During the past two years, more tourists are “discovering the hidden joys” of Iraq’s Kurdistan region, and more businessmen and women are investing in the area. But much more work remains to be done.

Qubad Talabani, the representative of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) of Iraq to the United States, gave that assessment Thursday during a public presentation at the University of Central Florida. He spoke to an audience of more than 100 during the inaugural event of UCF’s new Global Peace and Security Studies Program and the first event of this year’s Kurdish Speakers Series.

Talabani, the son of Iraqi president Jalal Talabani, discussed U.S.-Kurdish relations in the context of Iraq’s current fragile condition. He gave separate talks to community groups in addition to speaking at the Student Union.

Talabani works closely with the U.S. government, the news media and academic and research institutions to provide analysis and up-to-date information about the situation in Iraq and the Kurdistan region.

In the aftermath of Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003, he served as a senior foreign relations officer for the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, a leading Kurdish political party in Iraq. In that position, Talabani acted as a top liaison to the U.S.-led Coalition Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance and was a key negotiator during the drafting of Iraq’s first post-Saddam Hussein constitution.

Since his last appearance at UCF in 2008, Talabani said that the Kurds “have seen wonderful progress” and more stability.

However, during the presentation organized by the UCF Global Perspectives Office, he also noted that even though the United States has declared an end to combat operations in Iraq, there is more work to be done. He admitted that tough internal issues remain and that it must be Iraqis who resolve them.

It is vital to remember, Talabani argued, that the stability that has defined the United States’ success in Iraq cannot and must not disappear. This could put all of the progress made in jeopardy, he said.

On a positive note, he said U.S. officials recently announced they will open a consulate in Erbil, the capital of the KRG. There also are plans to maintain temporary diplomatic facilities in Mosul and Kirkuk in the North and Basra in the South. This continued support from the United States shows its desire to build political, cultural, economic and academic relationships that are broad, deep and multi-faceted, he said.

Talabani noted many accomplishments that have taken place during the last seven years in the Kurdistan region, such as the strengthening of the judiciary, effective water and power distribution projects in key cities and energy projects near completion that will provide an average 20 hours per day of power in the region’s major cities.

Another positive development occurred last April, when investment licenses were granted for $13 billion of projects in housing, banking, industry, tourism, education, agriculture and communication. The goal is to make the region’s economy more efficient and competitive by improving internet connectivity and installing broadband networks.

Talabani acknowledged that the KRG has its share of shortcomings in governance and transparency. He said the government has teamed up with consultants to review policies and develop an action plan to addresses those issues. The goal is to promote “the values of peace, stability, economic prosperity and democracy… not only for Kurdistan, but for all of Iraq,” Talabani said.

When asked by an audience member if Kurds see themselves as Kurdish first and Iraqi second, Talabani said there is a strong Kurdish identity, and Kurds are very proud of it.  Having spent a large part of their history under Saddam Hussein being persecuted and murdered has only strengthened this identity, he said. However, the fact that Kurds are willing to “go to Baghdad” to help create a more stable and secure Iraq shows their commitment to the country.

“Most people would have said ‘Thank you very much, but we’ve had enough,’” he said. “Not the Kurds.”

In addition to the Global Perspectives Office, sponsors of this event included UCF’s Kurdish Political Studies Initiative, UCF’s Global Peace and Security Studies Program, the Sibille H. Pritchard Global Peace Fellowship program, UCF’s Political Science Department, UCF’s Middle Eastern Studies Program, UCF’s Diplomacy Program, UCF’s Terrorism Studies Program, Lawrence J. Chastang and the Chastang Foundation, the Orlando Area Committee on Foreign Relations, Larson Allen LLP, UCF’s International Services Center, UCF LIFE and the Global Connections Foundation.