The Kurds are down but far from out. A personal view

Kurds seeking independence did not justify Iraqi violence but Iraqi violence now justifies Kurds seeking independence. The needlessly harsh Iraqi reaction clarifies the stakes for the world to see if it were paying any great attention.

The referendum was a long time coming. For most of the time I have visited Kurdistan since 2006, independence was on the backburner and they made Iraq work while insisting they would only stay if Iraq remained federal.

Baghdad never fully accepted equality but was relatively weak and the Kurds had a state in all but name. But the game was up when Iraq unilaterally cut Kurdish budget payments and lost a third of the country to Isis in 2014.

A desperate Kurdish people sought to escape a loveless Iraq. The referendum was not a unilateral declaration of independence but the beginning of the bargaining. Self-determination is rarely consensual but the Kurds gave it a try.

Baghdad could have responded politically but instead blockaded international flights – I took one of the last flights out – and then used violence as a first resort in which 60 Peshmerga were killed.

A sophisticated Iraqi Ambassador once said that Iraq should emulate Switzerland, which keeps its neighbours at bay and its different ethnic groups together. But Baghdad’s instinct is centralisation.

On the day of the referendum, I saw joyful crowds in their best and colourful clothes enthusiastically voting in Erbil, Kirkuk and Slemani where the celebratory tracer gun fire was thankfully going the other way.

International observers joined the Kurdish governor of Kirkuk for lunch at his mansion, once the home of Saddam Hussein’s notorious general, Chemical Ali who organised multiple mustard gas attacks against Kurds.

Weeks later Shia militia broadcast triumphalist videos insulting Kurds from the same offices with pictures of Iranian Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei in the background. They trampled on the Kurdish flag and the Iraqi commander stopped the police chief speaking Kurdish in a country where Kurdish and Arabic are official languages. The governor was whisked away to safety. 160,000 Kurds also fled from Kirkuk and elsewhere since the Iraqi attacks.

Iraq will ‘keep’ Kurdistan for now but any internal settlement should respect their rights in the Iraqi constitution, long neglected and the cause of the Kurdish attempt to secure statehood. Any deviation from the constitution makes living together untenable in the long term.

If Baghdad continues down the road of punishment, strangulation, and possibly partition of the officially recognised Kurdistan Region, many Kurds will conclude that next time it will be ‘no more Mister Nice Guy.’

Young Kurds who don’t speak Arabic and don’t identify with Iraq will not bow the knee to a sectarian and more corrupt politics that despises their progressive policies and wants, for instance, to ban alcohol and reduce the age of sexual consent and marriage to 9.

Independence may have been forcibly taken off the agenda for a decade or a generation but the impulse remains strong. The problem is that Kurdistan is stuck between competing international relations doctrines of respecting the sovereignty of current members of the UN club and also upholding the right to self-determination.

British and American diplomats tried to avert the referendum with an alternative based on supporting dialogue with Baghdad and a referendum if that didn’t work out in a year or two. Sadly, the final offer was only delivered hours before the referendum. There was no guarantee that Baghdad would play ball and it seems likely they wanted to cut the Kurds down to size anyway.

Kurds feel abandoned by the world, despite their courage in defeating our common enemy Isis, but must get their act together for the next phase in the long struggle for freedom. They may be out of sight but should not be out of our minds in the dark days they are enduring. The Kurds are down but far from out.

This article appears in the Newcastle Journal on 11 November 2017. Gary Kent is the Secretary of the all-party parliamentary group on the Kurdistan Region in Iraq and writes in a personal capacity @garykent

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Kurdistan in Prime Minister’s Questions on 1 November

Jack Lopresti (Filton and Bradley Stoke) (Con)

Last month I was in the Kurdistan region of Iraq—I refer the House to my declaration in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests—where I saw people’s enthusiasm for independence and a fresh dialogue with Baghdad. The subsequent military actions against the peshmerga by Iranian-backed militia and the Iraqi army are wholly unjust and completely unacceptable. Will the Prime Minister accept that the peshmerga and the Kurdistan region, to whom we owe so much both for resisting Daesh when the Iraqi army dumped their weapons and ran and for helping to keep our own streets safe, remain vital to our security? Will she do all she can to encourage a resolution based on full respect for the Iraqi constitution and the democratic will of the Kurdish people?

