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Helping the Kurds to build a land fit for heroes

Following a visit to the Kurdistan region of Iraq, Ulster Unionist South Antrim MP Danny Kinahan reveals how Northern Ireland business and education could play a vital role in supporting those in the front line against Isis.

Published 18/11/2015

An IDP camp
An IDP camp
A tea room with artists who suffered under Saddam Hussein
Peshmerga generals along with MPs in Kirkuk
A father telling his story
Queen’s University Belfast

Waking up in a hotel in the capital of the Kurdistan region in Iraq to hear on the BBC that the Kurdish Peshmerga - those who face death - with air cover from international coalition forces had driven Isis out of Sinjar certainly reminded me that our delegation of MPs was just 70 kilometres from Mosul,  the centre of the self-declared Isis Caliphate.

We were then driven from meeting to meeting in a speeding and zigzagging black four- wheel drive convoy, accompanied by police sirens, that was like something out of Jack Ryan's Clear And Present Danger.

This initial impression could not have been further away from the truth, as we had detailed discussions with the most relaxed, secure, gentlemanly and hospitable people, such as the Prime Minister, his deputy, those who look after foreign affairs and planning, as well as politburo leaders of the Kurdistan KDP, PUK and Goran parties.

But we also got out and about in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Our cross-party group of politicians gathered with Peshmerga on top of a sandbag fort in Kirkuk, just four kilometres from Isis-held villages, as the commander detailed battles against the extremists with the swagger of a winning, professional army.

They gave us the impression of being on top, but need more armaments from western nations.

They said they have received training from Britain, but no weapons, and are having to use Eastern Bloc weaponry. And we popped into a famous tea room in Sulaymaniyah, which serves as a meeting place for artists and writers who survived the terrors of Saddam Hussein's regime.

One of them gave me his own prayer beads as a gift.

Most important to me was to visit internally displaced person (IDP) camps and glimpse their often ignored plight.

We saw seemingly happy families in well ordered, clean and highly serviced tents or Portacabins, where large families of 10 or more were the norm.

The smiles hid appalling stories of fleeing homes with nothing but the clothes they wore as Isis advanced on their villages and towns, leaving mothers and fathers and relatives behind, and of waiting 15 days in a queue only to fail to be allowed to cross the border.

One father had driven with his family to Syria, then Turkey, and back to Kurdistan.

The determination and organisation of the camp managers also hid the fact that Baghdad is not providing the full share of food and supplies, nor the teachers, doctors and administration required to meet education and health needs.

Most telling are the concerns of how to give IDPs a future and a chance to return home, as they all want, while ensuring they are safe too.

International laws mean refugees have to be looked after to a certain standard by the UN. Yet no such rules exist for the million-and-a-half IDPs in Iraqi Kurdistan.

The meetings with the Kurdish politicians illustrated to us a society battling to beat Isis on a 1,000km front (so vital for all of us in the West) with little help, being refused budget payments which had already been agreed with Baghdad, and having to rely for funding on oil supplies newly piped to Turkey at a time when prices are so low, and yet they seem confident in themselves.

Kurdistan is an oil economy with some industry and a little agriculture, because Saddam killed or moved farmers to the towns before he was kicked out of Kurdistan in 1991.

About 6,000 public infrastructure projects are on hold until funds are available. The ending of the war will expedite this. To make it all harder, Iraqi Kurdistan does not exist as a sovereign State, although it constitutes a large part of Iraq, and it is therefore Iraq that is asked to world meetings and never Kurdistan.

From a Northern Ireland viewpoint, it was interesting that there had been an Invest NI representative in Erbil and that contracts were nearly signed before the economic crash.

The new American University of Iraq in Sulaymaniyah wants to bring in new thinking and expertise, and apparently a deal was close to link Queen's University - chosen ahead of two other academic institutions - to building a new university in Sulamaniyah. All very exciting, and matters I will follow up now that I am back.

The reason for the visit was to see how the UK can better help Kurdistan beat Isis. It needs medical supplies and help, more fighter aircraft sorties, more weapons and helmets and gas masks, and international pressure on Baghdad to pay up and help their countrymen.

But most interestingly is that, when asked, their priority is to concentrate on building or finishing roads, schools, and hospitals using the expertise of financiers, economists and entrepreneurs.

These people are trying to be a successful 21st century State in some very difficult conditions. They were telling the delegation that they need the sort of high skills that we take for granted, such as finance and banking and education.

As one politician said, they are the linchpin to the world's problems with extremism. The Kurds often feel that they have no friends but the mountains to which they have fled many times, however they consider us to be their friends, and we should reciprocate.

It was made clear to us that, as the military campaign continues to tighten its grip against Isis, that organisation will change its tactics to carry out more attacks like we saw in Paris.

Those appalling atrocities have brought home the need to support Kurdistan and defeat Isis and help build a thriving economy and moderate Muslim society that will seek to counter extremism.

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