Witness to History: Remembering the Kurdish ‘No-Fly Zone’
Dr. Dlawer Ala’Aldeen has not only witnessed history, he helped create it.
Twenty-three years ago this month, Britain, the United States and France imposed a No-Fly Zone over northern Iraq that put an end to Saddam Hussein’s murderous air attacks on the Kurds. Ala’Aldeen, a former minister of higher education in the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and now professor of clinical microbiology at Britain’s Nottingham University, mustered all of his charm and persuasive powers to convince former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher to start the process that led to the establishment of the No-Fly Zone in Iraqi Kurdistan in the aftermath of the second Gulf War. That historical moment changed the lives of Iraqi Kurds, and became the cornerstone of the autonomy that the Kurds enjoy to this day. In this interview with Rudaw, Ala’Aldeen shares some of the events and anecdotes from that time.
RUDAW: How was the idea of the no-fly zones conceived?
Dlawer Ala’Aldeen: The idea of the No-Fly Zone came about out of necessity. All those who witnessed the sudden mass exodus of two million civilians concluded there was no alternative but to escort the refugees to their home and protect them from Saddam’s air attacks. We therefore went beyond simply asking for food and blankets and requested full protection from Saddam’s armed forces as well as the repatriation of the displaced.
RUDAW: You were one of the main lobbyists in the United Kingdom. In what capacity?
All those who witnessed the sudden mass exodus of two million civilians concluded there was no alternative but to escort the refugees to their home and protect them from Saddam’s air attacks.
Dlawer Ala’Aldeen: At the time, I was lobbying in the UK as the secretary of the Kurdish Scientific and Medical Association (KSMA). We founded the organization to lobby for Kurdish human rights and provide scientific evidence to substantiate claims the Ba’ath regime was committing human rights abuses. We were not affiliated to any political organization, but often liaised with the Kurdish political leaders. During the crisis of 1991, numerous organizations in different countries were independently engaged in lobbying for the same cause.
RUDAW: You seemed to have been effective, even though you were all volunteers.
Dlawer Ala’Aldeen: Yes, the Kurdish diaspora has always been highly engaged and patriotic. In times of need, every Kurd fought in their own different way. No one stayed at home. Some of us were more focused than others. In my case, I was leading the KSMA and focused my efforts on UK and US decision makers, as they were the ones leading the international coalition for the liberation of Kuwait. I teamed up with a number of British friends (lobbyists) and targeted the British prime minister (Mr John Major) and through him targeted Mr George H.W. Bush, the president of USA, both of whom had retreated to their Easter holidays.
RUDAW: Does that mean the US and UK governments were not helping?
Dlawer Ala’Aldeen: After defeating Iraq’s army during the liberation of Kuwait, both governments decided to keep Saddam in power and prevent Iranian domination. Other European countries, such as France, publicly urged the USA and UK to help the Kurds. However, instead, the USA and UK governments watched these disastrous events unfold. They allowed Saddam to use his military helicopters to suppress the uprising in both southern Iraq as well as Kurdistan. Hundreds of thousands were killed and millions were displaced. The official US and UK lines were that Iraq is a sovereign country, therefore, they would not interfere with its domestic problems. Whereas this was a man-made holocaust that was a direct consequence of the US and UK failed policies in the Middle East, and of their war of liberation in Kuwait.
RUDAW: Can you tell us how you targeted Mr Major and Mr Bush. I understand that you met with Mrs. Thatcher? I know in one of the meetings you had to muster up a Kurdish group, and so you dressed up family, friends and whoever else you could gather.
Dlawer Ala’Aldeen: We used various means of communicating our concerns to these leaders. For example, I wrote to people in their inner circles, including their wives and private secretaries. I had their responses, which reiterated the official lines. I therefore decided to get help from Mrs Thatcher, who was John Major’s boss until November 1990, and was often described as the “backseat driver.”
I therefore decided to get help from Mrs Thatcher, who was John Major’s boss until November 1990, and was often described as the “backseat driver.”