The Prime Minister

It is right that we are working with our international partners in the region to defeat Daesh together with the global coalition. Daesh is losing territory. The action being taken is having an impact on it; its finances have been hit, its leadership is being killed and its fighters are demoralised. But we do want to see political reconciliation in Iraq and a political settlement to the Syria conflict to deny Daesh safe space and prevent its re-emergence. My hon. Friend raises a particular point about Iraq and the Kurdistan region. The Government have always been clear that any political process towards independence should be agreed with the Government of Iraq. We want political reconciliation in Iraq and we have been urging all parties to promote calm, to pursue dialogue and to take this issue forward through dialogue.

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MPs’ cross-party Commons motion rejects ‘punitive peace’

APPG Chairman Jack Lopresti and other APPG officers, Mary Glindon and Robert Halfon have tabled a Commons motion outlining an analysis of the current situation.

It reads in full: ‘That this House regrets Iraqi Prime Minister Abadi’s decision, for electoral reasons and in collaboration with the Iranian regime, its revolutionary guards and brutally-sectarian Shia militia, to use force as a first resort to take Kirkuk and other disputed territories from the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG); notes that the KRG, on the request of the Iraqi Government, reinforced its military presence to prevent Daesh capturing Kirkuk when Iraqi troops fled in 2014 and was constitutionally compliant; further regrets that Prime Minister Abadi claims to follow the Iraqi constitution, although serial and flagrant violations of its federal provisions bolstered Kurds resoundingly backing eventual and negotiated independence; fears that violence rather than co-ordination and negotiation will fuel divisions; believes that a punitive peace and centralisation, in violation of the constitution, could reduce the KRG’s contribution to the Iraqi economy, diminish its ideological and military resistance to jihadist extremism, and encourage Sunni Arab resistance; accepts that Baghdad’s actions illustrate the case for independence and that Kurds should not be subordinated in express violation of the Iraqi constitution; rejects Vice President Maliki’s proposal to partition Kurdistan; urges governments to support resetting relations based on fully implementing the Iraqi constitution, including long deferred moves to finalise the status of the disputed territories; urges the UK and its international partners to recognise that Iranian involvement in Iraq and a weaker KRG contradict Western interests and the prospects of peace in the Middle East; and further urges the appointment of a mutually-respected mediator to resolve differences peacefully.’

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Urgent statement by Jack Lopresti MP and Chairman of the APPG on the Kurdistan Region in Iraq

The Iraqi Army and Iranian backed Shia militia using American tanks to advance towards Erbil could spark civil war across Iraq. We can argue about the merits or otherwise of the referendum but it does not deserve this response. I am urging the Government to pull out the diplomatic stops to urgently encourage a freeze on military operations and dialogue before it is too late.

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British MPs raise Kurdistani Concerns in Commons debates

MPs in the APPG on the Kurdistan Region in Iraq have been assiduous after the fall of Kirkuk this week in raising key issues in the Commons and we also organised a briefing in Parliament with Karwan Jamal Tahir, the KRG High Representative to the UK.

The British-Kurdish MP, Nadhim Zahawi was the first to raise the issue in the Commons in the wake of the referendum and military action in Kirkuk. He asked: ‘Will the Foreign Secretary join me in thanking Ambassador Frank Baker for all his tireless work in Iraq? He has worked with the Foreign Secretary, Secretary Tillerson and the Iraqi Prime Minister to put together a deal that would have avoided the catastrophic situation that now plagues the country between the Kurds and Baghdad. Will the Foreign Secretary urge all sides to come back together around the negotiating table on that framework and negotiate a deal?’

Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson thanked Zahawi for his work as ‘there is no one who knows the Kurdistan Regional Government or Kurdistan better than he does.’ He added that ‘Clearly, to a great extent the troubles that are now befalling that area were anticipated. We saw this coming, and we warned our friends in Kurdistan that it would happen. [Zahawi] also did a great job of warning them. We now have to manage a very difficult situation, and it calls for calm heads and negotiation.’

This raises the notion of returning Iraqi Prime Minister Abadi to the position of just over three weeks ago when, by my reading of the letter from US Secretary of State to President Barzani on 23rd September, he was willing to discuss all disputes with Erbil and to contemplate the possibility of a referendum if those talks failed or Baghdad showed bad faith.

