Kurds don't need a country to build a successful state

The Kurdistan state-building experiment in northern Iraq, even if only within the limits of autonomy, is far from perfection. Yet it is one of the most impressive in the Middle East.

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Success stories of state-building in the Middle East have been few. The United Arab Emirates has certainly been one. Qatar, and to an extent Bahrain and Jordan, are now featuring high on good governance indexes. Yet the most impressive of all has been Iraqi Kurdistan. Less than 25 years ago, Iraqi Kurds suffered one of the Middle East's worst genocides of modern history. In 1986, Iraq's former president Saddam Hussein ordered Operation Al Anfal, killing close to 150,000 Kurds over the course of three years. That number exceeds all the deaths resulting from more than 60 years of conflict between the Arabs and Israel, which has seen at least half a dozen wars.

Al Anfal's commander, Saddam's cousin Ali Hassan al Majid, also known as Chemical Ali after he ordered the gassing of the Kurdish village of Halabja, went after the Kurds again in 1991 to crush their revolt against tyranny and unfavourable living conditions. One chapter was closed when Chemical Ali was executed less than a week ago. But like the Middle East's Arabs, Iraq's Kurds were not only the victims of external factors. Starting in 1994, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) under Jalal Talabani, and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) under Massoud Barzani, embarked on a bloody war that lasted until 1998.

Also last week, Mr Barzani - during a speech at the Brookings Institute in Washington - thanked the veteran diplomat Martin Indyk, who was in the audience, for helping to conclude a ceasefire between the two Kurdish parties. In the aftermath, Iraqi Kurdistan has emerged from civil war to become one of the Middle East's most promising regions. One can only hope that the way Iraqi Kurds did it might inspire the Arabs.

First, the Kurds befriended America. In the Kurdish collective memory, Malla Mustafa Barzani, Massoud's father, is frequently remembered as saying that Washington, and its ally the Iranian shah Mohamed Reza Pehlavi, had let him down when his Peshmerga forces were in the middle of a brutal war with Saddam's army in 1975. But by 1991, the Kurds acted less dogmatically and more realistically as they let bygones be bygones as America stepped in to protect them from Saddam's brutality and help them to set up an autonomous Kurdistan. The alliance between America and Iraqi Kurds has served the interests of both.

And since then, the Kurdish leadership has been smart enough to also understand the limits of its alliance with Washington. By 2003, as the marines made their way into Baghdad, the Kurds understood that America depended on their help, which included abandoning their decade-old policy of detachment from Baghdad. The Kurds understood that the international status quo would force them to reconnect with Baghdad. Thus, they moved to their second best option: they rejoined Iraq but made sure it would be a federal union that would give their northern region enough cultural, economic and political independence.

Since then, the Kurds have not wasted time in crying foul over surrendering their historic quest for independence. Instead, they founded a new formula: Iraqi Kurdistan would remain part of Iraq as long as Baghdad has democratic rulers. The emergence of a dictator would force the Kurds to go their separate way, fair and square. This position won the Kurds further kudos in the capitals of the world.

More importantly, unlike some Arab leaders and their signature policies of double talk about Israel - promising peace in English and talking war in Arabic - Kurdish leaders have preached to their people that the autonomy or rights they had earned, whether in Iraq or Turkey, were the best they could get. Meanwhile, the Kurd's quest for an independent state has all but vanished. This means that Kurds would not be blowing themselves up, and that their leaders would not be insisting on independence in a populist manner like several Arab and Iranian leaders often do regarding Palestine.

"Co-operate with the Turkish government, we have a great opportunity to arrive at a deal in everybody's interests there," Mr Barzani told a Turkish Kurd at his Brookings Institute lecture who was protesting against the ban on Kurdish parties in Turkey. Mr Barzani, who had met the US president Barack Obama and vice president Joe Biden, had no illusions about his powers or how the world operates. Even though he hails from a family of fighters, Mr Barzani was clearly renouncing the mostly counterproductive violence.

This newfound Kurdish wisdom has penetrated all the way into Kurdistan, as Iraqi Kurds held free and fair elections for their regional parliament last year, when a considerable opposition bloc emerged. Mr Barzani himself was re-elected Kurdistan's president with 68 per cent of the vote, a percentage that makes many Arab presidential elections, with poll numbers exceeding 90 per cent, look silly. Democracy, still not ideal, is now taking root in Iraqi Kurdistan.

And with democracy comes good governance and economic prosperity. For that, the Kurds have been tapping their human capital assets from their diaspora. Again, compare that to most Arab countries where brain drain has become an unstoppable trend. The Kurdistan state-building experiment in northern Iraq, even if only within the limits of autonomy, is far from perfection. Yet it is one of the most impressive in the Middle East. It should certainly serve as a model for several Arab countries to emulate.

Hussain Abdul-Hussain is a Visiting Fellow with Chatham House, London