Mrs Thatcher avoided meeting Kurdish politicians to avoid criticism for stepping over Mr Major’s toes. Furthermore, she always adhered to the old British policy and dealt with the Kurds via Baghdad. I assured her that I would be meeting her as the secretary of the KSMA, accompanied by representatives of Kurdish women. I called upon some of my female Kurdish friends and relatives, and asked them to turn up (at 3pm on Wednesday, April 3, 1991) in colourful Kurdish traditional dresses. I took my young nephew (Ranj) and niece (Rejna), who were also dressed in Kurdish attire. We pre-warned the British press and news channels, who were waiting for us when we arrived. We needed to hit the headlines -- and we did.
RUDAW: What did you tell Mrs Thatcher and how did she respond?
Dlawer Ala’Aldeen: I emphasized that (a) the British government must win the moral high ground and help the displaced, even if the US did not. I reminded her that in the forthcoming elections (May, 1991) this issue will come back to haunt the conservative party if they fail to act. (b) Our political leaders had never sought separation from Iraq, but demanded democracy for Iraq and federal autonomy for Kurdistan. (c) The large number of refugees ought to return to their homes under the UK and US protection. (d) The government should provide urgent help, including tents, blankets, food and medicine, and add pressure on Turkey to open the borders. At the time, Ankara had prevented the Kurds from entry to Turkey.
Mrs Thatcher came out, faced the cameras and, famously, urged the British public and government to help the refugees. She then called Mr Major who was in his car, on his way to a football match. Mrs Thatcher then told us that Mr Major pledged £20 million to help, part of it to be dispatched that same night, and promised to liaise with the Europeans and US Governments. He then initiated a cascade that led to the No-Fly Zone.
Mrs Thatcher then called Mr Bush. I later knew that she was very persuasive, and Mr Bush had subsequently sent his secretary of state, Mr James Baker, to visit Turkey and the Iraqi border, to witness the tragedy. Clearly, Mr Turgut Ozal (president of Turkey), other European leaders, NGOs and the international press and media played their major roles in adding to this pressure. That is, of course, over and above the significant roles played by the Kurdish political leaders and party activists in Kurdistan, Europe and the USA.
Mrs Thatcher then called Mr Bush. I later knew that she was very persuasive,
RUDAW: You also met the Archbishop of Canterbury.
Dlawer Ala’Aldeen: Yes, we needed to keep the momentum and add pressure on Mr Major. My wife and I visited the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr George Carey, and urged him to talk privately to Mr Major and publicly appeal to the British public to donate in support of the refugees. He was very sympathetic and responded with clear action.
RUDAW: Can we say that the No-Fly Zone has been one of the most important historical events for the Iraqi Kurds, which has opened the doors to the possibility of a state?
Dlawer Ala’Aldeen: Without a shadow of a doubt. The No-Fly Zone allowed the refugees to return home, led to the withdrawal of Iraq government administrations from three Kurdish governorates and paved the way to the 1992 election of the first Kurdish parliament and government in Iraq. These achievements remained protected to date, despite the subsequent internal and external challenges. It gave us a historic opportunity to work on nation-building -- a foundation for state-building.
RUDAW: Can you tell us some anecdotes behind the political discussions which took place?
Dlawer Ala’Aldeen: During one of my conversations with Mrs Thatcher, she asked me: “Why have the Kurds always fought against Baghdad and sought separation.” I responded: “If you were married to someone who treated you like Saddam treated the Kurds, would you not divorce him?” She concurred, and said “I had never thought about that, but do not let Dennis (her husband) hear this.”
Mrs Thatcher asked me: “Why have the Kurds always fought against Baghdad and sought separation.” I responded: “If you were married to someone who treated you like Saddam treated the Kurds, would you not divorce him?”
Another interesting observation was that in the morning of April 3, I was interviewed on Sky News along with the British foreign minister (Mr Douglas Hogg). He kept a stiff upper lip and reminded us of Iraq’s sovereignty. However, later in the evening, after Mrs Thatcher and Mr Major’s intervention, we faced each other again. This time on BBC’s Newsnight, and he was a completely different person. I did not need to say much, and you could have mistaken him for a Kurd!
RUDAW: Any last words? Can you think of any lessons from this?
Dlawer Ala’Aldeen: There are many lessons to be learnt. Man-made disasters such as the mass exodus of 1991 are direct consequences of interest-driven policies of the super powers, and undemocratic rules of the regional powers. We must now lobby the local and international leaders to work for peace and stability via nation-building and investing in the rule-of-law and social justice. We should all be promoting human rights and strengthening institutions of democracy.