Labour MP Ian Austin, who was on the recent delegation to Kurdistan to witness the referendum, then posed the following question: ‘We should all be very worried about the malevolent involvement of the Iranian hard-line al-Quds force using American heavy weapons against our brave allies the Kurds. Will the Minister make it clear that Iraqi forces must not enter the four provinces of the Kurdistan region, and that the only way forward is co-operation in Kirkuk and wider dialogue based on the Iraqi federal constitution, which is supposed to guarantee Kurdish rights?’

The Middle East Minister, Alistair Burt urged caution on all sides, and to continue a careful dialogue to make sure that there is no possibility of a miscalculation leading to conflict. It is essential that matters are pursued on a constitutional basis, but there is a difficulty at the moment in getting accurate information about precisely what is happening in the region. We are doing all we can to verify all stories, but we are also doing all we can to cool down the situation.’

APPG Chairman and Conservative MP Jack Lopresti, who led the delegation last month, asked: ‘Given the grave situation in the Kurdistan region of Iraq, what does my right hon. Friend think will be the impact on our currently deployed British Army teams who are training the Peshmerga as we speak?’

Burt replied that ‘At present, I do not think there is any reason to change the arrangements of the armed forces who have worked with the Peshmerga and have done such an outstanding job to push back Daesh. What we are all hoping for is that there will be no conflict in the area and that the determination already expressed by both sides to prevent any conflict will lead to a peaceful resolution of the current difficulties.’

My own contribution at the briefing was to point out that Kirkuk was not taken by the Kurds in 2014 but saved from Daesh when the Iraqi Army left its positions and at the request of the then Iraqi Prime Minister. I also said that the budget deal between Abadi and the KRG in December 2014 accepted that Kirkuk’s oil would be piped through the KRG to Turkey.

I also argued that if the Iraqi constitution had been respected since 2005 there would probably not have been a push to seeking independence. When I first visited Kurdistan in 2006 it was seen as The Other Iraq and its leaders were helping to stabilise Iraq as a whole with great success. Yet the abandonment of the Article 140 process in 2007 and the complete cut in the budget in 2014 propelled the push for independence.

The assessment that the neighbours were weaker than for some time was wrong, clearly, and Kurdistan faces a long haul in renewing itself for being a part of Iraq, hopefully on the terms promised in the constitution and which Abadi selectively quotes to defend his actions. These are some of the necessary, reactive positions to take in this crisis and I expect further interventions in parliament.

Gary Kent is the Secretary of the APPG and writes in a personal capacity

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MPs raised Kurdistani issues in FCO Questions on 17 October.

• Nadhim Zahawi (Stratford-on-Avon) (Con)

I refer the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. Will the Foreign Secretary join me in thanking Ambassador Frank Baker for all his tireless work in Iraq? He has worked with the Foreign Secretary, Secretary Tillerson and the Iraqi Prime Minister to put together a deal that would have avoided the catastrophic situation that now plagues the country between the Kurds and Baghdad. Will the Foreign Secretary urge all sides to come back together around the negotiating table on that framework and negotiate a deal?

• Boris Johnson

I want to thank my hon. Friend very much for his work in this sphere. There is no one who knows the Kurdistan Regional Government or Kurdistan better than he does. Clearly, to a great extent the troubles that are now befalling that area were anticipated. We saw this coming, and we warned our friends in Kurdistan that it would happen. My hon. Friend also did a great job of warning them. We now have to manage a very difficult situation, and it calls for calm heads and negotiation.

• • Ian Austin (Dudley North) (Lab)

We should all be very worried about the malevolent involvement of the Iranian hard-line al-Quds force using American heavy weapons against our brave allies the Kurds. Will the Minister make it clear that Iraqi forces must not enter the four provinces of the Kurdistan region, and that the only way forward is co-operation in Kirkuk and wider dialogue based on the Iraqi federal constitution, which is supposed to guarantee Kurdish rights?

• Alistair Burt

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. I spoke this morning to the Foreign Minister of Iraq, and I am speaking later to representatives of the Kurdish Regional Government to do exactly what is being expressed in the House—to urge caution on all sides, and to continue a careful dialogue to make sure that there is no possibility of a miscalculation leading to conflict. It is essential that matters are pursued on a constitutional basis, but there is a difficulty at the moment in getting accurate information about precisely what is happening in the region. We are doing all we can to verify all stories, but we are also doing all we can to cool down the situation.

