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Why the Kurdish Genocide Needs Recognising

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The possibility, as rightly red-lined by President Obama, that the beleaguered Assad regime in Syria could use chemical weapons in its desperate efforts to remain in power is a horrific reminder of the use of toxic bombs by another Ba'athist regime in neighbouring Iraq.

It is knocking on 25 years since the Ba'athist regime of Saddam Hussein used mustard gas against Kurds in Iraq in the closing stages of a decades-long effort by Hussein and other Iraqi dictators to exterminate the Kurds.

Anyone who wishes to understand modern Iraq should appraise themselves of this toxic legacy and if at all possible visit the town of Halabja, near the Iranian border.

Here in 1988 Iraq jets first dropped ordinary munitions to blast away windows, doors and buildings. The following day they dropped mustard gas which was then better able to reach its victims sheltered in buildings.

Five thousand people were instantly killed and many of those who survived have been saddled with continuing physical and psychological illnesses.

Sadly, Halabja was just one of many shocking attacks by the Iraqi army and which are still having a negative impact on the now increasingly prosperous Kurdistan region.

The traditional economic basis of the Kurdistan Region was agriculture with most people living in thousands of villages. Saddam's plan to eliminate the Kurds involved razing these villages to the ground, to the last brick. Some 4,500 villages were destroyed out of a total of 5,000.

Once arable fields were designated as free-fire zones with farmers and livestock being shot on sight. Wells were poisoned and capped. People from rural areas were herded into what were called obligatory collective villages - concentration camps in all but name.

There men of "battle age" could be picked up at will and taken away to be executed. These once barren patches of ground eventually became make-shift camps of concrete and wooden huts and still exist to this day.

Some years back I visited one called Banislawa, near the capital Erbil. I met women who to this day do not know for certain if their husbands, sons and grandsons will ever return.

Back in Halabja, the memorial to those murdered in 1988 has 5,000 names on it but one of these is in green. It is the name of a young baby who was presumed dead but eventually found many years later alive in Iran.

When he returned to Kurdistan many parents understandably claimed him as theirs although DNA established exactly who his parents were.

It is increasingly unlikely that this will happen for many other parents and new mass graves, some in the far south of the country, are still being discovered. One estimate is that up to a million people are missing across Iraq.

Decades of forcible urbanisation have left another legacy -the loss of farming skills and the inability so far to exploit the plentiful agricultural resources of the Region, which has long imported much of its food although it could be self-sufficient as it is trying to be with a major drive to reinstate agriculture as one of its key earners.

The trees torn down by Kurds for firewood when they were forced to flee their homes in 1991, before the UK, America and France established a no-fly zone for Saddam's jets, have been flourishing.

When Saddam was seeking to wipe out the Kurds, no effort went into mapping or exploiting its oil and gas riches. Saddam had enough in the rest of the country to drive his military machine and there was no point in finding such riches for a people whose fate was meant to be death.

It wasn't even certain that there was much. When I first started going to Kurdistan in 2006, oil and gas were much mentioned but it was very vague and theoretical.

Now it is a stunning reality to find that this small region has 45 billion barrels of oil underneath it or about 4.5% of the world's reserves.

These reserves of oil and gas, plus minerals as well as agriculture and tourism in what is a beautiful and unspoilt area give the Kurds the wherewithal to make their own prosperous and pluralist future.

They are not backward-looking by any means, although they could be forgiven for being so. Their campaign to urge the UK and the wider international community to understand what happened to them and to formally recognise Halabja and so many other atrocities as genocide is a reasonable request for justice and to help make sure that it never happens again, either in Kurdistan, Syria or elsewhere.

The e petition can be found at http://epetitions.direct.gov.uk/petitions/31014.

Gary Kent
Administrator All-Party Parliamentary Group on the Kurdistan Region in Iraq