Kurdistan government representative to the U.S. to speak in Springfield Thursday
Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman will speak at 10 a.m. Thursday in MSU's Plaster Student Union, Room 313.
Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman, Kurdistan regional government representative to the United States, will speak in MSU’s Plaster Student Union, Room 313, Thursday morning, March 2, at 10. She's being brought to Springfield by the Missouri State University Political Science Department as part of the Strong Lecture Series. Michele Skalicky talked with her ahead of her visit.
Americans have mixed feelings about the Iraq war. Many believe it was a waste of money and lives. But you have a different view of the war that began 20 years ago. Tell me how you and other Iraqi Kurds see the war.
“Well, first, thank you very much for having me. Absolutely I understand that many Americans are tired of what they call forever wars. Perhaps they see the liberation of Iraq or the invasion of Iraq as a great mistake for the United States. I'm not saying that there were not mistakes. Absolutely there were. But overall, it was a liberation, certainly for the people of Kurdistan who had endured repeated episodes of genocide at the hands of Saddam Hussein. The intervention in 2003 was a liberation. If I can just expand on that a little bit -- really, from the 1960s onwards, there was a process that the Baathists, the party of Saddam Hussein, called Arabization, where they deliberately displaced and killed and removed Kurds from certain areas, for example, areas where there was oil. They would remove the Kurds and bring in Arab settlers, and the process was called Arabization. So imagine that -- you're sitting in your home, running your business, your children at school, and suddenly the government comes and pushes you out and maybe locks you up or just kills you to put somebody else in your home and your business. This process was going on from the 1960s, and then we had episodes of genocide. For example, in March 1988, the chemical weapons attack in Halabja, where 5000 civilians -- men, women and children were killed in a chemical weapons attack. So, of course, after that kind of suffering under a dictatorship, when American troops arrive, yes, we call it a liberation, and we're very proud of our partnership with the United States. We're very proud of our alliance with the United States. What I wish America would do more is explain to its own people that there were positive outcomes out of the liberation of Iraq.”
What is it like today for people in the Kurdistan region?
“Well, today we have an autonomous region that is recognized in the Iraqi Constitution. We are able to speak in our own language, teach our children in our own language. We have two international airports that connect us to the rest of the world. Of course, under dictatorships, the first thing that stops is travel. The second thing that stops his education because education becomes a threat. So for us, it's critical that we are able to communicate and connect with the international community. It's critical that our children speak our own language and have a chance at education. And in fact, in Kurdistan now, there are two American style universities, and I believe there is now another American style university in Baghdad. So from that point of view, just from the perspective of everyday life, those are very critical elements. Also, as I said, autonomy for the Kurdistan region is a deal breaker, if I can say that for us. We have fought, we have shed blood, we have sacrificed over decades to be able to have the autonomy that we have today. Kurdistan has its own president, parliament and its own security forces. The Peshmerga, who have protected the Kurdistan region and many of the religious and ethnic minority that are in the Kurdistan region. So, I would say for the average person in Kurdistan, life is so much better than it would have been had Saddam Hussein stayed in power. Life is so much better than it was 20 years ago. Again, I don't want to pretend that we don't have problems. We do. But we're reflecting on 20 years ago and what could have been if Saddam had stayed in power.”
Much better today. And you're recognized autonomy came in a constitution that I believe the US helped the Iraqis draw up -- in 2005 was it?
“Yes, that's right. So the liberation came in 2003. Over the next two years or so, the Kurds, Sunnis and Shia communities negotiated a new constitution for Iraq with the assistance of the United States and others. But it is an Iraqi document. I know there are people who criticize the way the constitution was drafted or its contents, but actually the constitution presents a federal, democratic and pluralistic – meaning inclusive -- Iraq, inclusive of all ethnicities and religions. It upholds Islam as one of the key elements of Iraqi society and so on. But it also upholds democracy as a key pillar of Iraq. So the constitution is, in fact, the contract by which all of our communities in Iraq live together. And this is critical. I know, of course, here in the United States, the constitution is quoted every day by everybody. It's the same for us in Iraq. The constitution is a critical contract that has enabled us to have something that we can all refer to. Again, the constitution is not perfect. There are many things the Kurds don't like in the constitution, the Sunni Arab community or the Shia or the Christians, Yazidis and other components of Iraq don't like. But overall, I would say if the constitution were implemented totally and completely, Iraq would be a haven. I think the biggest issue is that we haven't actually implemented the constitution properly.”