• Jack Lopresti (Filton and Bradley Stoke) (Con)

Given the grave situation in the Kurdistan region of Iraq, what does my right hon. Friend think will be the impact on our currently deployed British Army teams who are training the peshmerga as we speak?

• Alistair Burt

At present, I do not think there is any reason to change the arrangements of the armed forces who have worked with the peshmerga and have done such an outstanding job to push back Daesh. What we are all hoping for is that there will be no conflict in the area and that the determination already expressed by both sides to prevent any conflict will lead to a peaceful resolution of the current difficulties.

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Why Baghdad’s ‘control and punish’ mentality will harm fight against Daesh

Sectarianism and centralisation by Baghdad leaders against the spirit and letter of the 2005 federal constitution was a major recruiting sergeant for Sunnis to the belief that Daesh was less dangerous to their own interests than Baghdad. That the previous Prime Minister unilaterally cut federal funds to the Kurds in early 2014 consolidated that belief on the grounds that if Shia leaders treated their old Kurdish allies against Saddam in this way, then they would be treated worse. Baghdad’s reaction to a valid referendum about eventual not immediate independence achieved through negotiation may crudely assert the old ‘control and punish’ mentality but could provide tinder to the fire of Sunni grievance and accelerate the ideological rejuvenation of Daesh or some even more toxic version of the death cult.

Gary Kent
Director All-Party Parliament Group on the Kurdistan Region in Iraq

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The terrible events overnight in Kirkuk are mainly made in Iran. Statement by Jack Lopresti MP, APPG Kurdistan Chairman

The terrible events overnight in Kirkuk are mainly made in Iran. The physical presence of IRGC commander Qassem Soleimani in the Kirkuk area proves that in spades and even the Iraqi government acknowledges that he is an adviser to the Shia militia. Iranian hardliners are seeking as ever to destabilise and control all around to preserve their malign influence and keep America and its allies diverted. It is supremely ironic that Iranian pawns are able to make use of American battle tanks to attack brave allies of America and Britain. The urgent priority is for the West to intervene to freeze conflict and encourage dialogue so that Erbil and Baghdad can resolve their differences without malevolent Iranian stirring of the pot.

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Urgent statement by APPG Chairman Jack Lopresti MP

The West cannot stand idly by as the Shia militia and Iran exploit differences within Iraq for their own selfish ends.

Statement by Jack Lopresti MP, Chairman All-Party Parliamentary Group on the Kurdistan Region in Iraq.

The unwarranted aggression of the Shia militia against the Peshmerga in Kirkuk is far less to do with the post-referendum dispute between Iraqis and Kurds than Iran exploiting these divisions for its own ends.

Before last night’s aggressive manoeuvres, an Iranian designed explosively formed penetrator (EFP) killed US Specialist Alexander W. Missildine and wounded another American soldier in Salahaddin province on 1 October.

I note that IRGC leader, General Qasem Solemani has been in Baghdad for the past three days, which underlines the malign influence of Iran on Iraq and reinforces US President Trump’s calling Iran out on their expansionism.

It appears that Prime Minister Abadi is being sidelined by the Iranian backed militia. We may be just a few hours from a shooting war between the Shia militia and the Peshmerga which have reinforced their positions south of Kirkuk, which myself and other MPs visited in November 2015 as a guest of their commander Wasta Rasool.

The UK must do all in its power to encourage Prime Minister Abadi to rein in the Shia militia, which are now technically part of the Iraqi Security Forces following a two hour debate in the Iraqi parliament. We should ask Iraqi Prime Minister Abadi to abide by his recent statement that “We will not use our army against our people or fight a war against our Kurdish and other citizens.”

I have asked the Foreign Office to raise the matter through our Permanent Representative at the UN and to do all it can to urge an immediate halt to offensive military actions by the Shia militia and any Iraq forces in the Kirkuk area. It underlines the importance of encouraging dialogue between Erbil and Baghdad.

I also commend the Peshmerga for their moderate response, their withdrawal from some front-line areas this morning and their adoption of purely defensive positions. They are clearly not spoiling for a fight but will defend themselves and the citizens of Kirkuk if necessary.

