changes in Anglo-Kurdish Relations

15/04/2014 10:52 BST | Updated 14/06/2014 10:59 BST

The recent civic commemoration in Westminster of the 26th anniversary of Anfal may come to be seen as a milestone in Anglo-Kurdish links thanks to the British Government's decision to send a minister to the event for the first time.

The enthusiastic participation in the Anfal ceremony of the British Government's Middle East Minister, Hugh Robertson - alongside KRG Foreign Minister Falah Mustafa - lends great credibility to the common cause of remembering this most horrific chain of events.

True, the Government doesn't formally recognise the genocide, as the Commons did last year, but clearly acknowledges the suffering of the Kurds more prominently than before. The battle for recognition goes on and such gatherings can generate further pressure on the Government to do so.

Taban Shoresh movingly described how, in the name of a "perverted ideology," Saddam's goons came for her Peshmerga father but when they found he wasn't there, decided to take her, her brother, mother and grandparents away to be buried alive. The kindness of two strangers allowed them to escape miraculously with their lives.

Such powerful testimony is essential to the world understanding the sheer scale of what the Kurds endured and why they should never be abandoned again, as they were at the time of Halabja in 1988.

Baroness Nicholson reminded us that international conventions about chemical weapons and genocide required international action but were sidelined when Saddam - a "cowardly narcissist" according to the Iraqi Ambassador Faik Nerweyi - carried out the genocide. She said that "we had the knowledge, the law and didn't act and I feel humiliated before you."

The Co-Chair of the all-party group, Meg Munn MP clearly reiterated her criticism of the failure of the British Parliament to endorse action when Assad used chemical weapons last year. She asked if we would be similarly marking the slaughter of the Syrian people in ten years while realising that we had failed to protect them.

The point of marking genocides is to make sure that such events never happen again. But they do. Meg's profound moral point about Syria highlighted how Assad could cross the red line of using chemical weapons with impunity and stay in power to do his worst.

Tony Blair separately argued this week that failure to intervene in Syria would have "terrible" consequences for years because inaction is also an action. Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman, the KRG's High Representative to the UK, told the Anfal event that failing to tackle dictators only emboldens their greed and violence. She praised Kurdish campaigners for their work over decades in challenging Saddam.

Robertson has direct experience of the dark days of the early 1990s when he was a tank commander in the first gulf war, which led to Britain promoting the safe haven in and no-fly zone over the Kurdistan Region. That decision saved the Kurds and did much, belatedly, to redeem Britain's moral standing.

Marking Anfal and Halabja informs new audiences who only know Iraq through the 2003 invasion but also raises awareness of modern Kurdistan. I was struck by Robertson's passion about relations between the UK and the Kurdistan Region, which he said have never been stronger and where is "much more to come."

It wasn't so long since upholding a "one Iraq" policy would have forced foreign policy officials to run a country mile from engaging with Erbil. I wish we had more quickly abandoned the pointless view that good relations with Erbil would offend Baghdad and Basra.

Well, those days are going. Ministers and officials now have a more realistic approach that deals directly with the KRG and in detail about how to improve visas, secure direct flights and other practical measures. The UK is seen by the KRG as a partner of choice and now more and more Brits realise that this has to be a two-way street.

The Kurdistan Region has now won many more sympathisers who better understand the shadow of the past over Kurdistan. This surely means understanding the continued existence of an Arab chauvinism that seeks to subordinate the Kurds. And it should help sustain Erbil's refusal to accept that Baghdad should control the destiny of the Kurds.

The next stage of the new conversation between Kurds and Brits is the inquiry by the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee into our relations. They will take evidence in writing and person, including Robertson, and may visit the Kurdistan Region in the coming months. My best guess is that they will issue a report in the summer, which will be taken seriously by the Government in further finessing its policy on the Kurdistan Region.

This new combination of better understanding the past and endorsing measures to assist Brits seeking links with Kurds can dynamise the relationship. Finally.