What will it take to get to that point, do you think?
“I think trust. You know, one of the things that's still missing in Iraq and perhaps it's not surprising is a lack of trust among the communities. And if I can just explain what I mean when I say perhaps it's not surprising -- Iraq was a country that was created about a hundred years ago after the fall of the Ottoman Empire and after the the first World War. So Iraq was created and the French and the British at the time, the colonial powers, decided to put together a country made up of Kurds and Arabs, two main ethnicities, and then in terms of sects and religion, Sunnis and Shia, as well as Christians, Yazidis and others. And then you have a people that's been brought together in a fake construct. This was not a country that came about together because the people wanted it. This was drawn up by the colonial powers. So from day one, Iraq has had coup d'etats, revolutions, wars, internal wars and conflicts. It hasn't had a history of stability and calm. Then you had, from the late sixties onwards, the Baathist regime, which was a dictatorial regime that really used Stalinism, communist Russia under Stalin as its model, and that's where all the genocides were committed and so on. But really, under the Baathists and under Saddam Hussein, every community in Iraq suffered except the few that agreed with Saddam and supported him. But through that period of dictatorship, one of the things that eroded and has never really been recovered fully was trust among the communities. Under the dictatorship, one community was pitted against another. People were displaced. Somebody else would take over their home. That automatically creates mistrust. And I think today what we have is a situation where the Sunni community, who used to be in power, look to the past, look to their past glories. The Shia community who were oppressed in the past and are now the strongest power in Iraq, thinking, ‘well, this is our day and this is the day for us to hold on to power.’ And we Kurds who fear the past because of the terrible atrocities. But we're also slightly fearful for the future because we have ended up being a smaller group in Iraq, when in fact, if there had been an independent Kurdistan across the Middle East, today there would be a state called Kurdistan with a population of 40 million or more, and the Kurds would have had their own country and autonomy -- and independence, excuse me. Instead, we've been divided between different countries. In Iraq, as I said, we have autonomy, but it's still problematic.”
You are going to be speaking in Springfield tomorrow morning. Tell me what you're going to be talking about.
“Yes, I'm very excited to be coming to Springfield and I'm very grateful to Missouri State University for the invitation. I will be reflecting on Iraq and Kurdistan, especially 20 years after the U.S. invasion or liberation of Iraq. And I'll be comparing how the economy has grown. For example, the World Bank estimates that in 2003, Iraq's GDP was just $22 billion. Today, or let's say in 2021, the World Bank estimated GDP of Iraq to be $208 billion. Life expectancy has grown from 2001 compared to the pre-COVID period from 67 years to 72 years. We have, as I said, had elections and the opportunity to have democracy. These are all pluses. And in Kurdistan we have autonomy, we have a thriving economy. We have become a beacon of stability and a safe haven for the religiously persecuted people to come to Kurdistan. These are all the positives that I will be reflecting on. But there are, of course, certain issues that I cannot hide or cannot not address or fail to address. One of them is the rise of ISIS, the Islamic State, which in 2014 committed genocide against the religious minorities. And even today there are people who believe in ISIS's ideology, the corruption that is eroding public confidence in the government in Iraq. So there are these issues but also successes that I will be reflecting on at my talk at the university.”
Well, we look forward to seeing you here tomorrow. Thank you so much. I appreciate you talking to me today.
“Thank you, Michele. I appreciate you giving me the opportunity. I do think that there are successes that Americans can be proud of in Iraq, and certainly we in Kurdistan are very proud of our partnership with the United States.”