Iraq's Kurds deserve better neighbours

There is obvious fellow feeling between Kurds in Iraq, Turkey, Iran and Syria, but the PKK's actions

"The PKK is the result of and not the reason for Turkish actions," was the curt message from the president of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), Masoud Barzani, when a British parliamentary delegation visited him shortly before Turkish troops crossed into Iraq late on Thursday 21 February. For decades, Turkish governments have denied the rights of the country's Kurds. This more than anything has fuelled the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK).

Addressing that issue would surely be better than infringing the sovereignty of the most successful part of Iraq. Besides, the PKK is based mainly inside Turkey, which has failed to deal with the problem for more than 24 years. Some PKK guerrillas are perched in the largely inaccessible Qandil mountains on the border between the two countries but have proved impossible to dislodge. Barzani should know: he co-operated several times with the Turks to try to do just that. Some fear al-Qaeda could take over Qandil.

In fact, the Kurdistan Regional Government strongly opposes the PKK. There is obvious fellow feeling between Kurds in Iraq, Turkey, Iran and Syria, but the PKK's actions do the Kurds no favours. KRG ministers believe Turkey is using the PKK as a pretext to constrain Iraqi Kurdistan.

Fears for the future of the region centre on Kir kuk, the Iraqi Kurds' historic capital, which was forcibly settled by Saddam Hussein's "10,000-dinar Arabs" in the 1970s. The new Iraqi constitution promised a referendum by the end of last year on whether the oil-rich city should be part of the KRG. The vote would almost certainly be in favour of that result.

The Kirkuk question mainly concerns oil, but that is an oversimplification. Whether Kirkuk is formally part of the region or not, oil revenues accrue to Baghdad and are then shared out proportionately. If the KRG region became larger that would, of course, increase the Kurdish share. But Turkey fears that Kirkuk's oil could come to provide the material basis for an independent Kurdistan, even though KRG leaders have long opted for autonomy within a democratic Iraq. The KRG understands the glaring political reality that Kurdish independence is a non-starter.

So we have a Mexican stand-off between two moderate and non-Arab Islamic entities that theoretically have much in common. Ankara refuses to deal directly with the KRG, which urges multilateral diplomatic action.

But although politics is in deep-freeze, trade is red-hot. Turkish companies are the main drivers of the region's rapid construction boom, nowhere more so than at the British-designed, multimillion-pound mega-airport in Erbil, where Turkish contractors proudly showed us the planet's fifth-longest runway. Historically, Iraqi Kurds say they have "no friends but the mountains", but they will soon have a political and commercial bridge to the world and possibly a railroad to Istanbul.

Kurdish leaders are playing a major role in building a federal Iraq - for example, as president and foreign minister. Yet there is a pervasive sense of limbo in the region and less optimism than in the first flush of "liberation" after 2003. The Iraqi parliament was slow to agree an oil law. Small oil companies have set up shop, but big players are nervous. The KRG desperately needs investment to maximise revenue from oil, gas, agriculture and tourism - yes, tourism.

Kurdistan is moving from a bloody past to an uncertain future. It has history in abundance: 182,000 Kurds died and 4,000 villages were razed in Saddam's genocidal Anfal campaign. Children are still being born with deformities caused by his chemical weapons. All this weighs heavily on the small, landlocked region, but there are signs of hope blowing in the wind, literally.

For Iraqi Kurds, the Iraqi flag was tainted by Saddam's totalitarian legacy and has long been banned. Now it has been redesigned and has been unfurled over the Kurdistan National Assembly beside KRG colours. The mostly secure and secular Kurdistan could yet be a model for the rest of Iraq, and the wider Middle East. It deserves better friends and neighbours.

Gary Kent visited Iraqi Kurdistan with the UK all-party parliamentary group on the region