The world should remember that the Peshmerga were vital in the fight against ISIS, at great cost in lives and wounded, and that their actions were for the benefit of Iraq as a whole and the wider international community.

It would be catastrophic for Kurdish/Arab relations were the Iranian proxy militia to use American weapons against our vital allies in the Peshmerga. It would demonstrate a complete abdication of responsibility to Iranian backed forces that have no interest in a peaceful settlement between Baghdad and Erbil – the key actors in the post-referendum discussions. The West cannot stand idly by as the Shia militia and Iran exploit differences within Iraq for their own selfish ends.

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Jack Lopresti MP. Helping our Kurdistani friends a moral priority

Our friends in the north need our help. I mean the valiant and brave Peshmerga and the people of the Kurdistan Region, north of Iraq.

Our friends stood alone against our common enemy, ISIS, when Iraq lost a third of its territory and the second city of Mosul. Their bravery defended their homeland but also reduced the ranks of those wanting to kill us on our streets. They swallowed their differences with Baghdad and initiated joint operations that liberated Mosul.

Our friends took in nearly two million Arabs from Mosul although this shattered their economy. They are moderate Muslims who routinely protect Christians and other minorities as I recently saw for myself at a Catholic Church in the middle of Kirkuk and an Assyrian Cathedral in their capital, Erbil.

Yet our friends are in trouble. They had the temerity to indicate in a free, fair and exuberant referendum that they want to negotiate their eventual exit from Iraq. The vote does not mean UDI or the end of the common struggle against ISIS. Kurdistani leaders insist their statehood is not connected with the struggles in the other Kurdistans.

Our friends point out that Iraq is a voluntary union in theory but loveless in practice. A third of the constitution has been violated by Baghdad. Promises to settle the status of disputed territories ran out ten years ago. Kirkuk is only now back in Kurdistani hands because the Iraq Army deserted its posts in 2014 and the Peshmerga saved the city from a fascist death cult.

Before that Baghdad had unilaterally cut all federal financial transfers required under the post-Saddam settlement. Baghdad refused to fund the Peshmerga for years even as it fought alongside the Iraq Army. Yet Baghdad formally incorporated Shia militia into the Iraqi Army in just two hours.

Baghdad has failed our friends and has now lost its marbles. It is trying to strangulate the Kurds with collective punishments. Baghdad is blockading international flights with dire consequences for foreign agencies looking after refugees and displaced people. Baghdad is choking off the supply of Iraqi dinars to Kurdistan. Baghdad is seeking to expel Kurdistani MPs from the federal parliament and threatening to prosecute them. Baghdad is collaborating with the mullahs in Iran to squeeze and menace Kurdistan. It won’t be long before our friends run out of money and food.

Our friends were offered an honourable plan by the UK, the US and the UN for structured talks and the promise of a referendum in two years time. They considered the offer but decided that Baghdad would not play ball and they had to put a marker down now as we move into discussing how a new form of Isis can be prevented in a new Iraq.

Maybe they were wrong but the scale of the vote – 93% Yes in a 73% turnout – leaves no doubt that they want to leave Iraq in the coming years. However, another interesting option is emerging as a transitional or perhaps permanent solution – confederation of two sovereign nations under a common capital and within current borders. New Kurdistani leaders could also find it easier to reset relations with the neighbours.

Our friends are up against it. They used to say they have no friends but the mountains where they fled from Baghdad’s genocidal army in the past. Our friends have possibly new friends to their north – Russia, which has important oil interests in Kurdistan and could further consolidate its role in the Middle East.

Our friends deserve friends like us to oppose the blockade and the collective punishment of a people who want to be our friends and share our values of democracy, pluralism, secularism and freedom for women.

A new settlement with Iraq will be complex and take time. But for now the most urgent priority is to urge calm, dialogue and de-escalation. Our friends, the Kurds, can then come to a lasting deal with Baghdad. In the meantime, how can we tolerate their outrageous treatment given our debt to them. Why should they be imprisoned in an Iraq that is sectarian, centralised and ruthless? This should be a moral and pragmatic priority for the West.

Jack Lopresti is a Conservative MP and Chairman of the APPG on the Kurdistan Region in Iraq.

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